An Experiment in Ecotourism Thrives on St. John
After dinner I’m just in time to catch a lesson in the art area, a ramshackle collection of open-air buildings that evolved along with the programs they house. Greg Lee, a Maho staff member, is introducing a young guest from Phoenix to glass-blowing. Max Partridge, 4, chooses blue for his sun catcher, a dolphin design he selected after seeing a real dolphin today. Other guests are making ornaments to display at home as vacation souvenirs.
The recycling program does more than spare Selengut the cost of hauling off some of the 20 tons of trash the resorts generate each year. Besides making art from waste, he’s making money, too. Annual revenues from the art classes and souvenirs have topped $240,000 for two consecutive years. Selengut firmly believes that conservation programs such as these, set in a landscape as exotic as St. John, can have a profound effect on visitors. “After all,” he says, “we have them when they are relaxed and open to new ideas.”
For all its allure, St. John has survived a brutal past. It emerged from the Caribbean Sea around 100 million years ago, the product of alternating periods of underwater moun-tain building, uplift, and explosive volcanism. On his second voyage to the New World, in 1493, Christopher Columbus landed in the Virgin Islands and skirmished with Carib Indians on neighboring St. Croix. No lasting communities were in place in 1718, when the Danes began to settle St. John. By 1800 their sugarcane and cotton plantations had consumed most of the island. The colonizers used African slaves to clear-cut more than 80 percent of the native forests, forever changing the landscape. After the Danes emancipated the slaves in 1848, the sugar plantations declined and the freed slaves grazed cattle on unstable slopes.
The destruction that began with colonization is still evident along the Reef Bay Trail, which descends from the center of the island near 1,147-foot Mamey Peak to the south shore through an old river channel that locals call a “ghut.” Before the Danes arrived, it was a flowing stream. For this thin-soiled forest ecosystem that depended on plants to store water, “cutting down the trees was like clear-cutting a temperate forest and then scraping off the topsoil,” says Pat Dinisio, a Virgin Islands National Park ranger. On top of that, decades of sugar cultivation left St. John with virtually no freshwater other than rain.
Dinisio is ahead of me as the trail passes through a mile-long swath of the closest thing left to the original forest. The steep downhill slope spared this area from clearcutting. Bay rum trees and native West Indian locusts tower side by side with hogplum and sandbox trees. The dense canopy leaves us in an eerie half-light so enveloping I am nearly caught in the web of a golden orb spider. Its gossamer strands shimmer across the path in fleeting flashes of sunlight filtered through the branches of trees towering 100 feet. The weaver rests in the center on elegant orange and ebony legs.
I pause near a genip tree with a rust-red bole bulging like a medicine ball from its lower branches. Curious, I poke my finger into one small section, sending a mass of tiny insects scurrying. “Termites,” says Dinisio. “They’re good for St. John.” Termites eat the forest’s dead wood, turning it into nitrogen-rich excrement that rebuilds the shallow soil.
We pass the island’s largest kapok tree. Its odd-angled roots buttressing a gargantuan four-foot girth make it easy to believe spirits hover inside. From a thicket of undergrowth a Zenaida dove coos where-are-you, then shows its blue-gray head.
Dinisio stops beside a 150-year-old West Indian locust tree riddled with bullet-sized holes made by a yellow-bellied sapsucker, an infrequent island visitor. I spy a shy tree frog silently peering out from a bulbous locust seed, waiting for dark to begin its chorus.
After winding through the brick-walled remains of a Danish sugar processing plant, the trail opens onto the beach at Reef Bay. These reefs are suffering along with coral throughout the Caribbean. The Danes initiated the reefs’ demise by using coral for mortar in their brick buildings, but today most of the havoc is wreaked by warming seawaters, which in 2005 catastrophically turned much of the Caribbean’s corals into bleached skeletons. St. John has lost nearly half of its live coral in the past two years, says Rafe Boulon, the National Park Service’s chief of resource management. Humans add to the destruction by causing pollution, anchoring boats, and touching and collecting the delicate corals. Anchoring is now limited to only a few places in national park waters, and it is prohibited throughout the 12,700-acre Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, designated in 2001 by President Bill Clinton.
In addition to these threats, park officials say the reefs and St. John overall face pressure from the type of large-scale development that is hosting most of the 1 million tourists who flock here annually. New construction is gobbling up the 5,600 acres of private land outside the park, much of it to accom-modate park visitors. Land values have skyrocketed from a low of $15,000 an acre in the early 1980s to as much as $8 million today. “It’s build, build, build on St. John,” says Dinisio. “What tourists are coming here to love they are loving to death.”