I flew into the U.S. Virgin Islands late Tuesday night. As I stepped down onto the airport tarmac, the night chorus of the coqui treefrogs (invasive, thriving, and, at times, deafening) soon replaced the dull roar of the jet engines. I spent the night up on Crown Mountain, the second highest point on Saint Thomas, and awoke the next morning to sight of Atlantic breakers thrashing the North shore of the island a few kilometers below.
I spent the morning arranging lecture space at the University of the Virgin Islands' excellent Maclean Marine Science Center ("MMSC"), home to a small band of talented and dedicated marine biologists and conservationists. Then, our driver and I popped over to the airport to pick up KU Law School's inaugural Biodiversity Law class. All of my students were tired from a long day of flying, but excited to dive into biodiversity law in the perfect natural laboratory the Virgin Islands provide.
We shopped, we cooked dinner, we watched KU's basketball team thrash Oklahoma State, and then we all slept for far too short a time. Early this morning we all headed down the mountain to the MMSC. Today's lecture introduced the concept of biodiversity, the various mathematical methods used to measure it, the current scientific understanding of its magnitude, geographical distribution, and value as measured both on and off the market. We concluded with a discussion of humanity's dismal history of triggering or directly causing extinction events around the globe, including the curren, anthropogenic, mass extinction.
After lecture, we drove to Red Hook, at far West end of Saint Thomas, and took a fast ferry to Cruz Bay, at the Western end of Saint John. We climbed the 45 degree grade road into the Virgin Islands National Park, and then descended the Reef Bay Trail into the Virgin Islands' finest example of a seasonal rainforest. Halfway down the steep trail, we paused to do a empirical survey of tree diversity. Using a protocol developed by Stuart Pimm, an avowed non-botanist, my students ventured into the rainforest to gather intact, fallen leaves at timed intervals. Then, we spread a large white bedsheet over the side of the trail, and my students organized their leaf samples into "taxa" based on gross leaf morphology - a variation of the tried-and-true Sesame Street protocol of "One of these things is not like the other". Our conclusions: estimating rainforest tree diversity based on leaf samples suffers from numerous biases, our estimates were mere glimpses of total diversity, and taxonomy is difficult, time-consuming, and fraught with source of error. We then discussed the implications of taxonomic uncertainty on the crafting, implementation, and enforcement of biodiversity laws.
Next, we visited the Virgin Islands Environmental Research Station, which is located at the Eastern end of Saint John a few hundred meters from the Easternmost point in the United States. Having tramped up a seasonally wet streambed, we discussed what legal strategies one might use effectively to preserve this rare and rapidly-disappearing habitat, including application of the NEPA, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and coastal zone management laws.
We capped off our day by popping back over the Saint Thomas, and then heading to the Westernmost point of the island: Botany Bay. The last large parcel of almost undisturbed land on Saint Thomas, Botany Bay includes almost 200 hectares of gorgeous and highly biodiverse tropical forest, two entire watersheds, and some of the most intact nearshore coral habitats in the Virgin Islands. I have visited Botany Bay since 2001, and have been intimately involved in legal efforts to preserve its biodiversity. What we found this year was stunning: new roads have been cut through the forest, from mountain summit to beach, and sizeable swathes of forest have been clearcut. The owners of the Botany Bay, having finally been issued building permits, have begun to build the somewhat hopefully-named "The Preserve at Botany Bay", which will comprise dozens of luxury homes at higher elevations, and a luxury hotel next to the beach. Recently, amidst the Federally-listed coral growing just offshore, researchers from the MMSC measured record levels of soil runoff, almost certainly caused by the construction. My students were dazzled by the beauty of Botany Bay, and disquieted by the implications for its biodiversity of the imminent development. The class will be using Botany Bay as a case study of biodiversity legal issues over the next several days.
Tomorrow we'll be guests of the Legislature of the Virgin Islands, where we will meet with several Senators who have generously agreed to share some time with the class. My students are already brimming with biodiversity law questions to ask these elected lawmakers.