Saturday, January 16, 2010

Biodiversity Law 2010 - Virgin Islands National Park


Today was downhill all the way. The class hiked Saint John from mountaintop to seashore. Here is how the University of Kansas School of Law Biodiversity Law class describes the highs and lows:

Today we went to St. John by ferryboat. Our mission: to hike reef bay trail. Reef bay trail begins on the highest point in the Virgin Island National Park. We descended the mountain with a Unites States National Park Service Ranger, Don Near. Ranger Don is the most experienced Ranger in the Virgin Islands and has a wealth of knowledge about the National Park. As we began the descent, we noticed that the air was cool, the trees were tall and thin, and there was less under brush. We walked down an old Danish cart trail. Toward the bottom, the forest was denuded, probably from goats. However, this forest was recovering from overgrazing as evidenced by the abundance of saplings. While the canopy was lower at the bottom, there was more vegetation at the ground, including wild pineapple, cactus, and epiphytes.

We observed a lot of native as well as several of invasive species that did not appear to be disturbing the endemic vegetation. The invasive species included the wild pineapple, sweet lime and strangler fig. The native species included the turpentine, the Virgin Island Palms, and cinnamon tree. The National Park also contained an abundance of animal life, both native and introduced. The only natural mammals on the island are bats. However, we also observed a mongoose, deer, and evidence of overgrazing by goats. We also saw large spiders, snails, soldier crabs and lizards.

Due to the presence of the National Park, there is a noticeable difference between St. Johns and St. Thomas. St. Thomas is much more developed than St. Johns and much more people live on St. Thomas than St. Johns. The development leads to vastly different coastlines. In St. Johns the trees go to the ocean, while on St. Thomas, the tree-line begins after expanses of beaches, shops, ports, streets, and parking lots. Due to the lack of development, St. Johns supports a denser and richer population of wildlife.

While there are many biodiversity laws in force that protect the Virgin Islands National Park, enforcement is a problem because of local culture, jurisdictional issues, and financial constraints. One example of the limitation of local culture is that the local population can fish on the waters of the National Park, but they are only allowed to take two specific species. The other fish species are protected as endangered species by the Endangered Species Act. While the natives know of this rule, they take more than they are supposed to without fear of enforcement. The lack of enforcement undermines the ESA as well as other environmental laws. Another example comes from the land mammals. Donkeys are grazers and eat endangered plants thereby impacting the entire forest ecosystem. The local human population finds the donkeys useful and the idea of slaughtering them unsavory. Additionally, cats eat endangered lizards and birds, but the local population fights against any harmful removal efforts based on sympathy.

Jurisdictional issues in the National Park also undermine the enforcement of biodiversity laws. When an offense is committed in the Park, sometimes it is unclear whether the National Park Service or the Virgin Island’s local police has jurisdiction. This confusion leads offenses being overlooked and locals not respecting the law. If the local police claim jurisdiction over a case, it is less likely that they will hold the offender accountable to the environmental provision than the National Park Service.

Finally, financial constraints limit the ability for the National Park Service to enforce their laws. The National Park Service is the recipient of limited federal funds. The staff and equipment is limited and cannot cover the extensive grounds of the park on a regular basis. The lack of coverage means that offenses may go unnoticed.


The class has one day left in the Virgin Islands. Watch here for their final report.

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