Protecting Paradise — Land&People

Sunset comes quickly on Big Maho Beach, a sandy crescent on the quiet north shore of St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It begins with pelicans. Dozens of them. They glide in from Cinnamon Bay to the west and hover above the turquoise sea before dive-bombing for an evening snack of fish. Next come mosquitoes, buzzing around your ears and nibbling at your hairline. In the waning light you can’t even see the buggers, but after three or four slaps at the nape of your neck, you know they’re there.

Finally, between the distant islands of Thatch Cay and St. Thomas, the glistening sun meets the horizon in a kaleidoscope of colors and dips below the waterline in minutes. Wispy clouds turn pink, then mauve, then lavender. Stars emerge by the hundreds.

Elsewhere on St. John, vacation seekers and recent island transplants pay millions for a chance to glimpse these natural theatrics, developing delicate hillsides to build rooms with a view. But here, at the bottom of a hillside on 420-acre Estate Maho Bay, the beach is open to everyone and is expected to stay that way forever. Surrounded on all sides by Virgin Islands National Park, this land long has been on the wish list of the National Park Service. Now, after what has to be the longest-running conservation drama in Caribbean history, The Trust for Public Land has tracked down the far-flung heirs of Harvey Monroe Marsh, a St. John native who in the 1960s left the land to his many children and grandchildren—not as individual plots they could sell but owned together by all in equal shares. TPL’s goal was to acquire as many shares as it could and then get a court to partition it legally so that individual parcels could be added to the park.

The effort to find 11 Marsh heirs spanned the better part of a decade. The search stretched from Florida to a halfway house in San Jose, California, and required the services of a private investigator to track down one missing heir. Subsequent negotiations involved nearly a dozen attorneys, representing seven members of the Marsh family, and an anonymous donor who kicked in $5 million to support the project. The result is that a big private tract within Virgin Islands National Park will now belong to the public.

“It’s not often you see a situation as complicated as this one, where everybody seems to get what they are looking for,” says Rafe Boulon, chief of resource management for the park. “I’m not sure it could have happened anywhere but here.”

John Garrison, a former St. John resident who now directs TPL’s field office for Southwest Florida and who worked on the Estate Maho Bay project, says that the sale ushers in a new era of TPL’s work in the Caribbean. “We’ve spent a while dreaming of working toward open space in this part of the world,” Garrison observes. “It’s hard to believe we’re almost there.”

One Special Spot

St. John, a Danish colony until the First World War, certainly is a special place. One needs to spend only a few brief hours on the island to understand why venture capitalist and renowned conservationist Laurance Rockefeller (son of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) fell in love with this place more than a half century ago. Its azure waters, lush hills, and vibrant reefs virtually define paradise. Rockefeller didn’t even step foot on the island, but from his boat he admired it enough to buy 5,000 acres over a few years.

In 1956, before the ink was fully dry on Rockefeller’s title to the land, he deeded it to the National Park Service to create Virgin Islands National Park, a bi-lobed swath that today comprises nearly two-thirds of the island. But the new park also contained many preexisting private inholdings. Estate Maho Bay was one such tract.

Harvey Monroe Marsh bought the land from his older brother, E. W. Marsh, in 1900, when the island still belonged to Denmark. Harvey sold off some acres here and there, but for the most part willed the property to his children and grandchildren over time. By the turn of the second millennium, 11 landowners had rightful claims.

It would be easy to confuse Estate Maho Bay with Eden. I spent much of a recent visit exploring the area on foot, marveling at the diversity of life. One morning I spotted a green sea turtle. Another day I saw a male anole lizard doing push-ups in a territorial display. The highlight of my walkabout came in a mangrove swamp, where thousands of dime-sized mangrove crabs dashed into subterranean holes as I clomped by, staring in amazement.

Hundreds of plant species and more than 30 species of birds populate the estate, including egrets, three species of Caribbean hummingbirds, and the tiny bananaquit (Coereba flaveola), the official bird of the Virgin Islands. The area also is home to large nesting colonies of pelicans and serves a seasonal home for migratory warblers and terns.

“Put simply, the spot is a veritable treasure trove of life,” says Eleanor Gibney, a native St. Johnian and selftaught botanist. Gibney was instrumental in the Estate Maho Bay conservation effort and worked with TPL to protect her own small family inholding for addition to the national park as well. “There are some species on that hillside you won’t find anywhere else in the Caribbean,” Gibney says.

Estate Maho Bay also boasts significant historic and archaeological resources, says national park archaeologist Ken Wild. These include the largest concentration of historic plantations and ruins from the Danish colonial era and may include pre-Columbian cultural resources from the island’s first inhabitants, the Taino Indians.

Many of the Danish-period ruins—dilapidated buildings of granite and coral—are visible from a park road. To glimpse others I was forced to brave paper wasps known as Jack Spaniards and bushwhack through stretches of a spiky plant that snags hikers and sticks to their unsuspecting flesh, prompting Wild to dub it “Catch-‘n’-keep.” Offsetting these hazards were colorful bromeliads and the curious geckos I encountered every night before I went to sleep.

Since most of Estate Maho Bay has remained undeveloped and public access was unrestricted, many island natives and visitors have believed it was already part of expansive Virgin Islands National Park. This is especially true of Big Maho Beach, the only beach on the island easily reached by road. The bay’s calm waters are warm and tranquil, and the beach is popular with tourists and locals alike, especially the elderly and families with children.

Every morning dozens of locals park their vehicles amid the mangroves and file across North Shore Road with beach chairs and coolers. On chillier days they congregate in groups on the sand, talking about the weather, island politics, and life. When it warms up, they leave their stuff on the beach and bob like buoys in the ocean. That some of this area might be developed and made off limits to the public seemed unthinkable. But unless the Marsh heirs could be found and persuaded to sell the land for protection by the park, this was likely to be the fate of this paradise.

Looking for Joey Adler

As early as 1972, the Park Service had tracked down three of the eleven Marsh descendants and contracted with them to buy their rights to the land. But that left eight heirs whose approval would be needed to craft an eventual conservation solution.

As development pressure on the island increased through the 1990s, the Park Service and local conservationists grew increasingly concerned—especially when rumors began to fly that a large development was planned at Estate Maho Bay. Beginning in 2001, however, an anonymous donor began making significant and regular contributions to TPL—to date, totaling more that $5 million—to conserve land around the park. TPL used some of this money to purchase several small properties near Big Maho Beach.

At about the same time, TPL began a serious search for a missing Marsh heir named Joey Adler. None of the family members had heard from Adler in years, and it was assumed he had died. If he was alive, he very likely was unaware that he had inherited an eleventh share of the land’s ownership when his mother died in 2000. Acquiring Adler’s share of the land would give TPL a foothold in Estate Maho Bay and could advance negotiations with other family members.

To find Adler, TPL hired a private investigator, who finally tracked him to Sunnyvale, California, where he lived in a group residence for Vietnam veterans. TPL then hired a lawyer to represent Adler’s interests in the negotiations and eventually presented him with a check for approximately $1 million for his interest in the property. If this seemed like an unexpected windfall to Joey Adler, it was the best news yet for attempts to protect Estate Maho Bay, says TPL project manager John Garrison. “Talk about a ‘Eureka!’ moment,” recalls Garrison. “Finding Joey Adler was really what got this whole thing going.”

Closing The Deal

Armed with its own share of Estate Maho Bay—and with the continued support of its anonymous donor— TPL accelerated its negotiations with the remaining heirs. In September 2007, TPL acquired six additional interests in the property. Together the National Park Service and TPL now controlled 10 out of 11 interests in the land. (One Marsh heir decided not to sell.) In another recent and important step, the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands legally subdivided the land. The National Park Service ended up with a key species-rich parcel abutting its existing lands, with the expectation that TPL will be able to convey two additional parcels totaling 206 acres and including a 1,000-foot expanse of Maho Bay Beach, as federal funds become available over the next few years.

Most people on St. John are enthusiastic about the conservation effort. The local Virgin Islands Daily News regularly runs editorials supporting the projects, and the federal delegate from the Virgin Islands, Donna M. Christensen, has proposed National Park Service funding for the acquisitions.

Among the most outspoken project supporters is Joe Kessler, president of Friends of Virgin Islands National Park. At his office atop Mongoose Junction, an upscale shopping mall outside the bustling town of Cruz Bay, Kessler told me that on an island as small as St. John, any victory for open space is a big one. “In a place like this, everyone is impacted by everything,” he said. “Many people consider Big Maho the best beach in the entire Caribbean. The fact that people can continue to enjoy it is cause for celebration.”

Maho Bay Camps is a popular ecotourist resort just north of Maho Bay. Its vice president, Maggie Day, went further, describing an undeveloped Estate Maho Bay as a “critical counterbalance” to thoughtless development elsewhere on the island. “For every new construction project, there should be more open space,” she says. “When you’re talking about a place with a finite amount of space that’s disappearing rapidly, it’s the only way to go.”

Federal funds will by no means cover the entire cost of the Estate Maho Bay transaction, and TPL continues to raise private donations for its work there. “The discounted land deal is a great deal for taxpayers and demonstrates TPL’s commitment to conservation,” says Mark Hardgrove, superintendent of Virgin Islands National Park. “I bet Rockefeller would be proud.” TPL’s work on St. John and elsewhere in the Caribbean is far from complete, says Greg Chelius, director of TPL’s Florida and Caribbean office. TPL has launched a series of projects to protect land in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

“Development pressure on these islands makes it imperative to move as quickly as we can to protect their unique ecological, historic, cultural, and recreational resources,” Chelius says. “If we don’t conserve these lands in the next few years, it will be too late.”

No matter what lies ahead for Chelius, Garrison, and the TPL team, it’s a good bet that the projects ahead cannot be more complicated than the conservation of Estate Maho Bay. “It’s been a long, long haul,” says John Garrison. “The good news is that, no matter what happens, a vast majority of the estate will remain untouched for generations to come.”

Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. He has written previously for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Sunset magazine.