Friends of VINP look ahead to future at annual gathering

By ANDREA MILAM St. John Correspondent / Virgin Islands Daily News

ST. JOHN — Friends of Virgin Islands National Park welcomed a large audience to its first in-person annual meeting since 2020, held at a pavilion at Trunk Bay. The meeting kicked off with the introduction of the new Friends board chair, Audrey Penn, who’s stepping up to fill the shoes of Andy Rutnik.

Penn grew up on St. John and returned to the island after graduating from Rollins College. She worked as an intern with the Friends and eventually was hired as program director, a position she held for five years. Penn worked with now-retired VINP ranger Laurel Brannick to launch the Friends’ School Kids in the Park program. She eventually left her employment with the Friends for a role at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, but stayed connected with the Friends by serving as a volunteer board member.

“It’s unique for our board for someone as young as me to be the board chair,” said Penn, who went on to speak of how the National Park impacted her childhood. “VIERS eco-camps, the Folklife Festival, moko jumbies, dumb bread and cheese, beach cleanups, and enjoying all the field trips put me in a place to respect our park and to know we have to nurture that for the next generations. I’m very humbled by the board’s decision and I hope to serve you all well.”

Friends Executive Director Tonia Lovejoy then took the podium to share the impacts of the organization’s work over the last year. A total of 449 volunteers logged more than 7,700 hours of work in the last year. Twenty-seven miles of trails were cleared, 2,634 sea turtle hatchlings made it to the sea, and the nonprofit hosted 123 educational seminars and 280 educational outreach events. The guided Reef Bay hike relaunched in 2022, and nightly seminars began at Cinnamon Bay.

“We are reaching more visitors, more community members, and more students this year than we have since 2016,” said Lovejoy. “We have run from zero to 110, planned every single event as if it was going to be possibly in person or not happening at all, and through that experience, we are a well-oiled, fine-tuned machine, largely because of the engine that fuels us, which is you as the volunteers, donors, supporters, culture bearers, and participants in our programs. All your efforts and energy become the fabric of the conservation work that we do here.”

Keynote speaker Robert Stanton, who served as VINP superintendent from 1971-1994, and later rose to the role of director of the National Park Service — and was the first Black person to be appointed to this position — said that returning to the Virgin Islands reminded him of the sonnet, “How Do I Love Thee?”

“Above all, the people of the Virgin Islands are my love,” said Stanton. “Enjoy your National Park. Learn and grow from it. By engaging with the park, you are in your own right becoming better citizens.”

VINP Superintendent Nigel Fields provided an update on happenings within the park. He reported that construction at Lind Point, where a science lab and residences for VINP employees are being built, is about 60% complete and on schedule. The science lab is expected to move into its new permanent home by this time next year, Fields said. The superintendent also spoke of climate change and how the park is working to battle environmental threats.

VINP, in partnership with the Friends, University of the Virgin Islands, the CORE Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, Coral World, and the Mote Marine Lab, has worked to treat more than 2,500 corals for stony coral tissue loss disease, and to grow and outplant corals.

“Park reefs had already been struggling for several decades before they received the brunt of wave action from the hurricanes, then stony coral tissue loss disease, which is still a mystery to us, came in like an uncontrollable wildfire,” Fields said.

The VINP superintendent also shared that trail crews from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Grand Teton National Park are on island now doing infrastructure repairs to trails in the Cinnamon Bay and Lameshur areas.

“We’re making smarter decisions,” he said. “Many special places in the Virgin Islands National Park have a sense of timelessness to them. Together, we are caretakers of these special treasures, these special experiences, and it’s our hope that these features of St. John are intact for inspiration, education, and enjoyment for many generations to come.”

A question and answer session followed the speeches. In response to queries from the audience, Fields said that the VINP is looking at ways to better engineer the road to Lameshur, a dirt track that is often plagued with deep potholes. He also noted that a contract is in place for cutting of overgrown brush along the North Shore Road, a project that’s currently ongoing.

Further, he said that new signage will soon be installed at Annaberg, and that there are plans to update the signage at Reef Bay.

In response to an observation from an audience member that the wild deer on the island are increasing in numbers, with many appearing to be diseased, Fields said the VINP is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a possible solution.

“We need to get a deer management plan, and this will require some tough decisions,” he said .

Another audience member commented on the notable reduction of park employees present at the beaches enforcing park rules.

“It’s a very small crew of just a few,” said Fields, who added that the Friends has funded six seasonal ranger positions. “The experience is different; I very much agree. All parks are experiencing a significant erosion of our base funds. As our costs increase and inflation increases, we have to cut back our staff just to keep the lights on. We’re aiming to find creative solutions to bring in the resources we need, because we’re all feeling it.”

Lovejoy also touched on the issues faced by the park as she closed out the meeting.

“Although we are special and unique, our challenges are not when you look at the NPS overall,” she said. “All across the nation there’s a staff shortage of law enforcement officers and rangers, and our park staff here are all doing multiple jobs. We are very grateful for all of their service, and the Friends stands by you to support you and meet your needs. We advocate for this park to be able to be successful in meeting its mission.”