There is great natural beauty in the BVI. Our multi-hue seascapes are dotted with islands, our landscapes range from flat coral atolls to picturesque mountains supporting both moist and dry forests. It's easy to get complacent about "Nature's Little Secrets" after all, for those of us who live here year around, this is our daily backdrop – better than a Hollywood movie set. However, were it not for some forward-thinking environ- mentalists a half a century ago, we might be looking through some very different glasses.
Joseph Smith-Abbott, Director of the National Parks Trust for the last 15 years, has had a lot to do with steering the course that has led to protecting the BVI's terrestrial and marine sites. This year the NPT is celebrating its 50th Anniversary and has embarked on a public awareness campaign. Smiling amiably between meetings and a pressing schedule, the Director explained, "With this historical anniversary comes a burden for what has been done and what remains to be accomplished. We hope to serve as a model for other trust networks in the region."
The National Parks Trust was formed in 1961 by statute, a collaborative partnership between BVI environmentalist J.R. O'Neal and philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller. The mission statement includes "preserving and managing designated natural and cultural areas." However, this is just the umbrella function of the Trust. Under this fall various programs including the reforestation project, which includes mangrove planting. The Trust is also active in the protection of coral reefs, the terrestrial parks program, historical preservation and environmental education. What started, as a volunteer organization has now grown to a staff of 31 and an 11-member board in a quasi-governmental organization that raises a majority of its budget through international funding agencies and private donors.
The declaration of Sage Mountain as a National Park in 1964 was the first work of the newly formed Trust. Joseph Reynold O'Neal became the first chairman and later the Botanic Gardens located in Road Town were named in his honor due to his extensive work in conservation. Other sites soon followed including Devil's Bay, and Spring Bay on Virgin Gorda, considered part of the Greater Baths; with their giant boulders tumbled across the shoreline, these are truly a natural wonder. Ten years later Gorda Peak (another Rockefeller endowment), the tallest point on Virgin Gorda and home to several native species, was also added on Virgin Gorda, later followed by the historic Coppermine and Little Fort National park.
But what makes the BVI different from other environmental trusts in the region is the inclusion of marine parks as well. The Rhone Marine Park encompasses 800 acres including Dead Chest Island, and is also the BVI's most famous dive site. Here just off Salt Island, the great broken hulk of the remains of the Royal Mail Ship Rhone lays scattered across depths ranging from 20 to 80 feet of water. Torn apart by an off-season hurricane in 1867, one can still see the bow section, prop shaft and propeller all encrusted in coral and home to schools of fish.
Joseph Smith Abbott was a natural pick for the position as Director of NPT. He had the educational qualifications including a degree in botany from a university in Wisconsin, along with parental roots in the BVI and a deep appreciation for its natural heritage. He came on board as Deputy Director in 1996 and three years later became Director. His vision is both forward looking with a keen bent for preservation. Part of this vision involved joining forces with the Nature Conservancy's Caribbean Challenge, which enabled the NPT to look at the broad picture involved in marine conservation with a goal of protecting a minimum of 30 percent of the marine environment, an internationally agreed upon standard. Approaching the view holistically instead of viewing marine areas as separate entities allowed for more expansive protection.
Tourism is an important economic pillar for the BVI and is a key component to the financial health of the islands and is intricately connected to the environment. There are many businesses who benefit from taxi services, to retail shops, restaurants to guesthouses and hotels. The charter yacht industry and dive operators also benefit due to the foresight and care the NPT has put into protecting coral reefs through its mooring programs. An extensive network of 66 moorings is spread across the waters surrounding the islands and cays that make up the BVI so that yachts no longer need to put anchors down among precious coral heads.
A System Plan for marine and terrestrial sites was first drafted in 1981, and after years of revision, the BVI government formally approved the BVI Protected Areas System Plan encompassing a ten–year vision from 2007 to 2017. A protected area is defined as "an area of land or sea deemed important for the maintenance of biological diversity, historical or natural resources." Many of the so called "proposed sites," under the System Plan, which are not formally parks yet, are still managed by the NPT sometimes in collaboration with Conservation and Fisheries Department.
Sandy Cay just off Jost Van Dyke became the latest addition to the national park system in 2008, which now numbers 20 terrestrial and one marine park. The national parks are considered delegated areas protected by law, and stretch from the Tobago islands in the west to Prickly Pear Island in North Sound. They can be urban parks, historic sites, and even strict nature reserves with minimal human interaction. The BVI Tourist Board promotes the park sites as attractive nature areas for recreation with The Baths being one of the most popular sites.
The NPT has worked hard on their educational component and getting the community involved. The Trust came up with an innovative program along with Conservation and Fisheries to implement a mangrove-planting program involving primary school children. A look out across Brandywine Bay off the sandy shoal reveals white PVC pipes sticking out of the shallow bay with little sprouting seedlings coming out of the top. This is one of many mangrove-planting spots around Tortola. Another program involves the endangered "rock iguana" of Anegada. Feral cats were killing many of the juvenile iguanas, so a means of trapping the iguanas and then erecting a protective cage system was implemented. Here in a designated spot close to the Police Station, the iguanas are raised until they are large enough not to be at risk from predators. This site is open to the public and over 100 iguanas have been released in the wild since the program started in 1997. Anegada is also the site of the very successful flamingo mating program that increased a small flock to over 170 flamingos that reside in the western salt ponds of this flat coral atoll.
In 2011 the NPT celebrated its 50th year with a number of events. These included an exhibition at the Sugar Works Museum and the publication of a commemorative booklet covering the 50 years of the conservation efforts by NPT in collaboration with the government and the public. There was also a campaign to educate the public about the many ongoing contributions the NPT makes in maintaining pristine and sustainable environments throughout the territory. In Director Joseph Smith-Abbot's words, "It is important that we protect both the natural and historical attributes we have learned to love and cherish. We need to create a legacy for future BVIslanders and our visitors to enjoy."