The few visitors who came here saw a sprinkling of islands of unparalleled beauty with spectacular seashores and steep verdant mountains, but it was a place to travel through, not a place to stay. One of these travelers was Laurance Rockefeller, the scion of the famed Standard Oil magnate, John D Rockefeller and a successful businessman in his own right. He was an avid conservationist who recognized that development endangered some of the most remote and wildly beautiful areas in the US and Caribbean, and unlike others, he had the resources to do something about it.
Tall, well-dressed and urbane, Rockefeller may have at first seemed out of place in the BVI, where the airport was little more than a dirt landing strip, and rocky unpaved roads could only be negotiated by donkey, or for the lucky few, with the help of a sturdy Landrover. Rockefeller had spent time sailing through both the US and British Virgin Islands and had grown to love their beauty and charm. He built Caneel Bay, the area's first luxury hotel on a sumptuous stretch of beach on St. John's north shore in 1956 and surrounded it with an initial purchase of 5,000 acres of land, which he donated to the US National Parks Service. The bequest, which became St. John National Park, was the largest national park outside the US. With a sense of altruism and no shortage of financial resources, Rockefeller set out to do the same thing in the neighboring British Virgin Islands. In 1961 he leased 365 acres on Virgin Gorda from the BVI government with plans to build the luxury hotel, Little Dix Bay, a development that would help jumpstart the territory's nascent tourism industry.
Aware of what Rockefeller had accomplished in the neighboring USVI, British Virgin Islands Administrator Captain G.J. Bryan approached Rockefeller to see if he could help the territory establish its own park system. It worked. Rockefeller donated sufficient money to the government to purchase 90 acres of land crowning Sage Mountain, the BVI's highest peak, as well as seven acres at Spring Bay, locally known as the Crawl, and some 20 acres at Devil's Bay, both on Virgin Gorda. These donations would become the basis of the BVI's National Parks Trust which was established in 1961.
In the meantime, a BVI-born conservationist was busily making his mark. A self-made businessman, Joseph Reynold O'Neal ran the islands' first pharmacy and had launched a number of other enterprises from a lumberyard to a photography studio. Born in Virgin Gorda in 1911, he spent the first part of his childhood in Cuba where his father had gone to work in the cane fields. His family settled on Tortola when Jose, as he was known, was nine. He spoke no English, but was a quick study, and as time went on, developed a knack for business. He pursued a course in pharmacy in St. Kitts, and returning to the BVI, he set up the JR O'Neal Drug Store which is still in its original building on Main Street. With an eye to the future, he launched numerous other ventures including a Landrover dealership when there were still few drivable roads and importing electric generators at a time when the island was still largely lit by kerosene lamps.
O'Neal also served on the government's Executive Council 1948 to 1949 and again from 1954 to 1971, but his crowning achievement was his environmental work and his efforts as the National Parks Trust's first chairman. Sage Mountain, an area of largely lush tropical forest, was declared the territory's first national park in 1964, soon followed by Spring and Devil's Bay.
JR first met Laurance Rockefeller in 1965 when the philanthropist held a meeting of Caribbean politicians, conservationists and senior public servants at Caneel Bay to discuss environmental initiatives. From this meeting the Caribbean Conservation Association was born with JR as a founding member; a friendship and long-term collaboration between the two men was also formed.
As part of his Sage Mountain bequest, Laurance Rockefeller had donated an additional $10,000 to reforest Sage Mountain, which had once been covered in hardwoods including Mahogany and Bulletwood. JR, who had been interested in reforestation since 1953 when he marked Queen Elizabeth's coronation by planting trees at the Old Recreation Ground, was the natural choice to head the project.
With the Rockefeller grant, O'Neal purchased mahogany seedlings from the United States Park Service in St. Croix in lots of 500 to 1,000 plants, but getting them to Sage Mountain was no easy task. With no drivable road to Sage Mountain, the seedlings were transported by mule. Eventually O'Neal and his staff, established a nursery at Sage Mountain consisting of ten sheets of galvanized and four steel drums to store water. The nursery may have been a simple affair, but it worked, saving time, transportation and money. In the late 80s, JR asked Alfred O Shirley, who had recently retired from his post as Accountant General, to supervise improvements to the park. Under Shirley's direction, additional trails were established opening up more sections to visitors, and signs were posted identifying the trails along with many of the trees.
JR O'Neal retained his post as chairman of the National Parks Trust for 30 years. Over these three decades, the National Parks Trust under O'Neal's guidance went on to establish an additional 14 national parks. In 1988 the BVI National Parks Trust honored his service by naming the recently established botanic gardens, the Joseph Reynold O'Neal Botanic Garden, an honor that he greatly appreciated, he said. JR O'Neal died in 1994 at the age of 93.
THE BVI NATIONAL PARKS TRUST TODAY
The scope of national parks in the BVI is impressive and each is breathtaking in its individual beauty. Today there are a total of 21 protected area's managed by the National Parks Trust ranging from the spectacular Baths, the labyrinth of building size boulders which form a series of grottoes and sea pools on Virgin Gorda's southwest shore, to the Wreck of the Rhone, one of the Caribbean's premier dive sites. Historical sites like the Mount Healthy Windmill, bird sanctuaries such as Great Tobago and the Botanical Gardens in Road Town are all areas of special significance and beauty.
"We are a unique institution in that we get to protect and manage not only terrestrial sites, but also marine and historical areas," explained Joseph Smith Abbot who has been the National Parks Trust Director since 1996. Two of the organization's most recently designated parks are the Coppermine located on a windswept bluff on Virgin Gorda, which was built by Cornish miners in the 1860s, and Sandy Cay, a small island rimmed by a powdery sand beach off Jost Van Dyke. Originally owned by Laurance Rockefeller, Sandy Cay was managed as a private reserve until it was transferred to the National Parks Trust in 2007, three years after Rockefeller's death.
"We are more than just a system of parks," says Joseph Smith Abbot, referring to the System Plan of Protected Areas, which went into effect in 2007. The plan, which holistically expands the scope of protected areas in the Territory, includes areas managed by the Trust as well as the Conservation and Fisheries Department. As Smith Abbot outlined in the report, "the System Plan rationalizes the establishment of a resilient network of areas which support not only protection of critical habitats such as coral reefs, but also seagrass beds, salt ponds, dry Caribbean forests and mangroves. These resources," he emphasized, "have long been overlooked."
With a staff of 35, which includes administrators and rangers, the Trust is currently strengthening its enforcement arm and conducting strategic planning for current and new parks. The Trust also manages a marine buoy system around popular dive sites and coral reefs to protect these sensitive areas from anchor damage. Although there is no national park on Anegada, the Trust runs the Head Start program there which takes the hatchlings from the native and critically endangered Anegada iguana and raises them in a protected facility until they are old enough to be released back into the wild. The Trust is also responsible for the reestablishment of the Roseate flamingo population on that island which had been hunted to extinction there in the 1950s.
It has been 50 years since the National Parks Trust ordinance was enacted in 1961. Since then, the Trust's many and diverse initiatives have distinguished it as one of the prime protectors of the BVI's wild and irreplaceable beauty.