The following letter, dated Aug. 12, 2020, relative to Caneel Bay Resort was sent to Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, and was also copied to Douglas Domenech, assistant secretary, Insular and International Affairs, DOI; Margaret Everson, acting director, National Park Service; Stan Austin, regional director, National Park Service; Nigel Fields, superintendent, Virgin Islands National Park; V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett, U.S. Congress; Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and Shikima Jones-Sprauve, St. John administrator.
Dear Secretary Bernhardt
As Board Chair and President of the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park (Friends), we are writing you on behalf of our Board of Directors, 8,000 members and our Virgin Islands community, as well as all Americans who have an ownership stake in our national parks.
As you are aware, Hurricanes Irma and Maria, both category 5 storms, severely impacted the Virgin Islands in September 2017. These storms destroyed infrastructure, schools, businesses and homes, many of which have yet to be rebuilt three years later. Our Virgin Islands economy has struggled to rebound.
During this time, the Virgin Islands has been susceptible to an influx of wealth that seeks to capitalize on post-storm opportunities. The disparity between native and longtime Virgin Island residents and this new wealth is helping to establish St. John in particular as a party destination with little regard for the island’s rich history, heritage and natural resources.
Virgin Islands National Park is only now beginning to see federal hurricane relief funding. Caneel Bay Resort, an important contributor to the Virgin Islands and in particular a more stable St. John economy, was destroyed in the storms. To date, CBI Acquisitions, LLC (CBIA) has made no attempt to rebuild Caneel Bay, despite receiving tens of millions of dollars in insurance payments as a result of the storm damage.
In fact, during the time since the storms, leadership at CBIA publicly disparaged the St. John community and continued to seek an extension of the Retained Use Estate (RUE) put in place for 40 years by philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller after establishment of Virgin Islands National Park in 1956, and following the sale of his Caneel Bay Resort in 1983.
Additionally, CBIA has sought to be held harmless from liability for environmental contamination that exists on the Caneel Bay property, which is part of Virgin Islands National Park.
In 2012, the Department of Interior, through the National Park Service, began a NEPA process for the Caneel Bay property in order to extinguish the RUE and establish a non-competitive 40-year lease with CBIA. This lease arrangement was made possible by 2010 legislation introduced by then-V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen. Among other things, the legislation ensured that the natural and cultural resources of the national park property would have better oversight by NPS staff and be better protected.
Negotiations on the lease with CBIA did not go smoothly and they resorted to lobbying efforts to have the RUE extended for an additional 60 years. The RUE provides almost no oversight authority by NPS and little protection for the rich natural and cultural resources found on the property. Friends of Virgin Islands National Park and the St. John community have voiced, loudly and clearly, opposition to an extension of the RUE.
In 2014, significant environmental contamination was documented on the Caneel Bay property. CBIA moved to prevent further characterization of the pollution by attempting to disallow NPS staff and contractors back onto the property, which is owned by NPS. This environmental contamination has been allowed to remain in the ground, on the property, and likely seeping into the ocean for decades. It continues today, potentially causing health concerns for Virgin Islanders and visitors, as well as potentially impacting one of the most important marine ecosystems on earth — a portion of which was designated in 2001 as the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument.
Together with CBIA’s lack of maintenance of the property pursuant to paragraph 2 of the grant of Retained Use Estate, “…[Grantor] will use and maintain the Premises in such a manner that will (a) be consistent with the preservation of such outstanding scenic and other features of national significance and (b) preserve the Premises to the extent feasible in their natural condition for the public benefit, enjoyment and inspiration…” This failure of environmental protection and property maintenance is a clear violation of the requirements of the RUE.
We are writing you today, and copying DOI and NPS staff, elected officials and the media to request action. We have been unable to document that the 2013 NEPA process was ever finished and a “Finding of No Significant Impact” was ever signed off by the then Virgin Islands National Park Superintendent. At the very least, this document should be required for negotiations with CBIA on a non-competitive 40-year lease to commence as the preferred alternative. Regardless, the findings of environmental contamination, the impacts of the 2017 hurricanes and CBIA’s disparagement of the St. John community calls into question the validity of the 2013 NEPA process.
Friends of Virgin Islands National Park supports a return of amenities on the Caneel Bay property that will provide local jobs and support for the Virgin Islands’ economy. There are many alternatives for development and management of the property that will ensure protection of the natural and cultural resources found there. Immediate extinguishment of the RUE and commencement of an updated NEPA process would allow the NPS to keep with Laurance Rockefeller’s wishes that the property revert to NPS oversight by 2023 and that the public be afforded greater access to the property. We are requesting:
1. Extinguishment of the RUE for CBIA’s failure to preserve and maintain the property.
2. Commencement of a new NEPA process that will provide the St. John and larger Virgin Islands’ community with a voice in the future development and management of the Caneel Bay property.
3. Immediately resume full characterization of the environmental contamination on the property leading to a remediation plan that holds responsible parties accountable.
Friends of Virgin Islands National Park are a proud partner to NPS and VINP. We are also proud to partner with the St. John and Virgin Islands community in helping guide the protection of Caneel Bay for current and future generations. We stand ready to support NPS and DOI in the above requested actions. We will be working with our local community and national partners on any legal means necessary to ensure our community is heard and our resources protected.
We very much look forward to your response and to working with you and your staff to bring Caneel Bay back for St. John, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Americans everywhere.
— Andrew Rutnik, Board chair
Todd Sampsell, president
Friends of V.I. National Park