When Is Conservation of Park Lands Prudent, and When is the Spending Wasteful?

Is it wasteful to spend $50 million to create Castle Nugent National Historic Site (top photo) in the Virgin Islands, but prudent to spend $75 million to acquire land for the Blue Ridge Parkway? Top photo NPS, bottom photo Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.

While some House Republicans are denigrating a proposal to spend $50 million to create a national historic site in the Virgin Islands, one that would preserve a centuries-old plantation and critical natural resources, a GOP senator is asking for $75 million to be spent on land acquisition for the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The timing of these divergent positions from within the Republican Party is particularly interesting in that they were voiced just days before President Obama is to release a budget proposal expected to call for a freeze on national park funding for the next three years.

Republicans on the House Natural Resources parks subcommittee issued a statement Tuesday criticizing their Democratic House colleagues for supporting a proposal to create a Castle Nugent National Historic Site roughly three miles south of St. Croix's principal town of Christianstedon in the Virgin Islands, saying now certainly is not the time to spend $50 million on that endeavor. The $50 million is tied to land acquisition for 2,900-above-water-acres for the proposed 11,500-acre site, and then the annual budget would be roughly $1 million, according to Congressional Budget Office calculations (see attachment.)

On Wednesday, during a floor debate in which the House approved the legislation, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-WA, argued that not only is the timing wrong for the bill because the National Park Service has yet to present a report on the appropriateness of the proposed site in the National Park System, but that the country isn't adequately caring for the 392 sites already in the system. On top of that, the country can't afford the site during the current economic malaise, said the Republican.

"With ten percent unemployment, millions of Americans without jobs, record budget deficits and public debt skyrocketing, now is not the time to spend up to $50 million of the taxpayers’ money to buy nearly 3000 acres of beachfront property on a Caribbean island. And on top of that, it’ll cost nearly $1 million a year to maintain," he said. "We can’t afford the price tag for a new park on St. Croix, just as many Americans will never be able to afford to visit there.

"I had my staff actually look up the cost of getting to St. Croix over the President’s Day weekend next month. From my hometown of Pasco, Washington, it would take two plane changes, over 12 hours and around $1000 to visit the island that will be home to this new park," Rep. Hastings told the chamber. "For a resident of the wild and wonderful State of West Virginia flying out of the Charleston airport, the time to get there is a little less, but the price is still around a thousand dollars.

"On top of the cost of buying this beachfront Caribbean property and the yearly cost of maintaining it, we need to be honest about the backlog we have in caring for the land already owned by the federal government," Rep. Hastings said. "There is $9 billion worth of needed repairs and maintenance on existing park lands. If we aren’t caring for what we already have, then Congress shouldn’t be making the problem worse. Our existing treasures should be our focus to ensure families that load up the minivan or SUV to take a summer vacation to a national park have a safe, enjoyable and accessible visit. I guarantee you that no family from any state will ever load up the minivan and drive to this park in the Caribbean ocean."

And yet, while Rep. Hastings and his GOP colleagues on the Resources Committee were lambasting the Castle Nugent proposal, Sen. Richard Burr and seven colleagues were introducing legislation that calls for $75 million to be spent over five years to acquire upwards of 50,000 acres of land surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway. Sen. Burr, who hails from North Carolina, was the only Republican among the eight. The others behind the proposal are U.S. Sens. Kay R. Hagan (D-NC), Jim Webb (D-VA), and Mark Warner (D-VA), and Reps. Shuler (D-NC), David Price (D-NC), Rick Boucher (D-VA), and Tom Perriello (D-VA), who were expected to introduce companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

"The Blue Ridge Parkway is a state and national treasure, and an investment now will help us protect the Parkway for future generations," the senator, who crafted the measure, said Tuesday.

David Ward, Sen. Burr's press secretary, on Wednesday wouldn't second-guess Rep. Hastings' position on what is fiscally prudent during these economically trying times. However, he said the senator believes conservation of lands surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway is "vital" and that spending to preserve the landscape accomplishes a number of goals.

“We view the goal of our legislation is two-fold. One, primarily, is to preserve this land as a conservation measure for generations to come," said Mr. Ward. "The Blue Ridge Parkway is widely visited by people from all over the country. ... It exposes a lot of people to the beauty of the natural environment in that part of the country. It can also serve as a natural classroom."

Too, the Parkway has a significant impact on the region's economy, he said.

As for the nation's current budgetary woes, Mr. Ward said there are many areas outside the national parks where spending can be cut back.

“There are a lot of places where we need to start reining in spending. Their are duplicative programs, there are bureaucracies that not only are duplicative but also are obsolete," he said.

Traveler footnotes:

Construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway began in 1935 near Cumberland Knob, North Carolina. Today, it stretches 469 miles from North Carolina and Virginia, and its breathtaking views attract nearly 20 million visitors per year, making it the most-visited site in the National Park System. One of the strongest economic engines in the region, the Blue Ridge Parkway generates an estimated $2.3 billion in North Carolina and Virginia annually.

The Castle Nugent property once was "one of 264 cotton and sugar plantations formed on the island of St. Croix after 1733, when the Danish West Indies Company first purchased the island from the French," according to Olasee Davis, an extension assistant professor/extension specialist natural resources at the University of the Virgin Islands. "It was first farmed as early as 1738. Over the centuries, the farm has had many owners, one of them being Christopher Nugent, who bought the farm in 1774 and gave the estate its name. Castle Nugent Farms is one of the largest parcels of privately held land in the Virgin Islands and has been an operating cattle ranch for more than 50 years."

The current owners have run Senepol cattle, a unique breed developed in the island in the early 1900s, on the ranch, according to Mr. Davis. The land itself includes a Caribbean dry forest ecosystem, the largest barrier reef system in the Virgin Islands and perhaps the largest in the Caribbean, he added.

"The cultural resources are also another component of Castle Nugent Estate. This includes pre-Columbian sites and a large historic 17th Century Danish estate great house with other historic plantation buildings and ruins. In fact, the overseer house or great house is now listed on the National Register of Historical Places," Mr. Davis told the subcommittee. "The historical landscape of the property is another attraction and remains intact with its rolling hills, and open grassy shrub plains dropping to the Caribbean Sea. During the spring and fall seasons, the Castle Nugent Estate blanketed with Ginger Thomas (Tecoma stans) blossoms, the Virgin Islands official flowers and the landscape is alive with butterflies."

The National Parks Conservation Association believes Castle Nugent would be a vital acquisition for the National Park Service, both because it would preserve cultural and natural resources ranging from pre-Columbian sites to nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles (see attached.)

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NPCA-Castle_Nugent.pdf50.06 KB

Comments

Whatever you think of Castle Nugent's merits as a site - isn't the prudent course of action to wait for the professional staff at the National Park Service to complete the Special Resource Study on the subject to examine the significance of the resource and the management alternatives?

this is not the time for spending this money..when are people of this country going to spend money on things that are really needed. if we have any money for our parks,lets use it. listening to the pres. last night,projects like this will never get threw....

Who owns the Castle Nugent site and why are they suddenly interested in getting the Federal Government to buy it and maintain it versus selling it to a private developer? Is it a family looking to avoid taxes?

Same goes for the Blue Ridge Parkway. Who stands to gain?

We need to start asking critical questions before we start expanding the National Park Service and loading on more responsibilities without the corresponding increase in budget.

Rick

Rick, you are so right. I believe the very scenario you are describing happened off St Thomas with Water Island; the rich guy that lived there was able to live there the rest of his life while the NPS paid for upkeep, he didn't have to pay taxes, etc. Somebody correct me on this, if I am wrong. There is way too much of that going on, with so many deserving "actual" parks needing maintaining. Like try Grand Canyon, Glacier, you know, actual PARKS.

I love visiting the beautiful National Parks in this great country of ours as much as anyone. They are national treasures that need to be preserved forever to be enjoyed by all. But the fact is we Americans have been living well beyond our means for so long now, we have to wake up and make some hard choices. We can't continue to just spend and spend and not care about the debt we are passing on. I don't care if the president or congress is republican or democrat, they all spend too much money on too many things. Everybody thinks their project is so vital, and that's how we got into this mess.

Your intro implied the Blue Ridge Parkway addition was a Republican project and idea. Incorrect - actually 7 Democrats are sponsoring the project, while only 1 Republican is signed on to it. Sure his reason is more to do with taking care of the folks at home than adding to our national debt. I dont appreciate a slant toward or against a particular party. How about a straight nonspinned rendition?

why don't we drop a few of those already paid for nukes in the middle east and end the war umteen years early and will have the money saved from the warmongers bottomless pockets to buy AND maintain both projects AND fix everything else in the rest of our parks AND probably pay off the debt to china too.

Anonymous, the press sec for Sen. Burr told me it was his bill, so no implication was intended. It was pure fact. How's that for spin -- none!

I just did a web seach. Castle Nugent farms is owned by Mauro Gasperi. Looks like someone who is trying to pass the farm off to the governement for gain.

http://stcroixblog.massagestcroix.com/category/reviews

NPS Meeting
Thursday, June 25th, 2009
First, let me thank Lisa for calling the radio station to tell the public about the National Park Service meeting in Christiansted last night. I rarely get to read the paper, especially on the day it comes out, so I would have missed something that we’re very interested in if she hadn’t called. Thanks Lisa!

There were maybe a dozen and a half people there and it started off being a very informative and (thank goodness) brief and relevant session. The National Park Service presentation was about the options available to add a substantial portion of the south shore of St. Croix to the National Park System. At the end of the presentation, though, a disgruntled young man (whom we believe has commented with many aliases on this blog in the past – we could just tell by his speech patterns – he writes exactly as he speaks) asked questions about MOU’s and agreements with the local government. He challenged the park service representatives to reassure him that the history of the enslaved people who lived, toiled and died in these areas would be studied and made available to the public. We totally agree, as did the NPS people. One of the dear, patient audience members reminded him that the park service gave this presentation largely to get more input from the community, that there were forms that he could fill out, he could take some to his friends and have them fill them out, and all concerns would be taken into consideration by the NPS.

He just wouldn’t stop. We had to get up and leave. Partially because I don’t have the kind of patience the other people there have, partially because it was like a refrigerator in there, and we were starting to turn blue, and partially because we needed to have dinner some time before midnight. Note: We have seen this guy speak at a public hearing in favor of the Robin Bay project, which is very confusing to us. We wonder why he is in favor of letting a stateside developer come in and destroy historical areas to build a casino/resort/golf course , but against preserving the natural beauty and historical sites included in the Castle Nugent project because it’s the National Park Service, who is consistently being accused of “keeping land from the people dem”.

So we left and he was still talking…….

Anyway, just thinking of all this beautiful acreage being preserved for posterity rather than being raped and pillaged by development makes my heart swell. It gives me goosebumps. And it’s one of the very, very few things in life that can make me sit down, close my eyes, and take a deep hopeful breath. Just like I’m doing now.

The options offered by the park service can be seen here. And they need input. We love ” Alternative C”. which would preserve the most land and extend into the sea to the barrier reef. It would also allow “the golden boy” a graceful way out of his proposed piece of crap development, and it would place a park headquarters on site.

We applaud Caroline and Mauro Gasperi, who have been under tremendous pressure from family members to dispose of much of this land. It has taken the park service years to get this far, but that’s the process. With luck, the NPS hopes to have this project completed by the end of the calendar year.

Please take the time to look at the NPS options and submit comments to help St. Croix remain the unique cultural and natural gem that we have always loved.

Perhaps the biggest news this week was Obama's announcement to freeze spending on the NPS, not Sen. Burr and his bill to expand a park in his backyard. Seems like a bigger deal to me than your spin article.

Please, anonymous, point to the spin.

The facts of the matter are that some Republicans in the House are saying now is not the time to be spending on national parks, while some in the Senate say such spending is a good investment. Where is the spin? Indeed, the story supports both their positions with no editorial intrusion other than to note the interesting timing ... in connection with the president's proposed freeze on park spending.

But it is interesting that you've changed your spin, from saying Sen. Burr was not the author of the Blue Ridge legislation but only a bystander of sorts to now seemingly agreeing with the story.

And as for the president's proposed freeze, we're well aware of it as noted in the second sentence of the article and we're going to tackle that in a larger article currently in the works.

I think that if Obama wants to cut Pork Barrel spending and at the same time create jobs. You need to look at each Pork project, Parks or not, and check to see how many jobs would come with the project. For example, buying land for parks might get put on the back burner, but construction projects might be good if in areas of high unemployment. I think any legislation may use the jobs created per million spent to help decide if it is good for our present time. I think the NPS leaders should use this approach when trying to get additional projects done outside of a frozen budget.

Rick,

Thanks for digging a little deeper into Castle Nugent. It'd be interesting to see the land appraisal process. And if the owners' bottom-line interest is to preserve the land, the same end could be achieved through a conservation easement, which wouldn't provide them with $50 million but would have tax benefits.

It's obvious those commenting do not understand the current economic woes facing a growing number of Americans, who don't have jobs or resources to even enjoy the parks within driving distance (many of which are in need of updates) much less off shore. This is simple common sense. No matter who (D or R) introduced or supports this bill, it's frivolous. American tax payers cannot afford it.

First: "Vital acquisition for the National Park Service"? That's still $50 mil + $75 mil WE CAN'T AFFORD! This is just another of hundreds of such exceptions that add up, that are illustrative of why we're in an economic meltdown that has hurt most of us and threatens our futures as never before. It reflects just how arrogant, out of touch, irresponsible and disingenuous our Congress and Administration have become – democrat and republican.

Second: I believe that the property belongs to Mauro Gasperi. Does anyone know of any relationships he has with any public officials? What political contributions he's made?

This is indeed nothing more than spin; it is distasteful to see NPCA support helping another gain, at the expense of the American Taxpayer. At least the Blueridge area is a place more average Americans can visit, rather than just the very well off.

This is not an argument for or against Castle Nugent, but I would imagine there are quite a number of "average Americans" who could visit Castle Nugent, as the 100,000+ residents of the Virgin Islands are U.S. citizens.

And really, how many "average Americans" can afford a visit to national parks in Alaska? Does that make those parks any less worthy?

Mauro Gasperi is the son of Caroline Gasperi, who has worked for years trying to persuade the Park Service to protect the Castle Nugent property. She is one of several heirs to the land, but is one who lived there many years. Other members of the family would rather sell the land to developers for the cash, an action that would sacrifice the cultural, historical and environmental significance of the land for a hillside of McMansions. Selling the land to the park service is a compromise, so the heirs that want to sell will get something from their inheritance, yet still allow the land to be preserved.

The bill may be a moot point anyway, as there is now a potential private buyer for the property. As Michael states above, the heirs to the land have been wishing to sell for several years and Caroline Gasperi has held them at bay hoping to preserve the land and still satisfy her family members need for their inheritance. This has been going on since 2003! There is no reason for the NPS to still be working on this study.

I have seen the area first-hand. It is definately worth protecting. Let me also say that I traveled to St. Croix from the Montana and it did not cost a fortune. You don't have to be wealthy to travel on an airplane, so those of you who think so (including Rep. Hastings) need to reevaluate that argument - ever been to Hawaii??

What would Yellowstone look like today if it hadn't been protected? I'd bet luxury houses & hotels all over the place and if you wanted to visit it WOULD cost a fortune.

Anyway, like I said, this may all be moot if the family sells privately, and if it so, shame on our government for failing to act.