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U.S. Department of the Interior - Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs
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Lands and Parks Bills: HR 3726




STATEMENT OF STEVE WHITESELL,

ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, PARK PLANNING, FACILITIES, AND LANDS,

NATIONAL PARK SERVICE,

DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR,

BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON

NATIONAL PARKS, FORESTS, AND PUBLIC LANDS

OF THE HOUSE NATURAL RESOURCES COMMITTEE

CONCERNING H.R. 3726,

A BILL TO ESTABLISH THE CASTLE NUGENT NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE,

AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES  

November 17, 2009

Mr. Chairman, members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to present the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 3726, a bill to establish the Castle Nugent National Historic Site, and for other purposes.

H.R. 3726 would establish as a unit of the National Park System the Castle Nugent National Historic Site, a historic agricultural site on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Department could support H.R. 3726, with technical amendments.However, we would ask that the committee defer action on this legislation until the special resource study is completed, which is consistent with the Department's general policy on legislation establishing a new unit of the National Park System when a study is pending.

The proposed Castle Nugent National Historic Site is located along the arid southeastern shore of St. Croix, about three miles south of the island's principal town of Christiansted. The site would consist of approximately 11,500 acres, of which three quarters are submerged lands. The non-submerged lands would consist of approximately 2,900 acres. The terrain is mostly rolling and hilly with a mixture of dry forest, native vegetation, and rangeland that offers picturesque views to the Caribbean Sea and to distant parts of the island. A shoreline of cobble beaches and small crescent bays extends for approximately 4.5 miles. The marine areas included in the site would extend directly from the shore out to the three-mile territorial limit.

The National Park Service was directed to conduct a special resource study of the Castle Nugent site by Public Law 109-317.The study began in 2007 and is nearing completion. The NPS draft study has found that the site meets the NPS's criteria for addition to the National Park System, and that the proposal to designate it as part of the National Park System enjoys strong local support.

The Castle Nugent site represents a nationally significant cultural landscape that provides a glimpse into the historic development of St. Croix in the 18th and 19th centuries when cotton plantations dotted the south shore of the island. The site conveys a strong stepping-back-in-time quality to a period when cotton was an important export crop for the economic and social development of the new Danish colony. Although relatively brief, the era of cotton plantation agriculture on St. Croix, which depended on slave labor, was critical to the establishment of the Danish colonial system in the Caribbean. Many of the south shore plantations that produced cotton as their primary crop did not transition to the production of sugar cane as most other Virgin Islands estates did. In subsequent years, the lands continued to be used for agricultural purposes, including the raising of cattle that continues today.Largely because of this continuum, the agrarian landscape at Castle Nugent remains well intact from early colonial days.The fields, structures, ruins, and archeological resources provide an outstanding laboratory to study and interpret firsthand the cotton era on St. Croix, including the lifestyle of cotton plantation owners and their workers, both enslaved and free.

The centerpiece of the site is the historic Castle Nugent estate, which is an excellent example of an eighteenth century Danish cotton estate and the most intact plantation within the proposed boundary.This complex includes a large estate house dating to the 1730's, a rare cotton house that is believed to be the last of its kind standing on St. Croix, and the remains of two slave row houses, among other historic buildings.Cultural resources discovered on the grounds include pottery shards and other artifacts left over from either slave shanties or Arawak Indian campsites.

Enactment of H.R. 3726 would provide the opportunity to preserve and protect this outstanding Caribbean cultural landscape and interpret the cotton era and related agricultural themes that have been instrumental in the development of St. Croix and the Virgin Islands.It would also help protect five pre-Columbian archeological sites, two of which are among the oldest sites on St. Croix.

The Castle Nugent site also contains abundant natural resources which would be protected by establishing the proposed national historic site. The eastern end is dominated by Great Pond, which is the second largest salt pond in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the most important wetland on the island of St. Croix. Great Pond and its adjacent bay provide critical habitat for both resident and migratory birds, reef fish and sea turtles. The pond is also rimmed by extensive black mangrove stands, which are under increasing threat in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

One of the largest and healthiest fringing coral reef systems in the region lies just a few hundred feet offshore. The St. Croix coral reef system is one of the best developed systems in the Caribbean and the most extensive one on the Puerto Rican-Virgin Islands shelf. The offshore fringing reef at Castle Nugent is part of the southeastern St. Croix reef system that extends from Great Pond Bay eastward to the fringing reefs enveloping Point Udall on the easternmost side of the island. This system is part of a 4,000-5,000-year-old, 23-mile-long bank-barrier reef that rings virtually the entire east end of St. Croix. Inclusion of a large section of this reef within the boundary of the national historic site would provide additional protections to this fragile resource, which is under the jurisdiction of the government of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The NPS would look forward to sharing expertise and working cooperatively with the U.S. Virgin Islands in order to continue to provide a high level of protection to the reef system.

The Castle Nugent site has a longstanding association with cattle ranching. Under an agreement between the property owners and the University of the Virgin Islands, large sections of the site are still used to raise and breed Senepol cattle, a special hybrid breed that was developed on St. Croix in the early 20th century to withstand its tropical climate. H.R. 3726 would allow for the continuation of Senepol cattle breeding through a provision allowing the lease of lands for the university's cattle operation. The NPS believes that this continued use would contribute to the cultural landscape of the proposed national historic site.

Public sentiment has been overwhelmingly in support of creating a national park unit at Castle Nugent. As part of the special resource study, the NPS conducted public meetings to present management alternatives in June, 2009. The NPS received over 300 comments in favor of establishing a national park unit and only one comment in opposition. A recurring point made in comments was the outstanding opportunity the Castle Nugent site offers to preserve an important remnant of the island's agricultural heritage. Other comments emphasized the site's unobstructed vistas from the hills to the sea as increasingly rare on St. Croix, the many potential low-impact recreational opportunities, the need to continue the breeding of the Senepol cattle, and the importance of protecting the wide variety of habitats and species at Great Pond and at the undeveloped south shore and the offshore reef.

We estimate that the cost to acquire the 2,900 acres of land at Castle Nugent, which are in private ownership, would be $40 to $50 million. Over half of this acreage is owned by a single family whose members have been enthusiastic supporters for preservation of the site.The estimated cost for annual operations and maintenance would be approximately $750,000; the NPS would benefit from administrative efficiencies due to the presence of a NPS operation at nearby Christiansted National Historic Site. Development needs and their costs have not yet been determined.The site's needs for resource protection, visitor services, and other operational needs would be determined through a general management plan, which would cost an estimated $600,000 to $700,000. All funds would be subject to NPS priorities and the availability of appropriations.

We recommend two technical amendments to H.R. 3726:

  • On page 2, line 14, strike "consists" and insert "shall consist".
  • On page 2, lines 19-20, strike "titled '______', numbered ______ , and dated _____" and insert "titled 'Castle Nugent National Historic Site, Proposed Boundary Map', numbered T22/100,447, and dated October 2009".

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared remarks.I would be pleased to answer any questions you or any members of the Subcommittee may have.