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ST. THOMAS ­- The National Park Service is temporarily closing about 325 acres of park land in the White Cliffs area of St. John after hikers cut an illegal trail through the park, harming plant life.

"We have 20 authorized park trails that we maintain for the public. This was not one of them," said acting Virgin Islands Park Superintendent Mike Anderson. "You can't cut trails in Yellowstone, or the Everglades or the Great Smoky Mountains, without permission from the park."

The closed area is south of Lameshur Bay Trail, west of Europa Bay Trail and east of Reef Bay Trail-Reef Bay Sugar Mill.

A botanist confirmed that whoever made the trail cut down Eugenia Earhartii shrubs - a plant species currently under evaluation for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

"It is one of two plants that is endemic to St. John. It's found nowhere else in the world," said horticulturist Eleanor Gibney.

Eugenia Earhartii is more commonly known as Earhart's Stopper, a shrub in the Eugenia family.

"Eugenia is a very slow-growing plant, half a millimeter per year," Anderson said. "So the plants that were cut were probably in the neighborhood of 50 to 60 years old."

The park area is to remain closed while the plant habitat undergoes evaluation.

Hikers had been putting flags along the trail as a way of distinguishing it.

Park rangers removed the flags, and in August they put up "area closed" signs.

By December the signs had been torn down and tossed aside, according to the Park Service.

Off-trail hiking has become more popular in recent years, according to Gibney, with tourist websites such as www.trailbandit.org encouraging trail cutting.

"For a plant person such as myself, it's pretty much the equivalent of someone going out on the coral reef and bashing on corals," she said.

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