Friends of V.I. National Park celebrate 25 years


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It has been 25 years since the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park incorporated to support the community's involvement with the park.

To honor the anniversary, a public reception will be held 5 p.m. Thursday at the National Park Visitor's Center. An exposition featuring photos and accomplishments from the last 25 years will be on view from Thursday to Saturday at the visitor's center.

In the time since the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park was established, the nonprofit has helped by raising money, facilitating programs and finding new and creative ways to get people to enjoy the federally protected park land on St. John.

Friends President Joe Kessler has served at the helm of the organization for half that time and has seen the impact the group has made on the park and the Virgin Islands community.

"It's a pretty momentous occasion going on, an important milestone, the 25th anniversary," Kessler said.

"It was founded by a number of people on St. John who really looked at Friends as a bridge between the park and the community," he said.

In the beginning, the small all-volunteer organization took on a few small projects, such as sponsoring the St. John Folklife Festival.

In the mid-1990s, John Garrison became president of the organization and turned it into a professional operation with paid employees and serious fundraising campaigns, and the Friends began to fund more comprehensive projects and programs for the park.

One of the first big projects was installing boat moorings throughout the park so that vessels would stop tearing up the sea floor with anchors.

It took many years, but the park is now "anchorless," Kessler said.

During a 14-year period, the Friends installed 340 moorings, including 125 storm berth moorings in Hurricane Hole.

Last February, they installed the final 14 moorings, for large vessels 60 to 100 feet long.

"With that, we pretty much declared that project over," Kessler said. "It was a great thing for the environment, less damage from anchors, but a more positive thing for boaters as well. They can anchor much more easily and safely tie up to a mooring. It's a win-win."

The Friends also makes working with students one of its primary missions. The nonprofit offers several summer "sleep away" camps at the V.I. Environmental Research Station for different age groups. The eco-camp program started in 2001, and thousands of youngsters have participated during the years, Kessler said.

The younger children start at the basic eco-camp, while the older children can attend science camp, where they work with the researchers at VIERS, or ranger camp, where they work with the park rangers.

Additionally, the Friends award small grants to teachers who want to purchase supplies or get transportation to help use the park as an outdoor classroom, Kessler said.

"We get about 2,500 school kid visits into the park each year," he said.

"The kids are the future and they are going to be the future stewards of the park and the environment, and we feel it is our mission to help encourage these kids to be good citizens," Kessler said.

The archeology program was started in 1997, providing funding for testing, interns and research on park property.

"We've had significant findings that have really changed the understanding of pre-Columbian history on St. John," Kessler said.

He said researchers have uncovered tens of thousands of artifacts and dozens of prehistoric sites, all of which tell the story of the tiny island.

The last major accomplishment of the Friends organization was the role it played in saving Maho Bay from development. The nonprofit mobilized the community to lobby for the preservation of Maho Bay, allowing the Trust for Public Lands to step in and purchase the property. The land ultimately will be conveyed to the National Park Service.

"We also do a lot of little stuff that goes on every day, from teaching kids to swim to keeping the trails safe and enjoyable," Kessler said.

The Friends reception Thursday is free and open to the public. Cocktails and appetizers will be served. The program will be from 5 to 7 p.m. The reception will be hosted by Friends board members, staff and national park officials, including park superintendent, Brion FitzGerald.

The exposition will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary, the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park store in Mongoose Junction is offering 25 percent off all purchases for members and 10 percent off for non-members through Sunday.

The group is giving a $25 discount on Friends of the Park license plates as well. The plates must be ordered by the end of the year to get the deal.

Thanks to a generous donor, the organization currently is holding a matching gift campaign. The donor has agreed to match any gift to the nonprofit up to $40,000.

For more information go to www.friendsvinp.org or call 779-4940.

"Pretty soon we're going to start working on what's to come, and I think that's going to be really exciting," Kessler said.

- Contact Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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