V.I. acquires land in northwestern St. Croix deemed culturally significant


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ST. CROIX - The V.I. Agriculture Department recently acquired a third parcel of historically important land in St. Croix's remote northwest corner through the federal Forest Legacy Program.

"Our agency is committed to securing additional funds for future land purchases for the protection of historically important and environmentally sensitive areas, as well as toward the preservation of green spaces for the benefit of the entire territory," V.I. Agriculture Commissioner Louis Petersen Jr. said in a prepared statement Government House released announcing the land had been acquired.

The parcel comprises approximately 35 acres at Plot No. 3 Hamm's Bluff, just to the south of the government-owned property currently utilized by the National Guard, according to the press release.

The forested land is considered historically, culturally and environmentally significant.

"This piece of land does have nice forest on it," Marilyn Chakroff, the V.I. Agriculture Department's Forest Stewardship Program coordinator, said in an interview. "This is an area that was important to the maroons, the escaped enslaved Africans who were brought to St. Croix. This is an area where they fled to."

The terrain was rough, providing cover where the maroons could hide out and potentially avoid detection, she said. At the time, that part of the island was also considered a jumping off place on the journey to freedom in Puerto Rico, Chakroff has said.

This piece of land, combined with the two other parcels in the northwest corner of the island that Agriculture acquired under the same federal program in 2012, comprise approximately 112 acres.

"We're looking toward a day when we can actually have a territorial park system," Chakroff said.

The pieces of land the territory acquired at this point are a patchwork and are not contiguous.

In the release, Petersen said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Legacy Program "provides a unique avenue for us to purchase and set aside these important areas of critical concern to the territory."

Chakroff said the V.I. Agriculture Department started working to be part of the program in 2001, but it involves lots of preparatory work.

The territory started getting funding through the program in 2005 - although the money was not used until the first two purchases in 2012, according to Chakroff.

"The main issue we've had is identifying willing sellers," she said. Sometimes, too, an appraisal is done and the offer made based on the appraisal - as required by the program - and the owners decide it's just not enough money.

"We've made offers and been rejected," she said.

The latest property was purchased for $279,000 in federal Forest Legacy Program funding, she said. There was also an in-kind local match.

According to the release, one important aspect of the program is the requirement that the funds awarded have a 25 percent local match. For all purchases to date, the match has been provided through a donation of land from The Nature Conservancy to the Trust for Virgin Islands Lands, Inc., a local land trust organization.

The donated property was on St. John, Chakroff said.

The release said that through the Forest Legacy Program, Agriculture first purchased a 6.5 acre parcel, Estate Spring Garden No. 6, which has strategic importance because Maroon Ridge runs right through it. Officials hope that parcel could become the cornerstone of a Territorial Park in northwestern St. Croix to honor the runaway enslaved Africans in whose memory this area was named.

The other purchases included land in Estates Annaly, Rosehill, and Hamm's Bluff, according to the release.

In the release, Petersen noted the territory's "untapped potential" in the areas of cultural and heritage tourism and said he hopes the land can contribute to economic development for the territory through proper use and management.

The No. 1 priority area in the territory for protection through the Forest Legacy Program is northwestern St. Croix.

Chakroff said that there is still approximately $1.5 million in funding that the territory can use through the program to acquire more qualifying land in northwestern St. Croix.

In the release, Petersen thanked those in his department, including Chakroff, as well as the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Virgin Islands Lands and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry.

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