Friday, January 18, 2013

Biodiversity Law In Paradise (1/18/2013)

Up well before dawn, the class sped to Red Hook, on the east end of Saint Thomas, to catch the first ferry to the island of Saint John.  Our destination was Reef Bay Trail in the center of the Virgin Islands National Park, which is one of the premier nature reserves in the Caribbean.  The day began with rain, but gradually cleared.  By the time we reached the trailhead, and began our steep descent, the tropical sun was beaming down on us with full force.

The class immediately noticed a forest community distinct from any of the other sites they had visited in the U.S. or British Virgin Islands.  There were large, mature trees (e.g., Bay Rum, Genip, Turpentine, Kapok) and a continuous canopy of leaves that allowed little sun to reach the ground.  Predictably, the plants that grow on the ground disproportionately have gigantic leaves, useful for absorbing any sunlight not blocked by the canopy.  The diversity of organisms adjacent to the trail is stunning, especially compared to other locations visited earlier this week, including Jost van Dyke, Sandy Cay, Saint Thomas, and even the unprotected portions of Saint John.

Several times, the class was surprised to notice rapid ecological transitions over the space of several meters, with marked changes in humidity, sunlight penetration, and diversity of vegetation.  Equally remarkable was the relative abundance of standing fresh water, a rare and valuable resource throughout the Virgin Islands.

Our hike added several organisms to our running tally of species richness.  These include Blue Crabs, bats, Brown Rats, tiny tree frogs, and Anolis pulchellus, cristatellus, and occultus.  The rats were especially exciting because, at first glance, they appeared to be hutias, the native rodent of the the Virgin Islands.

Now that the class has visited dry sclerophyll forest, seasonally wet rainforest, heavily disturbed areas, and relatively pristine areas, it has begun to compare and contrast these ecosystems.  The rainforest protected within the V.I. National Park is highly biodiverse compared with the other ecosystems we have visited.  It demands rigorous protection within the National Park system, and, we hope, this is what it will continue to receive, even as the Park Service's budget continues its starvation diet and demands for uses of the land other than conservation mount.

Biodiversity law contributes several key tools for the conservation of highly biodiverse areas such as the rainforested watershed of Reef Bay.  Here are a few examples.  The federal Endangered Species Act ("ESA") may mandate that critical habitat for a species be protected from development and that no one may "take" or harrass members of that species.  The National Environmental Planning Act ("NEPA") may force those hoping to develop in a biodiverse area to consider the impacts of such action, as well as to contemplate what alternative actions might be available.  And, the legal frameworks that creates and protects national parks and national marine monuments explicitly set aside sizable terrestrial and marine areas for their natural beauty and the biodiversity they contain, and marry these laudable goals with strong enforcement efforts.  The class jumped at the chance to explore the results of these biodiversity law.