This article is part of HWO’s series on The Political Environment. The series explores how environmental change has been created and contested in the past, and asks how this history might widen the scope of our political imagination in response to global ecological crisis today. You can read an introduction to the series here.
For most Americans enamoured by the outdoors, the establishment of the 29th US National Park marked a grand occasion steeped in national pride and dressed in some of the best of what nature offered. Its location on an ‘unspoiled Caribbean island’ with ‘palm-fringed tropical beaches and near-perfect climate’ made the Virgin Islands National Park a choice addition to the United States’ collection of picturesque public lands. However, what many nature enthusiasts had expected to be the smooth recital of a progressivist tale of environmental care and stewardship quickly turned into a harbinger of some of America’s most unresolved problems of possession.
The sleepy, rural island of St. John, where the park would be located, was the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI). As an unincorporated US territory, the USVI is home to inhabitants who possess an inferior set of political rights compared to those of fellow Americans living in the continental United States. After purchasing the islands from Denmark in 1917, it took the United States government an entire decade to grant the largely African-descended population American citizenship. Even then, Virgin Islanders remained unable to elect the President of the United States or have a voting delegate in Congress. Administrators of the Department of Interior and the US National Park Service, as well as other conservation activists, believed they could devise a cutting-edge environmental programme on St. John. The Afro-Caribbean inhabitants of the island, however, would soon see the park and what accompanied it as just another episode of a larger US project of empire.
With a few exceptions, most of the individuals involved in founding the Virgin Islands National Park were white continental American men. Chief architect among them was none other than conservationist Laurance S. Rockefeller, grandson of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.—America’s first billionaire. With Laurance Rockefeller at the helm, advocates for the Virgin Islands National Park imagined a chance to do more than simply advance the National Park Service’s mission. In St. John, Rockefeller and his associates discovered the perfect opportunity to align two models long-viewed as incompatible: commerce and conservation.
Prior to arriving on St. John, Rockefeller had participated in numerous conservation projects on the mainland. The most ambitious was the establishment of Grand Teton National Park in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in cooperation with his brothers and father. St. John, however, provided Rockefeller the occasion to independently undertake his own environmental project through his non-profit conservation organisation Jackson Hole Preserve Inc. At the time of his visit, the 19 square miles that made up the island were virtually without electric power, fresh water, or paved roads. Charmed by the small island’s quaintness and seemingly naive Afro-Caribbean population, Rockefeller began to envisage an entirely new future for St. John. Being a ‘little-known’ place meant that the island would be an idyllic location for high-profile American and European guests with lofty aspirations of remote rest and relaxation.
St. John’s became one of the first islands to host an ecotourism programme, nearly three decades before it would gain popularity more widely in the Caribbean. By the end of 1952, just months after Rockefeller’s initial trip to St. John, his luxury hotel brand, RockResorts, purchased the Caneel Bay Plantation Resort. No sooner than Rockefeller purchased Caneel, did he acquire over 5,000 acres of land to be donated to the US federal government for the formation of the national park. With synchronised openings on 1 December 1956, the co-establishment of the renovated Caneel Bay Resort and the brand-new Virgin Islands National Park (VINP) marked a new era in St. John. In his address at the park’s dedication ceremony, Rockefeller described what this new era would look like: ‘Indeed, the travel and recreation potential of the Virgin Islands—their foremost industry—will mean continued economic growth in the years ahead, and this means new opportunities for everyone.’ The transition appeared simple: the once agrarian-based community would now become a booming tourism-based economy. Yet, the swift and sudden change in life on the island brought on by the celebrity of the Rockefeller eco-luxury programme left many native St. Johnians feeling alienated in their own home. What had originally been pitched as a collective good for the island community soon became an emblem of St. Johninans’ political fate as members of a US colony. For many locals, Rockefeller’s eco-venture codified a perpetuation of their political disenfranchisement and circumscribed U.S. citizenship rather than alleviated it.
At the time of VINP’s founding, the President of the United States was still appointing governors to preside over the US Virgin Islands. It wasn’t until 1970 that the first popular election took place in the territory. Rockefeller and his associates had the ears of the Department of Interior Secretary, the director of the US National Park Service, and even of President Eisenhower when making their case for establishing the park in 1956. By contrast, St. Johnians had only the devices of free speech and the capacity to organize to contest the park’s devastating impact on their lives.
Just two years after the National Park’s founding, St. John native Senator Theovald Moorehead described its deleterious impact on the native Afro-Caribbean population, in a Virgin Islands Daily News editorial post entitled ‘Exploitation, 1958 Style’. To Moorehead, the park’s founders were patronising men who had deludedly believed they had created a benevolent environmental programme to save paradise. Moorehead’s essay exposes the conditions of a people who lacked the political clout and representation of those who deemed their island home worthy of preservation and tourist consumption. According to Moorehead, native islanders like himself were nothing more than afterthoughts in the venture, pointing to a feature tragically endemic of the national park establishment process: the erasure of native people. Indeed, the very conception of the national park programme necessitated the marginalization of various Native American communities. Such a theme has only been furthered and further complicated by the US construct of overseas territories.
St. Johnians’ status as unincorporated US subjects meant that the Department of Interior – responsible for managing the affairs of US territories as well as national parks – could have the final say on what happened on their island. According to a 1963 letter written by the St. John Protective League, a local organization created in response to the new park, officials of the Department of Interior and National Park Service had colluded with Rockefeller and his associates to discreetly introduce a bill to authorise the condemnation of land still privately-owned within the park’s boundaries. Park advocates had promised to ‘protect and maintain the vested interests of residents of St. John’, yet they had failed to include inholding landowners in drafting this legislation. However, after acquiring a remarkable 700 signatures from a population of 925 residents, members of the St. John Protective League were able to successfully convince Congressional legislators to modify the proposed bill to exclude condemnation as an option for acquiring park land. Unfortunately, this was not the last time St. Johnians had to fight against the park apparatus.
By initiating St. John’s most extensive eco-luxury venture, Rockefeller set a precedent for the kind of people and programmes that would come to St. John in the future. Unable to constructively figure native St. Johnians into the Caneel-VINP venture, ecotourism advocates instead depicted them as incompetent and unauthoritative colonial subjects. In doing so, they encouraged future continental entrepreneurs to stake claim to the island as their own personal paradise. The conservationist imaginary that originally rendered St. John as an unspoiled land in need of saving also rendered the island and its subjects as perpetually consumable. As a result, exploitation and protection have become indistinguishable activities on an island where the ‘enjoyment’ and ‘inspiration’ experienced by mobile foreign visitors necessitates the invisibility of native inhabitants.
Most recently, native St. Johnians have battled with white transplants committed to ‘saving paradise’ after the devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Able to access political channels unavailable to native Black islanders, these new arrivals have regularly weaponised their continental affiliations against native St. Johnians. Many remain convinced that their own ideas for how the island’s landscape should be recovered are superior to those of the local people. For example, rather than turn the now-ruined Caneel Bay Resort into a historically-framed local cooperative, as some locals have suggested, mainland corporatists have instead advocated for a revamped hotel campus. Some have even rejected the idea of using the destruction of the last remaining public school on the island as an opportunity to build the long-sought-after K-12 learning facility on the island. Once again, the management of the island’s environment is presented as a decision best made by white continental Americans rather than by local Afro-Caribbean inhabitants.
On St. John, an eco-tourism project foundationally concerned with the preservation of a romanticized island space not only reveals the predatory and colonial nature of American conservation, but also America’s profoundly current problems of possession of overseas territories. As inhabitants of an island paradise owned by the US, Virgin Islanders continue to be regarded as facilitators of ecotourists’ enjoyment, inspiration, and relaxation rather than as full, autonomous citizens. The US National Park Service treats the island as one of the ‘nation’s playgrounds’, encouraging white visitors to freely move through and stake claim to spaces like St. John, while insisting on the erasure of native people. Now occupying over two-thirds of the island’s land, the Virgin Islands National Park (and the territorial tourism model that supports it) continues to restrict the spatial, economic, and political freedom of native Black inhabitants. This indicates how climate and environmental injustice signify much more than just the disproportionate way that environmental dangers threaten vulnerable communities. As is the case with St. John, environmental injustice testifies to the dangers of conservationist movements that privilege the agendas of white male capitalists and amplify the exploitation of non-white and politically disenfranchised peoples.