Preservation or public use: a Caribbean civics lesson

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By land, Francis Bay is barely accessible. The road that winds along the northwest edge of this jungle-covered Caribbean island would put a roller coaster to shame. Before it ends at Francis Bay, however, it turns to dirt and dissolves into teeth-jarring potholes. Before that, too, it passes Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay, two well-developed beaches where tourists can rent masks and snorkels, buy hot dogs, and take showers. Francis Bay offers none of those amenities. It's simply a long, empty crescent of sand, backed by a mangrove swamp and high, uninhabited hills. It's also the only place on the island where some endangered varieties of sea turtles breed - although even they are scarce, since the anchors of visiting yachts have pulled up much of the sea grass that attracts them.

No wonder, then, that a recent rumor has put some of the islanders into a flutter.

Word is circulating that the National Park Service - which administers two-thirds of the acreage on St. John, including Francis Beach - plans to build a concession stand here. Park Service officials firmly deny any such design. They admit, however, that they are upgrading the road - hoping to make the beach more accessible to tourists. Why? Because, they say, people already go there anyway, parking unsafely along the side of the road and banging the bottoms out of their cars.

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In the context of the world's most pressing problems, a hot-dog stand at Francis Bay looks like pretty small potatoes. Yet the situation here partakes of issues that have global significance. Not only is Francis Bay a testing ground between man and sea turtle. Not only does it display in microcosm the tension between the twin poles of Park Service philosophy - preserving nature on the one hand, and promoting inexpensive recreational opportunities on the other. But it also provides an interesting lesson in civics - one that the 21st century will need to learn well.

That lesson was brought home in a heartfelt comment earlier this month by one of the island's Park Service rangers. Her office, she observed, gets plenty of mail offering suggestions for improvements - like paving the road, for example. ``But,'' she added, ``we don't get many letters saying, `I enjoyed the experience. Don't change anything.'''

That, of course, is an age-old human failing: silence in the face of what we most appreciate and speech only when we have a complaint. It's understandable. And for most of the 20th century, it hasn't prevented the progress of conservation. Some 4 percent of the earth's land area, after all, is already being managed as conservation land. This month, with the opening of Great Basin National Park in Nevada, another 77,000 acres were added in the United States - not to mention the thousands of acres given each year to private land trusts.

But if the estimates of a doubling of the world's population by the year 2050 are correct, then (as the saying goes) we ain't seen nothin' yet. Parklands that now seem a normal part of society's gift to future generations may increasingly come to be seen as unaffordable luxuries. The pressures on park services around the world - to develop rather than to preserve - are bound to grow.

Those pressures won't be easy to resist - not, at least, in those countries where the governmental process is designed to be responsive to the citizenry. Case in point: Francis Bay. When the Park Service gets dozens of requests for a new road, and only a few letters saying, ``Don't change anything,'' it's in a bind. How can it justify a stand-pat position and still claim to be an agency of a representative form of government?

The civics lesson, then, concerns the age-old need for citizen participation - with a twist. In many areas of public life, citizen participation translates into a battle against apathy, inertia, and sameness. It means writing letters and going to meetings in order to promote change. The environmental issues of the future, however, will demand a different sort of activism - a willingness to say, ``Hold the line, keep things as they are, don't spend our children's environmental capital.''

When those voices are more frequently heard, the world's representative governments can more easily stand firmly for preservation.

A Monday column

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