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Mark Hardgrove

Mark Hardgrove

My relationship with the US Virgin Islands National Park began when I worked with the National Park Service (NPS) at San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico. In 1996 Hurricane Marilyn struck the US Virgin Islands, devastating homes, stripping the islands of most roofs, all electrical systems and water, leaving residents and NPS employees without much hope. I was asked to serve as the interim Superintendent of the park during the recovery efforts. Baptism by fire was perhaps the best way for me to understand and experience the spirit and kindness that makes up the communities in the Virgin Islands. Together we rebuilt the island, the park and the lives of our employees. Add to that the turquoise waters, white sand beaches and verdant green mountains, and I was smitten. So, in 2007, I was thrilled to become the Superintendent of the Park. I spent the best 5 years of my Park Service career there, until I retired in 2012 and went home to Puerto Rico.

I joined the Board of Directors of Conservation Volunteer International Program in 2013. My first volunteer trip with ConservationVIP® was to Torres del Paine in southern Chile, quite a contrast to tropical islands. But while the intrepid volunteers in Patagonia built trails, I was thinking about how this special conservation organization could help Virgin Islands National Park. Like many other parks, limited budgets had created a backlog of much-needed maintenance.

VINP historical ruins needed volunteer help

Working with NPS and the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, ConservationVIP® launched our first Virgin Islands Volunteer Trip in November 2014. We cleared trails of excess vegetation, opened up scenic viewpoints, built structures to channel excess water from the trail, and cleared historic ruins overgrown by rampant tropical vegetation. In the evenings we returned to our rustic but idyllic lodging at Virgin Islands Ecological Research Station, where we snorkeled or swam in Lameshur Bay, and watched the stars while listening to a chorus of frogs.

Each of our volunteer trips has been unique. While trail maintenance and improvement are part of many of our projects around the world, the Virgin Island routes are special. They are historic cart roads built and used by enslaved people, who were forced to pull carts and plant and harvest sugar cane under very harsh conditions, on the steep slopes in the Virgin Islands. There are ruins of sugar mills and plantation houses built and worked in by enslaved labor. And there are cemeteries and gravesites of enslaved people. We work near these cultural sites with care and respect. There are over 2,000 such cultural sites in the VINP and as you work around them it takes you back in time where, in my opinion, some of spirits still exist and appreciate all we do to respect their memory.

Category 5 Irma headed to Virgin Islands
Category 5 Irma

Our twice-a-year Virgin Islands Volunteer Trips came to an abrupt pause when Hurricane Irma slammed into St. John In September 2017, stripping the island of vegetation, blocking roads and trails, sinking boats, and destroying homes and utility supply systems. Our beautiful VIERS camp was destroyed. The park was closed due to extensive damage and we waited until the basic facilities necessary to safely support volunteer programs could be reconstructed.

Beach stabilization planting
2020 Beach stabilization planting

In February 2020 ConservationVIP was finally able to return to help Virgin Islands National Park. We resumed our trail clean up and repair, cleaned up around ruins, and planted native species. Our new accommodations is the Friends Volunteer Camp located at beautiful Cinnamon Bay, on the North shore of St. John. While the adjacent public campground is closed for renovation, we have the area mostly to ourselves, with regular visits from friendly island deer. Cinnamon Volunteer camp is cool, consisting of a circle of large tents on platforms, with an open kitchen and dining area. At night, we tell stories around the campfire, or walk out to the beach for some of the best viewing of the night sky in the Caribbean.

2020 Volunteers on Peace Hill

Our first trip back to St. John in early 2020 was a blast. Our volunteers are always so special. After our first meeting at camp as the sun went down, we went to work forming our new family and we again demonstrated to each other and the NPS how a group of like-minded individuals can come together and form lasting friendships, working, camping, eating, laughing and by the end of the trip, loving the time we spent together.

Our team all got home safely and happy. Within days, Coronavirus found its way to North America. As we all work through these difficult times, we look forward to working in the Virgin Islands National Park for many years. Our December 2020 trip is full, but we still have space available on our 2021 Virgin Islands Volunteer Trips. I would like to invite you to join ConservationVIP, the Friends Virgin Islands National Park, the NPS, some very special like-minded people and me to have the time of your life in one of the most special places on earth!

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