Jutting like a crooked finger into the North Sound, Barkers peninsula offers a glimpse of what Grand Cayman might have looked like to the first settlers – the verdant island set in blue Caribbean sea, exalted in our national song.
As the old-growth forests and coastal mangroves that once blanketed the island have slowly disappeared amid the westward creep of development, Barkers has remained largely untouched. Now, it is poised to become the latest frontier in the battle between economic development and conservation in the territory.
The unfulfilled dream of a national park at Barkers – discussed for more than two decades – hinges on ongoing negotiations between the Dart group and government, the two major landowners in the area.
Though it is often referred to as a national park and thought of as such by many Caymanians, the majority of the land in Barkers is owned by Dart and is zoned for residential or tourism-oriented development. Around one-third to one-half of the area, in the center of the peninsula, is government-owned and protected under the National Conservation Law.
An application by Handel Whittaker, the owner of Calico Jack’s beach bar on Seven Mile Beach, to remove around 180,000 square feet of sea grass to create a swimming area on a stretch of beach at Barkers sparked a wave of opposition when it was filed last month.
The proposal is linked to a 21-acre parcel of land owned by Dart, which is backing the application, and aims to create a beachside entertainment venue as an alternative to Seven Mile Beach for cruise tourists.
Ken Hydes, vice president of special projects and partnerships at Dart, is leading the project for the landowner and has emerged as its principal spokesman. He says he understands the anxiety about development on Barkers. But, he says, the proposed Calico Jack’s site is well outside the area that had been marked out as a potential national park.
Though the works on the marine side require special permission from Cabinet through a Coastal Works License, the land itself is legally zoned for hotel/tourism development. Nearly all of the remainder of Dart’s holdings on the peninsula is zoned for beach resort/residential or low-density residential development.
Mr. Hydes believes a national park can co-exist alongside some commercial activity at Barkers.
“It is a big peninsula,” he told the Compass, as he drove his 4×4 down the dirt track to the proposed development site one afternoon last month.
The site earmarked for Calico Jack’s is a wide stretch of sandy beach fringed by seagrape trees and Casuarinas. Feral chickens wander amid makeshift wooden structures erected by campers, and sandpipers dive in the shallow coastal water. Dart hopes to remove sea-grass beds from the area and put in a dock to allow for water sports, swimming and snorkeling.
Mr. Hydes acknowledges the strength of feeling the application to develop the site has created.
“There is a sense of ownership of Barkers from people. I see the passion, and I understand that,” he said. “When something has been in that state for so long, it is assumed it will stay that way.
“I have seen a lot of changes in Grand Cayman over the years. The generation coming now is looking and saying, how do we keep some [semblance] of what we had? But that has to happen within the framework of the land ownership.”
He believes Barkers is not currently fulfilling its potential, either as a national park or as a viable tourist destination. He said Dart’s hope for the area was that it could eventually be both.
While it has ambitions to attract cruise tourists to the Calico Jack’s site, he said Dart’s plans for the rest of its land in Barkers were more low key.
“Barkers is back in the national conversation,” he said, “and it is a great opportunity to have a real discussion about how we get to a national park and how do we have compatible amenities in the area, including what has been put forward,” he said.
Mr. Hydes said Dart was “absolutely at the table” with government over the prospect of a partnership to create a 290-acre national park on the rest of Barkers. The developer and the Department of Environment currently have different ideas about what that would entail, but Mr. Hydes said he was confident they could come to an agreement.
“Whatever takes place in this area, and a large part of that is going to be a national park, has yet to be defined,” he said. “That is where the discussions are taking place. We are not there yet as to how this is going to work.”
Barkers National Park
Officials at the Department of Environment have been pursuing the dream of a genuine national park at Barkers for more than 20 years.
Poring over maps, images and plans at a boardroom at the department’s George Town headquarters, Deputy Director Tim Austin recalled discussions over the size and scope of the park dating back to the late ‘90s.
One undated paper from that period sets the goal of ensuring that the “Barkers National Park becomes a reality before the year 2000.” Nearly two decades later, that vision has yet to be fulfilled.
A period of public consultation in the early 2000s led to then Leader of Government Business McKeeva Bush announcing plans for the park in the Legislative Assembly. An official dedication was later held during the visit of Prince Edward.
The boundaries of the proposed park, at that time, spread from just west of Sea Pond, around half-a-mile down the dirt track that leads from Pappagallo restaurant into the peninsula to the end of Barkers.
Mr. Austin said there was substantial buy-in both from the public and from landowners at the time, who indicated that the vision was not at odds with their plans.
Government has moved some way toward achieving a genuine national park, acquiring about one-third to one-half of the land – including a large L-shaped parcel in the center of the peninsula that has been designated as a protected area under the National Conservation Law. That means there will be some conservation management in that area and it will be protected from development and other threats in perpetuity. But that chunk of land alone is not sufficient to match the original goals of the national park plan.
Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the DoE, said the department’s vision remains the same as it was in 2002 – an unspoiled natural area covering the head of Barkers and incorporating Barkers beach and Sea Pond.
She said the plan involved some low-key infrastructure to support camping, concessions for kayaking and other low-impact water sports, as well as hiking and birding and some protection for native flora and fauna.
Fulfilling that dream with the land that government currently owns is simply not feasible.
Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said, “It does not include any beach land for example. All that is in private ownership. We will have to have active management of that area, but we were hoping it would be in the overall context of the park. Even Sea Pond [where the dedication plaque is located] is largely in Dart ownership.”
She said most people would expect the pond, Barkers Beach, and the coastal land where many people camp would be included in any national park.
“We need to have new discussions with … Dart in terms of what is possible, given their ownership of the remaining land in the park,” she added.
“We have to talk to them about a conservation agreement where they retain ownership, or potentially a straight purchase of the land.”
She acknowledged the latter approach would be costly but said that is what the Environmental Protection Fund was established for. There is no scope within the law for compulsory purchase, so any agreement is dependent on Dart’s involvement.
As far as a collaboration goes, the two parties still have markedly different visions for the park.
“We have had discussions with them about what a management plan for the park might look like. We are aware that they have slightly different ideas,” said Ms. Ebanks-Petrie.
Mr. Hydes acknowledges that Dart retains some ambition for ecotourism development within the boundaries of the proposed park but he said this would be low-impact. He said national parks elsewhere in the world often include some form of accommodation.
He believes the key is to develop a conservation management plan that allows for different land uses within the park, while maintaining access for the people. He insisted Dart was keen to work with government to create something that works for both parties.
“There is scope in the law for private landowners to enter into an agreement with government for a protected area. We are totally at the table and willing to make this a reality,” he added.
‘I believe we can coexist’
Amid differing interpretations of the shape and form a national park might take, politicians may be called on to adjudicate what is in the best interests of the country.
Minister for Planning and Infrastructure Joey Hew said the reality of the situation was that much of the land on Barkers was not owned by government. He said it would be difficult to prevent development in these circumstances.
“If I owned property, I would be pretty upset if government told me I couldn’t do anything with it, when I bought it with the proper zoning,” he acknowledged.
Mr. Hew said government had been shown some of Dart’s plans for the area around the new Calico Jack’s site and felt the development had potential.
“There has been a lot of pressure on the government to find suitable activities for cruise ship passengers in particular, and we saw some drawings of what looks like a well-developed entertainment area for that,” he said. “It is zoned for that and the property is owned by them …. I believe we can co-exist and it will help us draw customers for the park and actually assist us in maintaining that area.”
He said the dock element of the application was something that government would have to consider through the usual coastal works process.
In general terms, he said he was hopeful that Dart and government could work together for the betterment of the wider Barkers area, and believes some commercial development can live alongside a national park.
Ideally, he said, the park would incorporate the saltwater pond and some beach area, and involve charging concessions for the fly fishing, kiteboarding and other businesses that use the area, in order to keep it free for all to use.
Neighbors weigh in
For the businesses that use the park on a regular basis, the prospect of development is a double-edged sword. While some would welcome the potential for increased tourism, others warn against spoiling the natural atmosphere that makes Barkers special.
Paul Rivers, who runs Spirit of the West horseback riding tours in the area, is part of a group opposing the Coastal Works Application. He believes the area should remain untouched from development.
“Barkers is a great escape from the stresses of island life,” he said.
“People come up here for a little retreat. That is how it should remain for everyone. The tourists want to see Barkers in its natural state; not concrete and artificial like Seven Mile Beach.”
He believes Dart’s project would just be the first step in the eventual commercialization and development of the entire Barkers area. Mr. Rivers is among the more than 2,500 people who have signed an online petition opposing the coastal works application, and is part of a new group called “Save Barkers Beach” that has emerged.
Mr. Rivers said the land ownership and zoning were barriers that could be surmounted with the right amount of political will.
“When it comes to bars, restaurants and water sports and abuse of the environment, that is a total no-no in my book,” he said.
“I have been coming to Barkers since 1974. I want to see the marine environment, especially, protected so that my kids can enjoy the same things.”
He said Barkers, with its natural coastline, shallow waters and prevailing wind and sea conditions could never be another Seven Mile Beach.
“Why would you want it to be? Tourists want to see Barkers in its natural state,” he added.
Jhon Mora, who runs Kitesurf Cayman from a beach inside the proposed boundaries of the park, believes Barkers has potential to grow, without damaging its unique appeal.
“I think it would work for some ecotourism. Maybe the tourists could come in the park for birdwatching or eco lodge, fly fishing, kiteboarding, but not a concrete jungle.”
He said the marl track needs some “TLC” as more tourists begin to use the park, but feels it would be a shame to put a concrete road through the peninsula.
“If it is managed in a good way, with an eco-vision,” he said, “I think good things can be done in the park and attract a different kind of tourist.”