Barkers National Park: A series of false starts

Preserving undeveloped coastline is one of the reasons Barkers National Park was established. - Photos: Mark Muckenfuss

Just because you say it’s a park does not necessarily make it one.

That is pretty much what Cayman officials have found in the 15 years since they established Barkers National Park, the first area of land so designated on the islands.

Confusion over the actual park boundaries, a lack of a cohesive development plan and poor management have left the peninsula at the northwest tip of North Sound arguably worse off than it was when Prince Edward attended its dedication ceremony in 2003.

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At the time it was established, it was known as a dumping ground for trash, a place for criminal activity and an area with a significant influx of invasive species. Trash remains a major problem in the park area. Crime has decreased. But there have been few improvements in the environmental health of the region or in the once-planned amenities for visitors.

An entrance gate marked with stone masonry and wooden posts no longer bears a sign welcoming visitors and the badly potholed dirt road is not a welcome to anyone.

According to University College of the Cayman Islands President Roy Bodden, a Cayman historian, the Barkers area got its name because people went there in the early part of the 20th century to strip bark from the mangroves. He suspects the material was used in the production of dye. The “barkers” left their name on the peninsula.

Remnants of plastic bags can be seen hanging from mangrove branches in one of a few openings onto North Sound in Barkers National Park’s southern border.

Protecting the area was first proposed in the 1990s. A draft proposal recommended the establishment of Barkers National Park by 2000.

That original proposal said, “The Barkers Peninsula area is ill-suited to conventional real estate development due to its narrowness and the presence of a significant amount of environmentally sensitive mangrove wetland. On the other hand, the area is an outstanding natural recreation area.”

In 2001, the Department of Environment got 25,185 pounds from the British government to investigate the feasibility of Barkers National Park.

Legislation to establish the park was first put forward in 2002 by the then Leader of Government Business McKeeva Bush, who was also minister of the environment at the time. The park, he said in addressing the assembly, would address elements of two vision plans, one for 2008, the other for 2011.

“If this park is established,” Mr. Bush said, “it will form the cornerstone for the implementation of a system of protected areas in Cayman that will enrich the lives of all Caymanians and visitors for generations to come.”

The final designation set aside 261 acres in Barkers, as well as 2,036 marine acres offshore as park area. A newspaper account at the time said Dart had donated six acres of land to the park, as well as 200 acres in the Central Mangrove Wetland, in exchange for future development elsewhere on the island.

Periodic footbridges cross the canals that line the roads in Barkers National Park. Some lead to muddy trails within the brush.

Mr. Bush said his legislation was meant not only as a way to preserve the area, but to protect it from negative impacts.

“It was a neglected area,” Mr. Bush said. “It was a horrible place. Murders took place there.”

It was also a common landing spot for drug boats coming from offshore, he said.

That changed, he said, when the park was established and six park rangers were given the job of cleaning up and maintaining the area. It was not long, he said, before it became family friendly.

“People went up and laid out blankets and had candlelight dinners on the beach,” Mr. Bush said.

He envisioned a series of boardwalks and natural trails winding through the stands of mangroves. He wanted to see campsites and bathing pools.

In June 2011, an agreement between the government and Dart Realty called for Dart to build a new road to Barkers National Park in exchange for land occupied by the Old Barkers Road that abutted Dart property, as well as construction of a future airport connector road.

Neither the Barkers road project nor any of Mr. Bush’s planned improvements ever happened.

Mr. Bush said when he was voted out of office in 2012, the park rangers were eliminated.

That was the same year that the Department of Environment issued a scathing report on the management of Barkers National Park. The report referred to details of a recent government/Dart agreement that were outlined on a website that no longer appears to be active. It said the new agreement was “radically different from that developed in partnership with the public by DoE.”

In essence, the beach areas were being eliminated from the park.

“The majority of the interior and beachfront land traditionally used for recreation has been removed and is slated for private ownership,” the report said. “It is beyond belief that such a scheme would have generated the positive public support enjoyed by the original plan.”

In addition, as far as management of the park, the report said the “current state of affairs is unacceptable.”

Poor ecological maintenance was blamed for failure to remove invasive species, detrimental removal of native vegetation and the failure to curtail illegal sand mining operations. The report also said that rather than removing chairs, tables and other furniture that did not belong in the park, the park rangers were apparently using it for themselves.

Mr. Bush disputed the report’s findings.

“There was no truth to that story,” he said.

Despite the park’s troubled history, Mr. Bush said he is confident it will become what it was meant to be, although he expects Barkers will end up seeing a combination of limited use and developed areas.

“I don’t want to see the same thing on Barkers that I see on Seven Mile Beach,” he said. “At some point, people are going to utilize it. That’s why I made the plan I talked about. I think it will finally develop into that.”

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