(CNS): The Barkers National Park, which has long been earmarked as a possible protected area, is on the list of proposed areas that the National Conservation Council considers a priority area for legal protection, but it is not without its challenges. Government acquired most of the land in the popular and still relatively unspoiled area of West Bay for the purposes of establishing a park long before the passage of the National Conservation Law. However, it was never formally protected and a central chunk of the land has since been acquired by a major investor.
While it is likely to be a popular choice with the public from the first six of potential areas that the NCC has proposed as areas worthy or in need of conservation, a large and critical part of the park is in private hands. It is understood that one of the Dart Group’s web of companies owns a significant slice of beachfront property in the centre of the overall area that was originally earmarked to be a national park.
The Department of Environment, which has posted a detailed document about the park, said there were many important at-risk species of flora and fauna in Barkers that are in need of protection, including the rare indigenous pygmy blue butterfly, which is very habitat-specific and depends on the saltwort marshes and the glasswort that grows in the area.
But experts have identified some significant challenges to conservation in the area, including invasive green iguanas, which are present in the Barkers area and pose extremely serious threats to the natural ecosystems. The Mosquito Research and Control Unit’s dyke roads in the area also provide easy access for other alien species, including feral cats, roaming dogs, and invasive plants.
The invasive Casuarina equisetifolia, or Australian Pine, has already got a grip in the park in the man-modified areas, and experts believe there will need to be an eradication project to remove the trees and keep them at bay, with annual seedling removal for several years.
The DoE has also pointed out that as the pygmy blue butterfly depends on a grasswort, which is scarce and fragile, special measures will need to be taken to protect the plant in the park’s management plan. Give that it is vulnerable to trampling by humans and horses, which are all using Barkers, the grasswort must be mapped in detail and a plan devised to protect it from physical disturbance.
“Management of the Barkers National Park as a holistic entity is liable to be complex because it involves a variety of stakeholders, including established nature tourism businesses, a majority landowner, the Mosquito Research and Control Unit, and currently un-managed use by the general public,” the DoE warned in its consultation document about the proposal to make Barkers a legally protected area.
They also point out that the original vision for the park has been undermined as its realization now depends primarily on a cooperative agreement “with the private company which owns almost all the area of the proposed Park” that is not crown, or government-owned, land. The DoE is hopeful that the landowner will consider a land management plan, but if the islands largest developer and investor does not agree, a less comprehensive management plan and a reduced concept for the park will be needed.
Despite the challenges, the DoE said it believes it is feasible to protect the area and create a national park because it is such an important habitat. The area is not just ecologically important, it is also a place of cultural importance. Barkers has a long history of public recreational activity, such as fishing, snorkelling and birdwatching, and is valued by the residents of West Bay. Easter camping in Barkers is a culturally important annual tradition.
The Barkers beach ridge supports one of the last substantial coastal sand forests remaining in Grand Cayman, with a diversity of tree species, including ironwood, bull thatch, broadleaf, silver thatch, washwood and mahogany, with an understory of cocoplum and other shrubs. A cerion land snail endemic to Grand Cayman is associated with the forest, and the interior of the Barkers Peninsula is wetland, supporting several distinct mangrove communities. The ponds in the area are valuable for water birds, the DoE said, and the shallow water is an important shark nursery.
Protection of Barkers will safeguard mangrove needed to maintain mangrove nutrient flows, essential to the productivity of North Sound but which have suffered extensive loss on the western side of the island. Protecting Barkers could also help in the recovery of the pygmy blue butterfly population.
See the full consultation document here.