St. Maarten currently lacks terrestrial protected areas, yet the island is home to several areas of remarkable splendour that qualify for the status of protected area. These areas could be made into hillside nature parks because of their sheer natural beauty and the variety of plant life found there.
Back Bay is located on the high-energy east coast of St. Maarten and is circled by hills. The area covers approximately 1 km² (100 ha) and has a number of different owners.
Back Bay has been identified as having a special conservation value as it is one of the few places on St. Maarten where no construction has taken place. It is also home to a number of possible historical sites and geological formations. Back Bay has a beach as well as rocky shores with significant intertidal communities, including mussels, chitons, sea urchins, grazing snails, sea stars, hermit crabs, sea anemones and mosses.
Simpson Bay Lagoon
Simpson Bay Lagoon is a dominant feature of St. Maarten and is one of the largest lagoons in the Lesser Antilles, covering approximately one fifth of the island (1,250 ha.). Its saline water is up to 6 meters (20ft.) deep, and relatively stable.
Simpson Bay Lagoon is located on the southwest coast of St. Maarten, adjacent to the Princess Juliana International Airport. About half of the lagoon lies in the French part of the island. The bay has calm waters most of the year as it faces south and is therefore protected from the northeastern winds.
Simpson Bay used to have the most significant stand of mangroves and seagrass beds on St. Maarten, but coastal developments and hurricanes have removed much of the forest. Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) is most abundant along the water’s edge. Three species of seagrass have been recorded at Simpson Bay Lagoon:
- Manatee Grass (Syringodium filiforme),
- Paddle Grass (Halophila decipiens) and
- Turtle Grass (Thalassia testudinum).
The seagrass and mangrove areas that remain provide a perfect habitat for a wealth of species, including the Upside Down Jellyfish (Cassiopeia frondosa) and gastropods such Queen Conch (Strombus gigas), Common Atlantic Bubble (Bulla striata) and King Venus (Chione paphia). They also are important feeding and nesting grounds for a variety of shorebirds such as herons, plovers and sandpipers.
As one of the largest lagoons in the Caribbean, the Simpson Bay Lagoon provides a large protected boat harbour around which a maritime industry has grown.
The environmental, recreational, and commercial value of the Simpson Bay Lagoon drives a significant portion of St. Maarten’s economy. Most of St. Maarten’s fishermen are based in Simpson Bay. The bay also serves as a landing site for commercial fishing boats that operate offshore on the Saba Bank.
Much development has taken place at Simpson Bay, and the area is now full of hotels, restaurants, shops and casinos. As a result, Simpson Bay Lagoon is extremely polluted with heavy metals, sewage, oil, and other pollutants. The seagrasses in Simpson Bay Lagoon have all but disappeared as a result of pollution, anchoring and eutrophication.
The start of the construction of the Simpson Bay Lagoon Causeway in 2012 has meant the clearing of much of the lagoon’s mangrove forest. To compensate for this loss, thousands of juvenile mangroves have been replanted in the lagoon as well as at other locations on St. Maarten. EPIC’s project “Love the Lagoon” aims to protect and restore the Simpson Bay Lagoon. Education and outreach are used to encourage the community to be good environmental stewards, reduce pollution entering the lagoon, and protect the remaining habitat.
Emilio Wilson Estate
The Emilio Wilson Estate is located on the western side of the road that runs through Cul de Sac valley to St. Peter and covers about 0.9 km² (90 ha.) from the road to the top of Sentry Hill. It has significant cultural and historical values and is the last and best-preserved plantation on the Dutch side of St. Maarten.
The Estate includes remnants of sugar cane plantations (Industry and Golden Rock Plantation) and slavery related buildings. Other areas of cultural importance include Ebenezer, Union Farm, Madame Estate, Belvedere, Bishop Hill slave cemetery, Cul-de-Sac cemetery and Sentry Hill caves. The caves on Sentry Hill were mostly used as shelters during hurricanes.
The Emilio Wilson Estate is one of the very few areas of St. Maarten that has not been developed. It contains areas of high biological value that are undisturbed. Some of St. Maarten’s endemic plant species such as Lidflower (Calyptranthes boldinghii) and Galactia nummelaria can be found on the trails that pass through the estate to the top of Sentry Hill.
The top of Sentry Hill is mostly undisturbed forest covered with hilltop vegetation, including a profusion of bromeliads, ferns, mosses and orchids. The higher parts of the estate are dominated by regionally significant semi-evergreen seasonal forest.
The Emilio Wilson Estate Foundation strives for the protection, conservation and preservation of the natural, cultural and historical heritage of the Emilio Wilson Estate property through the establishment of a terrestrial protected area. The foundation is committed to the preservation and restoration of the historical monuments on the estate, the study of its flora and fauna, the development of sustainable agriculture and aquaculture on the estate as well as educational programmes and a public awareness campaign.