A botanist who has made American Samoa his second home for more than a decade is going to Washington, D.C., next week with a flying fox and two high chiefs to lobby for a national park in the nation's only paleotropical rain forest.
"We have a stated national policy of conserving tropical rain forests," said Paul Cox, a Brigham Young University associate professor. Creation of a rain forest national park "gives us a way of setting an example and showing our resolve. It would be a very important signal to other countries."Legislation proposed by Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., would establish a national park on 3,000 acres on the island of Tutuila and 7,000 acres on Ta'u, in the U.S. territory 2,600 miles south of Hawaii.
The National Park Service would be given a 50-year lease on the land and Samoans would participate in managing it.
Cox, who did his doctoral dissertation at Harvard on the Samoan rain forest, said the lush forest is like a crown jewel in native Samoan culture, weaved into legends and the source of plants used in folk medicines.
It is also the home of the flying fox, a bat-like creature that glides on a 4-foot wingspan and feeds on fruit and flower nectar. The fox is "like a national symbol to Samoans; like our bald eagle is to us," he said.
But the Samoan flying fox population has been decimated by disappearing habitat and hunters who trap and sell the animals as a culinary delicacy.
"From 1981 to 1986, 17,000 flying foxes were exported commercially to Guam and Saipan" where, says Cox, they sell for about $25 apiece. Only 100 to 500 of the creatures remain.
Cox plans to take one of the foxes, an 8-week-old orphan, with him when he testifies Thursday in support of Vento's bill before the House Interior Committee's National Park Subcommittee.
Other scheduled witnesses include Somoan Gov. A.P. Lutali, Rep. FoFo I.S. Sunia, D-Samoa, and two high chiefs from the territory, one of them tatooed "from his chest to his knees," Cox said.
"It's a priceless opportunity," Cox said of the legislation. "We don't have anything like it in the national park system. The only paleotropic (old world) rain forest under United States control is this one in American Samoa. And this would be the first and only national park, to my knowledge, containing a tropical rain forest and coral reefs."