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El Yunque: Puerto Rico’s Pride


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June 7, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Under the protective gaze of the Taino Indian spirit Yuquiyú and known to Puerto Ricans and tourists alike as El Yunque, the Caribbean National Forest is the pride of Puerto Rico and the only tropical rain forest in the United States’ National Forest System.

It is a glistening green paradise encompassing 28,000 acres in the lush Luquillo mountains (where the mythical good spirit Yuquiyú watched over Puerto Rico and its people from his mighty mountain-top throne), dotted with nature-sculpted crags, spraying waterfalls, twisting ferns, wistful wild flowers, and an abundance of exotic plants and trees. Elevations in the Forest vary from 100 feet at the lowest point to 3533 feet at El Toro Peak, one of seven peaks in the Forest that rise to over 3000 feet in altitude.

Visitors to the Forest need not go to the tallest peak, but can take a less-than-one-mile hike to the 3075-foot-high Mount Britton, from which, in addition to looking over much of El Yunque, they can see the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and a large part of the island of Puerto Rico. The convenient location of El Yunque, less than an hour’s drive from San Juan, makes it convenient for visitors – almost one million per year – to come to the Forest to have a picnic, take a guided tour, hike on one of the many marked trails, or just enjoy the magnificent flora and fauna.

The focus of fauna in the Forest is on birds, reptiles and amphibians. There are 77 types of birds, 8 types of lizards, 13 types of coquies (the famous Puerto Rican singing tree frog), and many varieties of fish, shrimp and other aquatic life. There are only a few small, non-poisonous snakes, though the infrequently seen Puerto Rican Boa can grow to a length of over seven feet, and no alligators or large primates such as monkeys or gorillas.

El Yunque is a habitat for primarily small creatures because it is a relatively small rain forest. It is the smallest forest administered by the US National Forest System, but is the most diverse in the system and is the oldest Forest Reserve in the Western Hemisphere. The Forest was created in 1876, when King Alfonso XII of Spain set aside 12,000 cuerdas (approximately 11,000 acres) for perpetual protection. In 1903, the forest was proclaimed the Luquillo Forest Reserve and became part of the US National Forest System, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

The Forest Service in El Yunque now has a dual role of protecting the environment while providing the public the opportunity to experience this majestic miracle of nature. They believe that an environmental education will help provide a better human existence. In Puerto Rico, the starting point of this education is at the newly remodeled and expanded El Portal Tropical Forest Center, the information center and exhibit hall of the Caribbean National Forest, El Yunque.

It is there that one can get the facts. In El Yunque there are 240 native tree species, 23 of them found only in that rain forest; 88 species of rare trees, some of them already centuries old when the Spanish explorers roamed the island 500 years ago; 50 species of native orchids, from finger nail size on up; and 150 species of ferns of every description.

In addition to beautiful photos of the numerous waterfalls and rocky streams in the Forest, rotating displays at El Portal Center might explain the importance of water, not only to the vegetation of the Forest, but also to the people throughout the island.

El Yunque is the wettest area in Puerto Rico, receiving an average of 120 inches of rainfall annually. It is estimated that up to 100 billion gallons of rainwater fall on the Forest annually. The flora can absorb only a small part of that.

Water flowing from the Forest is abundant and provides many benefits to the Puerto Rican population, including water for municipal and domestic use, electrical power generation, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation. Puerto Rico’s Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) operates 12 dams on the Forest, diverting stream water to treatment plants to provide municipal water for domestic and industrial uses. 20% of Puerto Rico’s population depends on water from the Forest and an estimated 14% of the total water yield is used for consumption.

In addition to water management, the Forest Service is deeply concerned about protection of endangered plant and wildlife species. There are eight federally-listed endangered plant species and 30 species of sensitive plants know to exist on the Forest.

In addition to protecting plant life, monitoring efforts are being undertaken to locate and protect critical habitats of native birds of prey such as the Puerto Rican Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Puerto Rican Broad-winged Hawk, which are both on the endangered list.

However, the most serious concern in the winged category is for the Puerto Rican Parrot, which is one of the ten most endangered species of birds in the world. The Taino Indians called it "Higuaca" and its scientific name is Amazona vitatta, but most layman observers just call it beautiful. It is a small, bright green parrot, about a foot long, with blue wing tips, a red forehead, white circles around its eyes, and flesh-colored bill and feet.

The Forest Service reports that "from an island-wide population which numbered several thousand (and possibly well over a million at the time Columbus discovered the island), it dropped to an all-time low of 13 birds in 1975. The population climbed slowly after 1975 to a high of 47 birds in the wild, prior to Hurricane Hugo, but declined to about 23 following the storm. Currently, the wild flock is close to its pre-hurricane population level. Another 79 adult birds are in captivity in the aviaries in the Caribbean National Forest and in the Rio Abajo Forest."

That’s good news for anyone planning to visit the Caribbean National Forest…El Yunque…Puerto Rico’s Pride.

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