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The Miami Herald
U.S. Interior Offers Deal On Vieques
By Nancy San Martin
June 8, 2002
After more than half a century of being denied access to a portion of land on the small island of Vieques, Puerto Rico could soon have shared control of 3,100 acres relinquished by the U.S. Navy last year.
The land on the western side of Vieques was handed over to the U.S. Department of Interior as part of an agreement reached between the White House and Puerto Rico to help quell rising tension over the Navys use of Vieques for war training exercises.
The offer of joint jurisdiction came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the Department of Interior. It is being viewed as a positive step toward reconciliation between Puerto Rico and the federal government, which have been locking heads for more than two years.
"Now Puerto Rico has a say with what to do with the land," Juan R. Fernandez, commissioner of Vieques, said Friday. "We can direct the use to promote the kind of tourism we want for Vieques. In due time, we would like the land to be completely in the hands of Puerto Rico."
Plans call for establishing a national park within the lush, uncultivated land traversed by several lagoons. The park would make room for nature trails, kayaking and limited fishing, Fernandez said.
Puerto Ricos attorney-general is expected to travel top Washington next month, to work out details with federal authorities.
The proposal for shared control would give federal and Puerto Rican officers the authority to enforce conservation laws in the area.
The Fish and Wildlife Service maintains joint jurisdiction with most states that have national wildlife refuges, said Christine Fustis, a spokeswoman.
The Navy has used the tiny island off the coast of the U.S. commonwealth for six decades. A 900-acre firing range on the eastern side of Vieques remains under navy control and is used for air and ground military drills. However, president Bush has said the navy will leave by May 2003.
In addition to the 3,100 acres transferred to the department of the Interior last year, the Navy also handed over another 3,000 acres to the municipality of Vieques,
At least 17 sites on both properties have ben identified for possible contamination caused by military activity.
The contamination sites vary from gasoline spills to a 50-acre burn and detonation pit used to get rid of expired ammunition, said Christopher penny, the navys environmental project coordinator for Vieques.
Investigations thus far have determined that the contamination at the various sites is low-risk, Penny said. Clean-up efforts underway will take two to five years to complete.
"Its very pristine property," Penny said of the 3,100 acres. "As long as the area is respected and protected and not overcome with tourism, it would be safe environmentally. I would be more concerned with damage to the ecosystem" caused by tourism.
Opposition to the Navys bombing exercises grew after an April 1999 accident in which two off-target bombs killed a civilian guard at the range.
The Navy began dropping dummy bombs, which contain no explosives, after the civilian guards death, but residents allege health and environmental problems from the past use of live ordinance.
Protests have become less rancorous since Sept. 11, but they continue, and hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested for trespassing in an effort to disrupt exercises.