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National Wildlife Federation Sues Over Hotel Proposal

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says San Miguel Four Seasons Resort has taken steps to address environmental concerns


May 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said that developers of the proposed San Miguel Four Seasons Resort in Luquillo have taken measures to protect the wetlands and wildlife in the area, but the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and local environmental groups aren’t buying it.

The NWF joined local groups in suing Fish & Wildlife in federal court in Washington after the agency issued a biological opinion declaring the hotel project poses no serious threat to the endangered leatherback sea turtles that use the pristine, palm-lined beach as a nesting area.

"They have made significant changes," said Carlos Diaz, assistant field supervisor with Fish & Wildlife. "They have reduced all sorts of impacts."

The suit is the latest salvo in a battle to stop the project, which would consist of a 650-room hotel, a condo-hotel, 1,050 residential units, a 27-hole golf course and golf club, a beach club, public access, and parking for the public access.

Among the changes to which the developers agreed are the use of low-sodium light bulbs near the beaches and the use of vegetation to cover buildings, which would help to block light from the beach. Sea turtles, which return to the beach where they were hatched, are known to avoid nesting on beaches with bright lights. Diaz said the developers also agreed to restrict the beach access of vehicles, whose tracks make it difficult for turtle hatchlings to reach the water.

NWF attorney Randy Sargent said these mitigation measures wouldn’t be enough to protect the turtles. "The fact is that you are going to have 5,000 people on a beach that is currently isolated, and the biological opinion doesn’t talk about an impact of that magnitude," she said. "They [Fish & Wildlife] didn’t analyze all of the things they should have. We aren’t saying the sea turtles will become extinct if the plan goes forward. We are saying that determination hasn’t been made."

Sargent noted Fish & Wildlife’s opinion doesn’t consider a large enough geographical area to adequately determine the ecological impact of the project. She gave the example of biological studies of mountain lions, which routinely take into account hundreds of square miles of the lions’ range and habitat.

"This is another huge problem with the biological opinion [on San Miguel Four Seasons]: It defines the action area only as the boundary of the project itself, when it should take into consideration that turtles nest in other areas such as Culebra," she said. Likewise, the biological opinion doesn’t address the impact on the 3,240-acre Northeastern Ecological Corridor, a swath of land intended by conservationists to protect the entire coastal ecosystem, stretching from the mangroves and beaches of Luquillo to the flanks of the Caribbean National Forest (El Yunque).

Fish & Wildlife issued the biological opinion after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested a finding on the developers’ proposal to fill part of the wetlands, though the corps isn’t bound by the finding. Sargent said the corps would be included as a defendant in the suit if it issues the permit.

The San Miguel Four Seasons project would fill in 4.6 acres of wetlands, but would compensate by restoring or enhancing 16.1 acres of wetlands, said Diaz. He noted the hotel itself would be outside the wetlands and beach area. Additionally, the hotel would have a conservation biologist on staff who would answer to Fish & Wildlife for any variations from the hotel’s conservation plan.

Fish & Wildlife had written numerous letters to various government agencies strongly opposing the project. As recently as December 2003, Diaz wrote the Tourism Co. and provided grounds for the federal agency’s objection, including the harm that would come from closing the mouth of the Pitahaya River and detrimental impacts on the sand dunes and sea turtles’ habitat.

Diaz said Fish & Wildlife changed its position as a result of negotiations with the developers, who have made the necessary design changes.

Local environmental groups are awaiting judgment on an appeal of a suit against the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Co. for selling 640 acres to the developers. A Superior Court had ruled against them Feb. 17.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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