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Forest Service Report Says El Yunque Endangered By Peripheral Development

Recent urban incursions afflict regulated area


March 17, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Urban development in zone-regulated areas on the periphery of Caribbean National Forest (better known as El Yunque) is causing serious damage to the forest’s ecosystem, according to a report by the U.S. Forest Service.

Although a buffer zone was created by a zoning regulation in 1983, the report found urban development has continued on the periphery of the National Forest boundaries either through clandestine development or through variances granted to builders by the Planning Board. "We expected to have a buffer zone where agricultural land surrounded the forest and development was progressive, not a sharp change," said Ariel Lugo, Forest Service supervisor for Puerto Rico.

The regulation zoned the area as predominantly agricultural land, with a lesser area designated as forest land. Nonetheless, a total of 3,521 acres of the 75,288 hectares in the protected area were built on between 1985 and 1995, according to the study. The additional urbanization brought the total urban growth in the regulated zone to 13,256 hectares or 17.6% of the regulated area.

Much of the development has taken place within the limits of an area around the current boundaries of the National Forest, which the Forest Service wants to buy in order to expand El Yunque. The more construction occurring in that area, the more the real-estate values rise and the less likely the Forest Service will be able to acquire the land, said Lugo. "If [the land] gets urbanized, the agency has no possibility of buying it," said Lugo.

Effect of development on forest

The urbanization of areas in the periphery of El Yunque has a direct effect on the ability of the National Forest to sustain the animal life, including many endangered species in the forest, said Lugo. Plants in the lower elevations in the periphery of the forest produce more fruit than those within the forest itself, he said, so the area peripheral to El Yunque comprises an important part of the forest ecosystem. "In the absence of secondary forests on the periphery, Caribbean National Forest can’t sustain the wild animal populations in its interior," said the report. The forest’s climate is also affected by the urbanization, according to the report. Temperatures around the urbanized areas tend to be higher than in forest land. In the forest, hot air rises before cooling and condensing to form clouds. "The consequence is that the urbanization in the periphery of El Yunque contributes to the reduction of rain on its slopes," said the report. "This, in turn, alters the balance of water since there is less runoff for the rivers that supply the population of the region." The lack of forest also guarantees that what rain does fall on the urban areas quickly runs off rather than percolating through root systems creating a greater possibility of flooding and contributing to a loss of fresh water to the sea.

Urbanization also introduces exotic species to the ecosystem, producing a negative impact on the forest. Cats, dogs, and mice prey on birds, amphibians, and reptiles affecting the balance of the ecosystem. "The findings of this study generate greater concern for the fact that the process of urbanization is less reversible than that of deforestation," said the report. "It is easier to replant deforested areas or abandoned agricultural zones than reverting impermeable urban cover to natural vegetative cover."

The study said the regulation creating the buffer zone is failing because of a lack of political will to enforce it. While half of the building in the buffer zone was clandestine, the other half either received approval through the permitting process that granted a variance or was allowed through "simple lotifications," which allow segregation of small parcels of land with the purpose of urbanizing them without having to go through the permitting process. But Planning Board President Ángel Rodríguez disputed that, saying the construction was allowed by "exception" permitted by the regulation. Rodríguez said he invited Forest Service Officials to submit an amendment to the regulation to address their concerns.

The study points to three reasons to justify building in the buffer zone, beginning with the argument that the lands aren’t suitable for agriculture. Lands are rendered useless for agriculture only when building has fragmented them. "What has happened is that upon discarding the regulation, the agricultural zones are fragmented and as a consequence the capacity for these lands to sustain agriculture has been lost," said the study. "That is to say, failing to adequately enforce the regulation diminishes the agricultural potential of the land and not the other way around."

Using construction as a means of solving economic problems is another justification for the building. "The development plan of northeastern Puerto Rico doesn’t consider nor analyze how the economy will be sustained when the nonurbanized area is finished," said the study. "Nor does it foresee where water will come from to supply the development, nor if the current biodiversity will survive in Puerto Rico under its vision of economic development."

Finally, the Planning Board has often argued that not allowing urbanization would constitute a "taking" of private property, violating the rights of the property owner. That issue, however, was resolved by a Puerto Rico Supreme Court decision in 1993, Arenas Procesadas Inc. vs. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which establishes that the state has the right to restrict the use of lands in benefit of society. "It is due to an erroneous notion of ‘taking’ that initiatives of development based on individual proposals, not originating from centralized planning, are permitted," said the study. "The urbanization of the periphery of El Yunque represents the free choice of those property owners who have speculated with lands and act under personal interest without consideration for the affects on the general public or on public natural resources," Lugo said.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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