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Protection as wilderness area sought for part of El Yunque

Resident Commissioner seeks to protect 10,000 acres


April 28, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño presented a bill to the U.S. Congress seeking protection for 10,000 acres of Caribbean National Forest (El Yunque) as a wilderness area.

"This bill is of great importance for the protection of our natural resources in the eastern area and will contribute enormously to preserving, not only various species in danger of extinction, but also the indigenous flora," said Fortuño in a statement. As member of the Natural Resources Commission, Fortuño will actively participate in public hearings over the issue on May 11.

The 10,000 acres of land, located on the vulnerable western flank of the National Forest facing the rapidly developing urban areas, would be designated as a wilderness area under the Wilderness Act of 1964. "It is the side that is facing urban sprawl and needs the most rigorous protection," said Caribbean National Forest Supervisor Pablo Cruz. Cruz said designation of the land as a wilderness area would protect it from development in perpetuity. Currently, the land is protected only by the Forest Service’s land management plan. "It doesn’t have much teeth," said Cruz. "There could be a change in administration and there could be development by changing the land management plan."

The land comprises about one-third of the National Forest. The other two-thirds of the forest lying to the east has additional protection from development in the designation of Natural Research Areas. "We didn’t have to duplicate the protection by designating these areas wilderness," said Cruz.

In the last U.S. Congress, El Yunque’s streams and rivers were designated Wild & Scenic Rivers. An attempt to have the wilderness designation made during the last administration didn’t prosper because of Congress’ workload, said Cruz.

The Forest Service also has a land acquisition program that envisions buying 6,000 acres of land around the entire periphery of the existing forest boundary. The purpose of the acquisition would be to better protect the watersheds of rivers flowing from the National Forest. However, Cruz said he didn’t foresee the purchase of the land given that the Bush administration has stated a policy of not acquiring further federal land. Also, the development in the vicinity has driven up the price of land in the area, making the purchase of the land all the more unlikely. An acre of land in the area costs around $7,000, he said. El Yunque’s ecosystem extends well outside of the national forest’s boundaries, and its health depends on the impact of human activity in those areas, explained Cruz.

The Forest Service is doing what it can to protect areas on the periphery of the forest. "We are trying to influence private owners to do the right thing and not deforest, so that we don’t have siltation of rivers and flooding and the other problems that go along with it," said Cruz.

Three weeks ago, Cruz sent a letter to Planning Board President Ángel Rodríguez suggesting different language be applied to zoning regulations that currently allow construction in the periphery of the National Forest by use of variances. If adopted by the Planning Board, the language would make variances more rare. Most of the land in the periphery of the forest is zoned as agricultural land in order to create a buffer between El Yunque and urban development. The Forest Service maintains that the Planning Board has used variances too liberally, contrary to the spirit of the 1983 zoning regulation that created the agricultural buffer.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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