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El Yunque Under Siege Worth Protecting
Island's Rainforest Under Siege
As Puerto Rico's Urban Sprawl Grows, Environmental Protections Falter
By MATTHEW HAY BROWN, Courant Staff Writer
25 April 2005
CARIBBEAN NATIONAL FOREST, Puerto Rico -- Its name comes from the Taino word for "The White Land," the cloud forest where the ancient Indians came to worship their gods.
Little changed since Columbus first sighted the island. It contains the largest remaining spread of primary-growth foliage on the island, a chatter-filled home to the endangered Puerto Rican parrot and the Puerto Rican boa, the beloved coqui tree frog, and dozens of other plant and animal species.
But today, federal officials say, El Yunque is under siege.
Urban sprawl in this rapidly growing U.S. territory of 3.9 million is encroaching on the greenbelt that was supposed to protect the 28,000-acre Caribbean National Forest, bringing with it commercial businesses and housing projects, roads and parking lots to the foothills of the Sierra de Luquillo mountains.
Officials say such development is threatening rainfall in El Yunque, a source of water for 20 percent of the island population. It's introducing alien species to compete with native plants and animals, they say, and marring the once-pristine vistas that draw nearly 1 million visitors annually.
"We have regulations, but the regulations are not being observed," says Ariel Lugo, director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, a unit of the U.S. Forest Service based in San Juan. "The urge for development, for profit and economic activity is its own agenda."
Anxiety about El Yunque reflects a larger and growing tension in Puerto Rico. Per-capita income that is less than half that of the U.S. mainland and double-digit unemployment have spurred rapid industrial expansion here in the past half-century. But as natural resources and green spaces here grow scarce, that growth is running into a nascent environmental movement.
"Everyone is an environmentalist at heart," says Patricia Burke, chairwoman of a new island chapter of the Sierra Club that opened here earlier this year. "People do want to improve the environment and are conscious of the fact that something must be done."
The island Legislature established a greenbelt of agricultural lands to surround the Caribbean National Forest almost 30 years ago. But according to a new report co-authored by Lugo, the consistent approval of variances by government permitting agencies has allowed new construction in most of the 9,300-acre buffer zone.
That report, issued by the U.S. Forest Service, has provoked an outcry here. In San Juan last month, university students dressed as trees, turtles, fish and birds demonstrated outside the governor's mansion for an end to construction around El Yunque.
"Puerto Rico is an island, but the commonwealth government is approaching planning as if it were a continent," says Pablo Cruz, forest supervisor of the Caribbean National Forest. "As if these were unlimited resources."
PROTECTING THE FOREST
Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila has declined to halt any of the projects now under construction, but he has instructed the island Planning Board to ensure that it is protecting El Yunque.
"I understand that we have some regulations," he says. "So it's a matter of, No. 1, reviewing the regulations, and No. 2, whether we really are following them."
As the island delegate to Congress, Acevedo Vila led passage of legislation extending Wild and Scenic River protection to the Rio Mameyes in El Yunque. Cruz, the forest supervisor, expresses cautious optimism about the new governor's commitment to the rainforest.
"We usually get cooperation from the top brass," says Cruz, who has worked at the Caribbean National Forest for 13 years. "It's the agencies below that are harder to get in line."
BACK IN TIME
To hike through El Yunque, 20 miles east of San Juan on the north coast of Puerto Rico, is to stroll back into time, to the island as it was before Spanish settlement. In the cool mists of the cloud forest, the Taino believed the benevolent spirit Yokahu kept watch over the island they called Boriken.
The tall, white-trunked palo colorado tree still spreads a lush canopy over a cacophonous community of parrots and bats, hawks and lizards.
This was the heritage that the Legislature wanted to preserve when it directed that the old sugar-cane fields in the seven communities surrounding El Yunque be maintained for agricultural use only. But according to the Forest Service report, those regulations have been ineffective.
From 1936 to 1995, the period studied in the report, forest coverage in the greenbelt did increase by 92 percent. But urban development in the same area increased by more than 2,100 percent.
That development has created heat islands, Lugo says, decreasing rainfall in the periphery of the rain forest. It has introduced non-native animals, from iguanas and mongooses to stray cats and dogs, and plants including impatiens and kudzu, to compete with native species for water, food and shelter. And it has brought more human pressure on El Yunque, visible in the increasing amount of garbage left in the reserve.
"The planning board and other government agencies don't understand their roles," Lugo says. "They think they're permitting agencies, not planning agencies. The mentality is that permits have to be granted to keep the economy developing.
"What they're not taking into account is the consequences of what is happening. You build an urbanization, the population is left with traffic, more demand on services, law-enforcement nightmares. Where the quality of life is going to hell, people don't understand it's a result of urban sprawl."
May 2, 2005
The April 25 article about the Caribbean National Forest, "Tropical forest under siege in Puerto Rico," noted the concern over rapidly increasing development in the greenbelt surrounding the forest and the calls to stem some of that sprawl to protect this amazingly beautiful and fragile forest.
Citizens are also working on another front to protect El Yunque. A bill is now pending in Congress -- introduced by Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuno and co-sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida -- that would permanently protect 10,000 acres of the forest as the El Toro Wilderness. The measure would ensure Puerto Ricans could forever hike, picnic, camp, fish, horseback ride or just enjoy the scenery, while preventing logging or other development in this wild area.
As greater numbers of people discover this magical place, the need to preserve its sparkling streams, lush foliage and myriad species grows more vital.
Campaign for America's Wilderness