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Puerto Rico Rain Forest on Edge

Environmentalists fear the end of El Yunque, home to diverse species and a source of fresh water, as developers occupy its buffer zone.

April 23, 2006|Ray Quintanilla | Chicago Tribune

CARIBBEAN NATIONAL FOREST, Puerto Rico — The scent of flowering tropical plants fills the moist air amid a chorus of whistling birds and singing frogs. The only other sound for a mile in any direction is the roar of a 100-foot waterfall.

Despite 28,000 acres of such lovely scenes, the tropical rain forest that Puerto Rico's prehistoric Taino Indians called El Yunque, or "Land of the White Clouds," is in grave danger. Thousands of acres of forests and green lands that insulate the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. Forest Service from development are being cleared at a torrid pace.

"This has got to be stopped, or what we are going to have very soon is irreversible damage to this wonderful rain forest," said Pablo Cruz, supervisor of the Caribbean National Forest.

"It would be a travesty for all Puerto Ricans and the millions of visitors who come here every year if development isn't put in check soon," Cruz said as he assessed a large tract that a developer had begun clearing illegally.

El Yunque's future is caught between powerful forces: conservationists and those who view the lands surrounding the rain forest as among the last parcels of open space available for development. Puerto Rico's government relies on construction jobs to ease a 12% unemployment rate in this section of the island.

There are consequences to clearing these lands, beyond harm to hundreds of rare plants and wildlife in El Yunque. The rain forest, 25 miles east of metropolitan San Juan, provides one-third of the island's fresh drinking water.

"This deforestation is not the fault of any one governor or government on the island," said Jesus D. Chinea, a professor of ecology at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. "It's all of them. They all want to create jobs, but look at what this is doing to the rain forest. The changes around the rain forest in the last five years alone are pretty shocking."

Chinea said a quirk in Puerto Rican law enables developers to begin clearing land before obtaining building permits. That is adding to the rapid pace of development around the rain forest, he said.

Kenneth McClintock, president of the Puerto Rico Senate, said environmental groups must not be allowed to scuttle development of two hotels slated to be built within 2 miles of the Caribbean National Forest.

The island still is reeling from job losses it suffered when the U.S. government closed Roosevelt Roads Naval Station here two years ago.

"The environmentalists have to work together with developers. There's no other option," McClintock said. Without the new hotels, Puerto Rico's tourism economy will suffer and that could lead to more job losses, he said.

A land-use report released last spring showed that in the three decades since the island set aside about 30,000 acres surrounding El Yunque as secondary forest and green space, more than 50% now has been built up. That includes several hotels, a golf course and dozens of condominium complexes with spectacular views of the rain forest.

Cruz, the El Yunque supervisor, said the buffer zone insulates the forest from fires and provides an important barrier protecting wildlife and plants from habitat change. Cruz said it also ensures that the flow of water through the forest is not altered. The Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority says the island cannot afford to lose any of the 100 billion gallons of drinking water El Yunque produces annually.

Tropical forests such as El Yunque constitute about 6% of Earth's surface and account for 50% to 80% of the world's plant species. Rain forests once covered 14% of the planet's land surface, but have shrunk due to development and deforestation.

Some of the development has arrived within 30 feet of El Yunque's main entrance.

"I'd like to think we live in harmony with El Yunque," said Martha Herrera, 69, who bought a two-story house next to the rain forest a decade ago.

"Some people say I'm hurting El Yunque. But how am I hurting anything?" she asked as her three dogs and flock of chickens roamed in and out of the park one recent morning.

About a quarter-mile away, construction crews were pouring concrete as they rushed to finish a 20-acre condominium complex.

"People who buy these units want the views of the rain forest," said Hecter Ramirez, 35, a construction worker at the site. "I have a job. That's important to my family and me. People tell me this isn't going to damage anything."

El Yunque is home to 240 native tree species -- more than any other national forest. Federally listed endangered plants grow in the forest too, such as the miniature orchid and palo de jazmin.

Endangered wildlife species include the Puerto Rican sharp-shinned and broad-winged hawks, the Puerto Rican boa and the island's own parrot, one of the most vulnerable bird species listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Within 500 years, these bright green parrots in Puerto Rico have dropped in number from about 1 million to fewer than 50.

To protect the rain forest, Luis Fortuno, the island's nonvoting representative in the U.S. House, won approval for the Caribbean National Forest Act last year. It designates nearly 10,000 acres of El Yunque as off-limits to construction.

"Development around the forest continues to threaten the biodiversity and the balance of the ecosystem of the forest," Fortuno said. "Due to the inaction of the local government, it is necessary that Congress create a mechanism to protect this national treasure."

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