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Sustainable Resource Management
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Sustainable Development e-News

Special Feature

In His Own Words
A Conversation With Pablo Cruz
Forest Supervisor, Caribbean National Forest
USDA Forest Service

Bridging Environmentalists and Developers for Sustainability

Pablo Cruz

RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico — The El Yunque rain forest is unique in at least three ways.  First, at only 28,000 acres, it holds one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth.  Second, perhaps as an antithesis to the preceding attribute, it is a case study of escalating conflicts fomented, as it were, by urban-rural interface and manifested in strained relationships between environmentalists and developers.  Third, it is a laboratory in its own right for testing applications of forest-management practices—with a view toward ascertaining their relevance to the tropics at large.

In the conversation that follows, Forest Supervisor Pablo Cruz sheds light on the social conflicts that bedevil the forest and on the inherent contradictions of managing a forest whose very existence has major implications for tropical forestry at the global scale.   

Q:   What does the Caribbean National Forest (CNF) do to foster sustainability?

We foster sustainability in two ways.  First, since I do not have the authority to work outside the [Forest Service’s] National Forest System (NFS).   I work with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to maintain vital ecosystem’s by planning, educating and providing technical assistance, and to ensure that any mutual decisions we make are the right ones.

Second, when private lands border the forest, we help the landowners understand the importance of maintaining sustainability.  It’s all about influence.  As you know some people are only interested in profiting from development and have little or no respect for ecosystem sustainability.

Are you comfortable with how much has been accomplished so far?

At the moment, we have problems with community outreach.  Since the National Forest System has a limited budget, we have no funds available for private lands projects.  The NFS does have some state and private funds available through the International Institute of Tropical Forestry [IITF], but they are very limited.  However, we are working hard to become more involved in our surrounding communities.

What parallels do you draw between your work on the CNF and in the State Department of Natural and Environmental Resources?

The International Institute of Tropical Forestry manages state and private programs for the Forest Service in Puerto Rico; it is involved more with state lands and less with federal lands.

IITF works very closely with the Commonwealth Department of Natural and Environmental Resources [DNER] on many of the same things that I’d like to work on.  It establishes community relations and engages in programs that I have to improvise on my own without funding.  However, we have initiated a process to directly involve both  IITF and the Department of Natural Resources in collaboration with the CNF to find  solutions to our rural-urban interface problems.

I provide assistance by reaching out to communities and influencing landowners through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with which I establish Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs).  These agreements map out both my responsibilities and theirs and we are able to get a lot done.  But I must walk a very fine line here, because I cannot allocate NFS money for private land use.

In what ways do social, economic, and environmental forces, separately, present challenges to this island’s sustainable management of its natural resources?

Urbanization is creating a huge social impact on communities near the forest. Earlier, we had rural settings and rural land values in communities next to the forest. Now, a new and different set of urban values is beginning to replace those rural values.  Urbanization, particularly the rural-urban interface, has created huge conflicts between urban and rural value systems.

Another social problem is related to economics—unemployment on the island is 15 percent.  Compared with unemployment on other Caribbean islands, that’s low. But we are located on the northeast end of the island, where a naval base that was one of our chief  sources of employment was closed about two years ago, resulting in a 25 percent increase in unemployment in the northeastern corridor.  As a consequence, we have seen an increase in crime, and in the sale and use of drugs in neighboring communities. 

Regarding environmental forces, there is a huge polarization between environmentalists and developers here.  National environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace have affiliations here.  So we are not excluded from all the environmental politics from the mainland.  There’s an ongoing battle between environmentalists and developers and they both converge in government.  The environmentalists, the developers, and the government typically work at cross-purposes.  Whoever can influence any or all of those three camps can usually get their desires or plans implemented.

Puerto Rico has always had a sustainable development policy.  But polarization creates a lot of problems and government does not do a good job in consolidating both development and environmental values.

How do you help developers use open spaces in a sustainable manner?

As I said, there’s a conflict between environmentalists and developers.  We’ve worked with the Commonwealth [of Puerto Rico] to create laws that will encourage a more prudent and wise management of resources.  And we’re effecting a change between how developers formerly did business and how they are doing it now and hopefully into the future.

How important is interagency collaboration to CNF?

The only way to survive in light of dwindling resources is to collaborate with other agencies.  We do have a coalition of federal agencies—e.g., the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—and we meet quarterly to try to combine our resources to maximize land management.  For example, in the eco-management of St. John in the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands, we have a unified command to work on all-risk emergency response problems as well as on budgetary crises.  But most of the work entails pooling our resources in a cohesive manner.


We cannot maintain the management
of national forests like green islands.


Aside from managing an ecosystem that is primarily tropical, how significant is this system to forest management in general?

Huge!  In the global context we are in the tropics, which are the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth—on only 28,000 acres of forestland.  I have more biodiversity than all the 146 national forests on the mainland combined.  For example, the kind of management we do on this forest helps other forests in the tropics to manage their resources more wisely.

We cannot maintain the management of national forests like green islands.

The word “partnership” has a certain cachet—and commands a lot of interest in the Forest Service—for obvious reasons.  How does it play out in this part of the world?

We work with NGOs.  The Forest Gateway Community Council is a good example, as well as community leaders and local business people.  We have a partnership agreement with the Puerto Rican Conservation Trust, which lobbies Congress to purchase adjacent lands and transfer them to us, and also raises funds for conservation projects.  NGOs provide important attributes that we don’t have; they can do those things that we have neither the skills nor the authority to do. The Wildlife Foundation, for example, helps us raise funds. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

What’s the status of the Puerto Rican parrot?

We have three populations—one wild, two captive.  The only wild population is in this forest.  We’re helping to establish an additional wild population elsewhere on the island.  

What must our readers know about this forest?

That we are here to manage the public domain.  That we are serving society at large—not just the interests of one or two people.  Because of this, people are not always happy when our decisions are made with the whole public in mind.

Final thoughts?

Our mission is a very challenging one, similar to that of all the national forests.  We have loss of open spaces, but we don’t have a program in place to deal with that issue.  We need more authority and resources to put some teeth into our plans.  We cannot maintain the management of national forests like green islands.  

Pablo Cruz has been Forest Supervisor of the Caribbean National Forest (CNF) since 1992. In 1990, he became the first Puerto Rican District Ranger of El Yunque of the CNF. Two years later, he was appointed Forest Supervisor. In 1989, he served on the Incident Command Team that led forest restoration efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo

Cruz established direct and open communication between the CNF and its surrounding communities. He has significantly improved interagency relationships and the global presence of CNF, drawing upon his 11 years’ experience in two national forests on the mainland and in the Washington Office of the Forest Service.

Cruz is a civil engineering graduate of the University of Puerto Rico—Mayagüez.Since his graduation, he has been dedicating his career to public service, in which he began his professional work at age 23, as Project Engineer in the USDA Soil Conservation Service.  He then joined the USDA Forest Service, as a civil engineer in California.

Cruz was born and raised in Fajardo, Puerto Rico.  He and his wife, Arlene, live in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, with their two sons, Pablo Jr. and Andrés.

Conversation with Ariel Lugo
Conversation with Edgardo González
Return to SDe-News Summer 2006


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    Last Modified: Wednesday, July 19, 2006