She is well-networked, always on call, and has deep roots to the island and its people. Magaly (pronounced Mah-gal-ee) Figueroa is one devoted natural resources specialist for the U.S. Forest Service and its State and Private Forestry mission in Puerto Rico, her homeland, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. She is a program manager assigned to the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, located in a botanical garden on the grounds of the University of Puerto Rico. She implements cooperative agreements and grants for the Institute’s Urban and Community Forestry and Forest Stewardship programs and delights in helping the islands’ communities meet their conservation dreams. Characterized as a “mayor” and committed to having fun on and off the job, just add “very” before many of the following characteristics and you’ll discover a high-energy, inquisitive, career-inspired and dedicated professional.
How long have you worked for the Forest Service?
I started working with the Forest Service in 2001, when I came from Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources through an Intergovernmental Personnel Agreement to the Institute. I applied for a Forest Service vacancy in 2002, was accepted and became a full-time employee.
How does the Urban and Community Forestry Program work?
We’re helping communities implement urban forestry demonstration projects and education initiatives that inform the public about the environmental, economic, social, psychological and aesthetic benefits of trees. Urban and Community Forestry Councils in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands advise the islands’ state forestry agencies on urban forestry topics. Every year, the councils and the state agencies evaluate project proposals from qualifying community groups, non-government organizations and local agencies, which are required to provide 50 percent matching funds. Our funds help support the selected projects.
How does the Forest Stewardship Program work?
We also provide technical and financial assistance to private landowners who have properties ranging from five acres to almost 2,000 acres located in areas that are classified as priority landscapes based on conservation needs. Local state agency personnel visit with landowners and identify the property’s natural resources with an emphasis on forest resources and recommendations to manage the eco-system services they provide such as water and watershed protection, timber production, wood harvesting and reintroduction of new species after harvesting trees.
These plans can involve establishing or improving forests, restoration, mitigation, water quality and soil conservation activities and practices. The landowner can then apply for local or state or federal agencies’ program support to implement the plan’s conservation practices to fulfill the landowner’s conservation objectives.
The state government implements both of these programs and we provide the funding to them through grants and cooperative agreements and monitor the programs to ensure they are implemented as planned. IITF scientists and specialists provide expertise in many different areas –urban forestry, forest health, ornithology, landscape conservation, ecology and soils, in addition to our funding support.
On both islands, the main priority is on watershed conservation and creating and improving forests and deforested areas in those watersheds.
What are the challenges involved with watershed conservation?
Development pressure in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is high right now. Developers are moving into areas near our urban and urbanized sites that are still forested and we’re seeing land use changing from forest to residential developments. This is why our programs are so important so landowners will have more education and resources to make the best conservation decisions and move development projects somewhere else, based on planned and informed decisions.
Can you describe a few examples of these programs?
First, I want to emphasize that our state partners from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are the real stars. Program state coordinators are working everyday directly with people and communities in both places recognize their excellent job.
Last year in Puerto Rico, our Urban and Community Forestry funds supported the state agency and urban forestry council’s grant program focused on the economy and the environment. Many communities established composting facilities to use vegetative material generated from pruning and removing trees. So instead of winding up in a landfill, the resulting compost was sold creating both environmental and economic benefits. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, many demonstration projects involve protecting the majestic big trees which have cultural and historic value for communities. Special projects may involve removing fencing, sidewalks or other structures that affect a tree or obstruct visibility.
Tropic Ventures at Las Casas de la Selva in Patillas runs a Sustainable Forestry and Rainforest Enrichment Project which is a participant of the Forest Stewardship Program. The project serves at the same time as a demonstration site for private landowners on small-scale, sustainable timber harvesting. Tropic Venture teamed with the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the U.S. Forest Service in the development of the Nuestra Maderas (our wood) project. Nuestra Madera was created to educate the general public and forest landowners on sustainable timber harvesting, characteristics of the Puerto Ricans woods, and a web resource to locate available wood and local sawmills.
We have really impressive and committed partners in Puerto Rico. For example, our funding helped Casa Pueblo, a community-based, non-governmental organization in Adjuntas. Members have a strong interest in environmental justice and have been active for many years educating communities about the importance of forest and environment protection, sustainable agriculture, community empowerment, and the concept of family forests. They love their landscapes and want to keep them. Casa Pueblo manages Bosque del Pueblo and Bosque Olimpia, both forest reserves, for education purposes and hosts thousands of students every year that participate in environmental education activities.
Casa Pueblo, Agenda Ciudadana, another non-government organization, the community, and other groups worked with Puerto Rico’s governor to create the law that authorizes the Ecological Corridor Bosque Modelo, a corridor of 100,000 acres and 20 municipalities which is part of the Model Forest Network. The Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, Forest Stewardship Program will work with local landowners and help them identify their conservation needs and opportunities and provided them with management plans.
You have a very limited budget but you still deliver very innovative urban programs. How do you do this?
The people are really special here. Our partners from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are committed to urban forestry and really want to make a difference. Volunteerism is strong in both territories and our programs are a success because of them.
What is the most memorable project you’ve worked on and why?
We funded a very popular and successful urban forestry and mental health project at the Center for Human-Spiritual Renovation and Development known as Centro Buen Pastor which provides services to underserved communities. Adolescences and young adults, including some that have left school, receive counseling and guidance from an interdisciplinary group of social workers, psychologist, ecologists, planners, foresters, and community members.
The Center’s natural setting in an urban forest that provides an ideal space for eco-therapy using rehabilitation strategies for the social, cultural and environmental changes they need to build their skills and address mental health problems. Participants use nature as a tool to help with their self-assessments including Proyecto Siempre Verde, a human, socio-economic, and environmental development strategy based on use of the forest. Participants engage in environmental education with additional benefits to learn new job skills as nature interpreters and environmental guides.
Where did you develop your passion for urban forestry?
My father is a retired agronomist who planned coffee plantations with the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture. I remember going with him to the Maricao, the municipality within the Puerto Rican coffee zone, to visit farms. I also grew up on a farm in a little town called Sabana Grande, so I was so in touch with nature from a very young age. I loved not only the urban forests but all forests. I loved being outside, playing with the dirt and getting dirty and enjoying the outdoors.
In 1984, I started working with private landowners to develop management plans for their properties when I was with Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and Forest Service Bureau. I was going to the field every day and doing what I liked. Walking through forests and recommending practices to establish forest plantations or managing existing forests.
In 1990, the urban forestry programs formally started in Puerto Rico and I started working these programs. I love it. I talk with the landowners and help them identify their objectives and develop their management practices. But Urban and Community Forestry is so much more. It’s talking to people and letting them and communities talk about their issues, their objectives, and their dreams.
When I go to a store, almost everyone knows me. They wave and ask how I am. My kids tease me and say, ‘Oh, here comes the mayor.’ But I’m not the mayor. I’m just very involved. If I get to know someone even on the street, I just have to say hello and give that person a smile. It’s an important part of being successful in this line of work.
This month celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month. What does your Hispanic heritage mean to you?
My coolest childhood memories are from Christmas time. In Puerto Rico, Navidades begins around Dec. 15 and lasts until Jan. 6, or Three Kings Day, although we have another eight days of celebrations after that we call “octavitas.” On Three Kings Day, my grandparents always roasted a pig on a spit. That day “venían los Reyes y traían regalos a los niños” (Three Kings came and brought gifts for the kids), I remember my grandfather making music with his hardhat as we danced around. I remember my grandmother singing “aguinaldos puertorriqueños” or Puerto Rican traditional songs. The family was together, everybody was there. That was tradition - that was the law!
I am really proud of my Puerto Rican culture and my mix of races. I am Taino, Spaniard, and African, so I am a jíbara puertorriqueña.