Natural Resources in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico was selected to host the 24th Session of the North American Forest Commission as it offers unique insight into natural resource management, is home to the only tropical forest in the United States, has one of the oldest protected forests in the Western Hemisphere, and as it highlights all branches of the US Forest Service. The Agency’s divisions of Research & Development, State and Private Forestry, the National Forest System and International Programs are all active in Puerto Rico. The International Institute of Tropical Forestry (IITF) conducts a broad range of research studies on tropical forests and local flora and fauna . IITF also represents the Forest Service and the US on the Latin American and Caribbean Forest Commission of FAO (COFLAC). IITF also administers State and Private Forestry activities in the region, providing technical assistance to landowners in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. The National Forest System Region 8 manages the El Yunque (formerly Caribbean) National Forest, the oldest Federal Forest reserve in the United States. Additionally, the International Cooperation Unit of IITF carries out natural resource related technical cooperation activities in Latin America, in coordination with the Forest Service International Programs Office in Washington.
Puerto Rico’s Rich History and Natural Resources
Inhabited for millennia, the main island of Puerto Rico and its smaller neighboring Caribbean islands share lessons from the past with researchers, forest planners and policymakers struggling to plan for the future. NAFC 2008 participants will be able to explore numerous, complex challenges and opportunities facing natural resource managers and researchers on this Caribbean island, which has experienced over 200 years of active and evolving natural resource management.
During the period of Spanish Colonization (1493-1898), Puerto Rico experienced many phases of land use and protection. In the early 1500s, native Taino inhabitants violently protested settlers encroaching on forested lands and managed to delay the inevitable deforestation that would occur through late 1700s and early 1800s when land was ceded to the public to promote agricultural development. In the early and mid-1800s, alarm over the degradation of watersheds and deforestation caused by agriculture and timber cut for Spanish ship building led to a new era of conservation policies and practices. In 1896, Spanish King Alphonso XIII proclaimed Luquillo an official reserve of 24,710 acres, thus establishing one of the oldest forest reserves in North America.
As a part of the Spanish-American war settlement, Puerto Rico was ceded to the US in 1898 and in 1903 the US designated Luquillo Forest Reserve, the only tropical rain forest in the National Forest System. In 1917, the first forest supervisor of Luquillo was appointed and the reserve was under full management of the US Forest Service. The next two decades saw the birth of the first tree nursery, large scale trial plantings of exotic and native species across the island, the first mahogany plantation within the Luquillo National Forest, and Civilian Conservation Corps work on reforestation, road construction, and recreational development including the El Yunque National Recreation Area. In 1935, the Luquillo National Forest was renamed the Caribbean National Forest to accommodate the Toro Negro area in central Puerto Rico. Recently, the Caribbean National Forest was again officially renamed El Yunque, to honor the native Taino name given to its highest peak centuries before.
At present, over 3350 species of tropical wildlife, flowers and trees are found in Puerto Rico, including 13 varieties of singing coquí tree frogs, the giant ceiba (Kapok) trees, a lignum vitae tree over 1000 years old and the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot. Puerto Rico’s rich biodiversity is represented throughout its natural forest and wildlife reserves, which span from the El Yunque Rainforest to the El Guánica coastal dry forest, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
According to ancient native folklore, the spirit god Yokahú (or Yuquiyú from which “Luquillo is derived), protected the islands from hurricanes and other maladies from his perch on El Yunque, the reserve’s highest peak. El Yunque (anvil or a good luck talisman) and Jurikan, the god of destructive winds (hurricane), come from the ancient Taino language. According to a Puerto Rican legend shared by a National Forest Ranger, hurricanes are scarce when avocados are plentiful. Unfortunately, neither Yokahu nor the avocado trees were able to prevent the devastation caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, but multiple present-day partners play an essential role in mitigating the effects of threats, including hurricanes, fire, overuse and invasive species. Today, the US Forest Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources of Puerto Rico, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and many other agencies and local organizations, are engaged in active management, restoration and protection of the marine, dry and tropical natural resources and protected areas of Puerto Rico.
Forest Research - International Institute of Tropical Forestry (IITF)
||Forest research in Puerto Rico dates back to Spanish inventory and monitoring activities. At present, El Yunque Tropical Forest is the only national forest entirely dedicated as an experimental forest (Luquillo Experimental Forest). In 1939, the Tropical Forest Experiment Station, now the US Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry, was established to promote research in tropical forestry and addresses the physical, social and economic issues associated with tropical forest management. Located in Rio Piedras on the grounds of the University of Puerto Rico’s Agricultural Experimental Station, IITF has 70 years of experience in interdisciplinary research focused on forest products, reforestation, plantations, ecology, ecosystems, hydrology, limnology, wildlife, remote sensing, inventory, global and climate change, and atmospheric research .
The Island has a long-term ecological research site, a National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) site, field experiment stations located throughout all island regions, USGS gauging stations, NOAA climate stations, an atmospheric deposition station, stations for monitoring atmospheric dust, and many more scientific research facilities, including the famous Arecibo Astronomical Observatory, home to the largest single-unit radio telescope in the world.
As a result of these facilities and many federal and Commonwealth research and education programs, Puerto Rico is rich in expertise, information and knowledge on natural resource issues and highly competitive in the fields of science and education.
Forest Management in Puerto Rico
By seeing firsthand the long-term effects of increasing forest fragmentation, urbanization, population density and human demand, visitors are able to observe in Puerto Rico many land and forest transformations that have advanced at rates far exceeding those found in other parts of North America. In 2004, 11 percent of the Island was urban cover, 23 percent reflected urban sprawl, and 53 percent was in forest cover. Puerto Rico’s high population density (over 400 people/km 2), increasing numbers of cars and roads (over 200 cars/km 2 and 4 km of road per km 2), and the high proportion of alien flora and fauna species (23% of plant species are introduced), give visitors a glimpse of its past and present while offering insight into a future facing many parts of the world.
- Forest Recovery
Forest restoration through natural regeneration processes of alien and native species is of great importance to Puerto Rico. Most of Puerto Rico’s forests are in the central mountain core on steep and wet terrain. They range from dry to wet tropical forests on volcanic, alluvial, karst and ultramaphic substrates. Forest cover in Puerto Rico is now estimated at 53 percent, of which 7.3 percent is under legal protection in public lands while the remainder is under private ownership. Primary forest stands are few, covering less than 1 percent of the Island, and are located mostly on public lands. In spite of increasing forest fragmentation and the great number of introduced invasive species, extinction rates for both plant and animal species have been much lower than expected. Notably, none of the 550 native tree species nor any of the 100+ endemic tree species has gone extinct in Puerto Rico. Many invasive tree species restore forest conditions on degraded lands and function as foster species for natural regeneration.
- Forest Protection
Forestlands in Puerto Rico are protected by a number of governmental and non-governmental organizations. The US Government is responsible for the stewardship of the El Yunque National Forest (US Forest Service) and a number of wildlife refuges (US Fish and Wildlife Service). The Commonwealth operates a system of State Forests representative of the major forest types and forest conditions in the Island. The Commonwealth, in collaboration with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also administers other coastal and estuarine reserves with large area of mangroves and other types of wetlands in collaboration with NOAA. Non-governmental organizations, such as the Conservation Trust, Citizens for the Karst, and others, protect forestlands under their ownership or in co-management agreements with the Commonwealth. Most forest management activities in Puerto Rico focus on recreation, water yield, restoration, and protection. There are no active timber management programs, although many timber plantations remain from the time when timber management was part of the forest management activities in the Island. For example, seventy-year old mahogany plantations remain as examples of successful management of this and other tropical species. Paradoxically, Puerto Rico imports $850,000,000 annually in forest products, of which $250,000,000 did or could grow locally, and of which $60,000,000 come from similar climates and soils of tropical America.
- Community Action
Forest Service State and Private Forestry Program, in collaboration with the Commonwealth, has promoted community action and forestry programs for decades. These efforts, coupled with growing public interest in conservations issues, have resulted in numerous community action programs in support of conservation of forests and natural resources. Casa Pueblo, a non-profit organization which oversees multiple education, research and conservation programs, including its white to blue water program, was successful in promoting the designation of a new Commonwealth Forest, which it now co-manages with the Commonwealth. Citizens for the karst purchases lands for conservation purposes and promotes research on their properties. The Natural History Society operates the 40-ha forested Santa Ana Nature Center as a training facility for thousands of young people. Additionally, numerous citizen groups have actively participated in conservation policy and education.
- Environmental Change
Researchers predict the Caribbean will most likely experience changing sea levels and become drier and warmer with increased variation in climatic patterns. These changes, when linked to land cover change and urbanization, are likely to have increasing influence on the forests of the region. Periodic forest inventories have already demonstrated dramatic changes in species island-wide, particularly the dominance of introduced tree species and the recovery of native species that had earlier decreased in abundance due to deforestation. Strong forest research and inventory programs are providing basic data for measuring and evaluating the continuing changes in the forest resources of Puerto Rico.