The Region by the Seasons

 

El Yunque National Forest: A Tropical Paradise in the Southern Region

 

El Yunque National Forest

Ranger and Family on the El Yunque National Forest

Puerto Rican Parrots

El Yunque Visitors Center

It's January, 2017 and many retirees are looking out their windows at wintery weather and giving thanks that they no longer commute.  This week, friends across the country posted photos of dogs breaking snow trails and snow capped mountains.  We need the precipitation and snowpack! But living in the South, it only takes a few days below freezing to take my mind to warm weather locations.

In the Southern Region, one of the warmest places in the winter is El Yunque National Forest, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.  In fact the average annual temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit, due to trade winds that pass over the island year round.

Learn more about the history of El Yunque

Luquillo Forest Reserve came into the National Forest System in 1907 and was renamed Caribbean National Forest in 1935.  Then in 2007, the forest became El Yunque National Forest.

It is the only tropical rain forest in the national forest system and receives about 1,250,000 visitors a year.  It is beloved by the people of Puerto Rico.  At over 28,000 acres, El Yunque is home to numerous endemic species and is part of the Sierra de Luquillo Mountains. Hiking trails to the top of El Yunque will take you through three different Forests levels - Palo Colorado, Palma Sierra and finally the Dwarf forest.

I think one of the most unique El Yunque resource story is the amazing recovery effort for the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot (Amazona vittata).   The bird is a medium sized parrot, nests in tree cavities and mates for life. In 1975, only 13 birds existed and were found only in the El Yunque National Forest, few species ever recover from such limited numbers. Through the diligent and collaborative efforts of federal agencies, Puerto Rican Dept of Natural Resources and dedicated individuals, today there are about 300 parrots in captivity.  In addition there are 100 parrots in the wild, expanding into new forest locations.

Annually, more than half the visitors to El Yunque National Forest are the Puerto Rican people, who embrace El Yunque as core to their identity.  It is beloved.

If more than 500,000 visitors are Puerto Rican, the other half million are mostly visitors from around the globe.  Many of these international visitors disembark from tours beginning in the Capitol of San Juan, often coordinating visits with the National Park Service's El Morro National Monument.  Over the years, as visitation increased, transportation patterns required updating.  Forest and National Park collaboration efforts helped envision a shuttle tram system that successfully came into fruition in 2014.

Each time I arrived in Puerto Rico for meetings with the Forest Supervisor or the Director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry (IITF), I was immediately reminded how cherished El Yunque is to the Puerto Rican people.  I often feared we would be late for appointments due to people constantly stopping us, embracing the Forest Supervisor and inquiring about their treasured rain forest or describing their last visit. More than once, I reminded myself to put aside my urban timeframe and let things flow.

I have always marveled at the unique strength of island ecosystems, but there is a "human" island ecosystem in Puerto Rico too.  It is interconnected and interdependent.  I do not think I experienced a more supportive partnership than among federal land management agencies and  the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Perhaps this is because they exist 1,500 miles from mainland regional headquarters during times of crisis. When hurricanes begin forming off the west coast of Africa, heading toward this leading edge of the Greater Antilles, federal agencies have largely themselves to depend upon. Whatever it may be, this human island ecosystem creatively and collaborated achieves much for the people and the land.

I hope one day you will visit the Southern Region's El Yunque National Forest. If you sit down to a nice meal, remember to say "Buen provecho," the Puerto Rican wish for "Enjoy your food."

El Yunque National Forest is a biodiversity treasure. Hope you enjoyed this brief winter respite to a warmer place in the Region by the Seasons!