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A Millennium of Forest Management in Puerto Rico: El Bosque Nacional El Yunque Part I: From Indigenous Solitude to U.S. Sovereignty

Elias Pite


  • Explores the U.S National Forest System’s only tropical rain forest, El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico
  • Discusses the numerous transformations in management practices throughout El Yunque’s history.
A Millennium of Forest Management in Puerto Rico: El Bosque Nacional El Yunque Part I: From Indigenous Solitude to U.S. Sovereignty
Carlos Manchego via Getty Images

Nestled in the northeast corner of Puerto Rico lies El Yunque National Forest, the sole tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System. Spanning roughly 28,000 acres, El Yunque is one of the smallest forests within the National Forest System. However, size can be a deceptive metric: El Yunque is also the most biologically diverse national forest in the country. For instance, with roughly 250 different tree species, El Yunque has as many species as the other 192 million acres of national forest combined. It also harbors over 800 native species of plants and wildlife. Moreover, it is “highly valued for its recreation and water resources, receiving more than 600,000 visitors per year and producing about 20 percent of the island’s total municipal water supply.” In short, El Yunque is Puerto Rico’s—and arguably the nation’s—bastion of biological and ecological magnificence. Unsurprisingly, in preserving and utilizing this precious resource, there have been numerous transformations in management practices throughout the forest’s history.

Between the 7th and 11th century, the Indigenous Taíno developed rapidly across Puerto Rico, and by 1000 C.E., the Taíno culture had a dominant presence across the island. Prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493, Puerto Rican forests on the lower slopes of the Luquillo Mountains, including modern-day El Yunque, provided indigenous cultures like the Taíno “with a source of food and materials for the construction of shelters and canoes.” The impact of these activities on forest resources were minimal, and interestingly, there is “scant evidence of incursions into the lands of El Yunque National Forest, and no evidence of settlements inside it so far.”

Archaeological research has confirmed that these cultures did not only have an awareness of El Yunque, but also had a deeply spiritual and symbolic connection to the forest. Especially noteworthy is the Taíno story about Yúcahu, a deity believed to be their supreme creator who represented everything from agriculture, peace, and tranquility, who resided on El Yunque, where it said he “did battle with the god of chaos and disorder.” The religious adoration of El Yunque has been thought of as a primary explanation for the absence of evidence of Taíno settlement within the forest.

The arrival of Spanish colonizers and discovery of gold at the turn of the 16th century represented the next emphatic economic and sociopolitical shift throughout Puerto Rico. Mining around local communities was especially contentious, with widespread violence arising between indigenous groups and colonists hoping to cash in on the newly discovered commodity. The quick depletion of gold meant the bulk of these conflicts ended by the late 1530s. Animosity between the groups persisted much longer: as late as 1582, colonists reported that modern-day El Yunque was “unsafe because they were still occupied by hostile native groups.” Unfortunately, these sentiments reflected a harsher trend where native Puerto Ricans “were enslaved and most of them died of diseases or exploitation.”

Despite the contentious circumstances, everyone seemed to agree on at least one thing: that little forest up in the northeast corner sure seemed special. Between the late 1500s and early 1800s, Puerto Rico experienced “rapid increase in population, an increased demand for agricultural land, poor farming practices, and constant political disturbances.” As a result, the Spanish developed a heightened concern about the protection of forests, fish, and wildlife within the mountains. So much so that, in 1853, the Spanish Crown sent foresters to survey and manage Crown Lands near the Luquillo Mountains. In the summer of 1863, the Crown unveiled the Inspección de Montes (Spanish Forest Service), whose function was to determine “through data collection, the extent of the country’s forest resources [to] oversee their proper utilization.” 

In 1876, Spanish King Alfonso XII took the shared concern for the Luquillo Mountains and surrounding forests a step further, designating the entire area as a “crown reserve.” This effectively made El Yunqueone of the earliest nature reserves in the Western world. The forest already benefited from widely-dispersed population centers and ineffective transportation systems, which acted as a “major deterrent to timber exploitation” throughout much of the 19th century. However, the designation of El Yunque as a “crown reserve” provided an additional level of insurance by ensuring “soil and water conservation and timber removal [were] regulated and enforced by the Inspección de Montes.”

The conclusion of the Spanish-American war in 1898 represented the next paradigm shift for Puerto Rico, as Spanish control over the island––and so to management authority over El Yunque––was passed to the United States. In the years leading up to the war, the United States passed the Land Revision Act and Organic Administrative Act, which together allowed the president to set aside forest lands in the United States. President and revered conservationist Theodore Roosevelt wasted little time utilizing this power with El Yunque. In 1903, he designated the approximately 5,116 acres of former Crown reserves as a national forest, naming it the “Luquillo Forest Reserve,” and granting management authority to the Bureau of Forestry. At the time, land management practices in El Yunque were primarily concerned with mapping and surveying the forest to establish clearer boundaries, planning construction projects, and diverting water for down-stream communities. In other words, early management was simply custodial, “focusing on the acquisition of national forest lands and the protection and later development of resources within [its] boundaries.”

In 1907, the United States renamed the area “Luquillo National Forest” and shifted supervisory authority to the newly organized Forest Service, an agency of the Department of Agriculture. Unsurprisingly, rapid expansion of El Yunque came part-and-parcel with increased government involvement in forest management. Beginning in the 1930s, extensive reforestation in areas surrounding El Yunque began. With the help of “personal donations, several land grants, and the acquisition of privately-owned parcels,” El Yunque spanned more than 20,000 acres by 1935. Following this expansion, the agency initiated a series of timber stand improvements (TSI), which aimed to enhance the “vigor, stocking, composition, productivity, and quality” of forest stands by removing “lower quality trees and allowing crop trees to fully use growing space.” The agency later developed study plots in 1938 to monitor the results of TSI management practices, and “long-term research in permanent plots to study species composition, stand characteristics, and timber production potential began in earnest in the early 1940s.” To reflect the area’s new significance to the National Forest System, El Yunque became colloquially referred to as “the Caribbean National Forest.”

El Yunque’s expansion and improvement arose in tandem. Following the onset of the Great Depression and as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative, in 1933, Congress enacted the Federal Emergency Conservation Program. This program spawned the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which provided millions of young men with employment by carrying out nationwide environmental projects, such as planting trees, constructing trails, and creating shelters. In Puerto Rico, the government sought an initial enrollment of 1,200 young men between the ages of 18 and 25. However, this requirement was quickly modified due to the harsh economic conditions on the island. The modified policy, in turn, permitted the admission of men up to the age of 45 and those who were married. Under Forest Service supervision, the local “Tres C’s” went to work on their first project, which focused on “build[ing] a road through the cliffs and jungles of the Luquillo mountains,” opening the area for recreational development. Later projects in El Yunque had a similar focus, “[attempting] to build roads and facilities that would allow the general populace to become acquainted with the ancient rainforest.” Larger projects “required a permanent camp managed [ ] by a military staff, whereas smaller projects were often located near enrollees’ homes.”

The accomplishments of Tres C are even more admirable when considered in light of the pervasive discrimination that recruits, and the program at large, faced from its mainland administrators. For example, there was only adequate funding for a maximum of 2,500 workers, “a mere 10% of the estimated workers that the planners believed were needed.” Moreover, Tres C recruits were “paid less than their counterparts in the USA,” and were the only CCC workers in the program’s history “that were never issued uniforms, work clothes, or shoes.” Despite the agency’s neglect, modern-day visitors still bear the fruits of Tres C’s labor, as a number of passages and structures remain in use. Indeed, most of El Yunque’s recreational buildings, facilities, and infrastructure were built by Tres C, including the “main Forest Highway PR 191” and “recreation pools like Baño de Oro and Baño Grande, and lookout towers.” Thus, in a very literal sense, local community members laid the groundwork for the sustained well-being and enjoyment of El Yunque. Whether the Forest Service would honor the labor and love of its local counterparts was, however, less than clear.