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A Millennium of Forest Management in Puerto Rico: El Bosque Nacional El Yunque Part II: From Agency Control to Community Collaboration

Elias Pite


  • Discusses how the U.S. Forest Service’s role in caring for El Yunque made forest management more scientific and data driven.
  • Explores how climate change and natural disasters affected the forest’s wildlife and biomass.
  • An analysis of the last century of forest management in El Yunque.
A Millennium of Forest Management in Puerto Rico: El Bosque Nacional El Yunque Part II: From Agency Control to Community Collaboration
Emily Kent Photography via Getty Images

Into the 1970s and 1980s, the Forest Service’s role in caring for El Yunque became increasingly diversified and discretionary, especially compared to the agency’s early custodial management regime, which primarily focused on acquiring and surveying forest land. Congress passed the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act (MUSYA) in 1960 and National Forest Management Act (NFMA) in 1976, and as a result, the agency shifted away from land acquisition and toward actual management of forest resources and services. In addition, the agency’s multiuse mandate––promoting recreation, conservation, and resource production––made forest management more scientific and data driven. 

In 1986, the first comprehensive forest management plan for El Yunque was approved and submitted to the public for comment. In substance, the plan reflected the agency’s ambitious multiuse mandate; in practice, the plan was wildly unpopular, particularly with local stakeholders. The agency’s “scientific management” approach was “strongly contested by local communities and conservation organizations” who were often left out of Forest Service decision making processes, especially those that pertained to proposed timber harvests and road developments. Particularly troubling was the fact that the agency’s timber harvest plans did not include Spanish translations, effectively neutralizing local environmental and recreational organizations from having meaningful involvement. This pattern continued until 12 local organizations obtained a court order requiring a Spanish translation of official El Yunque documents in late 1986.

Amidst public outcry against the 1986 Final Plan, the Forest Service was also navigating climate change and disturbance events throughout the 1990s. For example, just three years after the passage of the forest management plan, Hurricane Hugo tore through Puerto Rico causing significant damage to wildlife and biomass, and placing short-term demands on water resource and infrastructure management. Indeed, between 1989 and 2005 alone, nine additional hurricanes hit the island. Accordingly, the agency’s long-term management vision for El Yunque was compromised by the short-term demands of handling environmental disasters.

Unfortunately, there is no indication that the agency’s balancing act will get any easier. With hurricanes occurring almost annually, including hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, and more recently, hurricanes Ian and Fiona in 2022, any long-term management vision is subject to constant change. Moreover, recent studies indicate that El Yunque will experience decreased annual rainfall and increasing temperatures in the coming years. All of this merely proves that climate-related challenges and predictions place a premium on flexibility and functionality. This is especially true with respect to the agency’s responsibility to craft and implement effective land management policies.

Since the Forest Service’s relative failure with its formulation of the 1986 plan, the agency has become far more proactive in addressing forest management challenges. The Forest Service took a modest first step forward in 1997 by making revisions to its original management plan. The 1997 Forest Land and Resource Management Plan attempted in earnest to respond to climate change and other public concerns, such as sustainable timber yield, congressional designation of wilderness, and hurricane response. Following the issuance of the 2012 National Forest System Land Management Planning Rule, the agency selected El Yunque as one of eight “early adopter” forests to revise its existing forest plan under the new directives and guidance. Revisions to the 1997 plan began with the agency “using a collaborative approach and the use of the best available science” to reflect the 2012 Planning Rule’s “codified requirements for collaboration, integrated scientific information, sustainability, climate change considerations, and adaptiveness in federal land management planning.” After years of effort, the agency completed El Yunque’s final land management plan in August 2018, and it went into effect after approval in May 2019. 

The 2019 Final Plan reflects considerable improvement with respect to the agency’s process for formulating and implementing management policies across El Yunque. One example is the Forest Service’s express commitment to “Shared Stewardship” management, which is the “strategic and site-specific engagement of Forest Service and active partners working together in general forest operations, conservation and restoration activities with a practical sense of shared responsibilities.” In highlighting the importance of connecting surrounding communities to the forest, the agency hopes to elevate “community capacity for participation in various management activities in areas such as interpretation, education, recreation, economic development, conservation, restoration, research, and monitoring.” On August 24, 2021, the Forest Service idiomatically “put its money where its mouth is” by announcing that it had entered into a moratorium of understanding (MOU) with a coalition of five local nonprofit organizations “to collaborate in various projects that facilitate community empowerment, shared stewardship, conservation, and co-management of natural resources, as well as promotion of tourism and economic activity in the northeast region.” Ideally, by integrating community voices, the Forest Service’s stewardship of El Yunque can be mutually beneficial to both the agency and locals.

No policy better reflects the agency’s increased awareness about the importance of understanding and utilizing local stakeholders than the 2019 plan’s “all-lands” management approach, which aims to bring landowners and stakeholders together to identify common goals for the forest. The region surrounding El Yunque is delineated by nine municipalities: Canóvanas, Ceiba, Fajardo, Humacao, Juncos, Las Piedras, Luquillo, Naguabo, and Río Grande. In recognizing the array of community characteristics, environmental conditions, and land ownerships across these municipalities, the 2019 plan positions the agency to make effective planning decisions that are more beneficial for locals. Intuitively, the agency is also better positioned to satisfy its multiuse mandate, because it can make sub-regional ecological management decisions that simultaneously promote human health and community-based economic interests. For example, the plan breaks El Yunque down into three major geographic areas. For each area, the agency describes its desired management principles, such as providing access to “highly developed recreation settings and connect[ing] to a regional trail system,” and lists the local collaborative group(s) the agency intends to partner with and their connection to El Yunque.

Since implementation of the 2019 plan, the agency’s trend of giving special attention to local interests has continued. In January 2023, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the Forest Service will invest $1 million to improve access across El Yunque. This investment aligns with the Biden administration’s broader commitment to encouraging economic growth in rural communities by expanding the Rural Partner Network, which helps to ensure that rural communities benefit from federal funding resources. In making this investment, the agency aims to ensure that “rural communities have equitable access to the infrastructure and economic opportunities.”

The investment is also an implicit acknowledgment that the forest is a popular tourist location that demands agency attention: El Yunque represents roughly 20 percent of the Puerto Rican tourism economy. Notably, the announcement came just one month after the Department of Agriculture announced a $250,000 investment in El Yunque to develop a “master transit plan to improve the visitor experience.” According to the Department of Agriculture, “[s]ome 1.2 million people visit the forest every year, with up to 3,000 cars trying every day to access an area that has only 300 parking spaces.” Part of the transit plan might include a park-and-ride system that will help decongest roadways and surrounding forest areas.

Notwithstanding the recent surge in funding for the forest, there was not always a consensus about whether “local” interests and “tourist” interests were compatible. For instance, in an effort to combat high unemployment rates across the island in 2006, the Puerto Rican government stimulated the local economy by creating new construction jobs for commercial development projects and hotels, some of which were only two miles away from El Yunque. On one hand, easing unemployment and expanding the island’s hospitality sector ensures the long-term viability of the Puerto Rican economy. But for conservationists, any encroachment on El Yunque’s public lands and its surrounding “buffer zone” is equally dangerous, and could be a “travesty for all Puerto Ricans and the millions of visitors who come [to El Yunque] every year.” Despite such conflicts, the increasing frequency of strategic investment in El Yunque seems to reflect a trend towards greater collaboration about the trajectory of the forest.

The past century reflects just how arduous a task it can be to agree on common management goals, let alone actually carrying them out in light of short-term demands and accommodations. Nevertheless, the fact that the agency and public continue to enhance El Yunque in a more collaborative, multifaceted way is a positive sign that the forest is getting the attention it deserves. At a minimum, the country is making a humble effort to rectify the historical wrongs inflicted upon the Taíno and similarly situated indigenous groups, who hopefully can look down upon their ancestors and feel proud of their ever-increasing involvement in cherishing El Yunque.