Special to The Banner-News
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Forest Service will invest $1 million to improve access to El Yunque National Forest.
This investment is part of the Biden-Harris Administration's commitment to ensure rural communities have equitable access to the infrastructure and economic opportunities they need to grow and thrive.
"El Yunque is a special place to the people of Puerto Rico and USDA is committed to investing in the Forest to promote visitation, recreation, and economic development -- outcomes that can be maximized through collaboration and partnerships with the public and private sector," said Secretary Vilsack.
"Improving equitable access means visitors can experience this amazing place and support rural economies on the island at the same time."
People come to El Yunque for its breathtaking scenery, clear mountain rivers and outdoor recreation opportunities. About 1.2 million people visit El Yunque each year, which represents 20% of the Puerto Rican tourism economy. Vehicle congestion in El Yunque National Forest has been a challenge for 80 years. While up to 3,000 cars look to enter each day, the Forest only has 300 parking spaces.
"El Yunque is one of the most unique forests in the world, and it is up to us to ensure access to its recreation and enjoyment for everyone," said Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. "This investment reflects our agency's values and demonstrates our commitment to El Yunque National Forest, our neighboring communities and those who visit this special place."
In December, USDA kickstarted this effort with a $250,000 investment to develop a master transit plan to improve the visitor experience. Those engaged with this project envision a park and ride system to shuttle visitors into the Forest, allowing more people to enjoy El Yunque. The $1 million being announced today is an additional investment as well as an invitation to public, non-profit and private sector partners to join the Forest Service in laying the groundwork to make this vision a reality.
Today's announcement builds on a decades-long collaboration between Puerto Rico communities, non-profit organizations and the private sector. This includes the Puerto Rico Department of Transportation and Public Works, which has evaluated vehicle traffic in and around El Yunque.
"Everyone has come together to enrich the lives of people and the communities connected to this forest," said El Yunque National Forest Supervisor Keenan Adams.
These joint efforts between USDA, the Forest Service and Puerto Rico lay the groundwork for increased collaboration in the future, including through Shared Stewardship. This approach recognizes urgent land management challenges do not know borders or boundary lines. Through Shared Stewardship, the Forest Service works with others to find solutions and explore opportunities across management jurisdictions. This collaborative approach to land management builds on a long history of partnerships to manage the nation's forests and grasslands.
About El Yunque National Forest
El Yunque National Forest is one of Puerto Rico's icons. It is considered a sacred place in Puerto Rican culture. It also is the only tropical rainforest in the National Forest System.
El Yunque is one of our nation's most biologically diverse forests. In fact, there are about as many tree species at El Yunque -- about 250 different types of trees on less than 30,000 acres -- as on all the 192 million acres of other national forests combined. It was established in 1876 to protect watersheds; the forest provides about 20% of Puerto Rico's drinking water.
About El Portal de El Yunque
El Portal de El Yunque is the National Forest's visitor center -- a hub for educational and interpretive services. It is co-stewarded by three partners: Vitrina Solidaria, Fundación Amigos de El Yunque and Eastern National. These partner organizations provide leadership in programs while delivering the Forest Service mission within a sustainable economic development perspective. El Portal offers an arts program that highlights the connection between nature and humans, a concessionaire selling local products, a coworking space and an event pavilion for visitors and community members. It also features a movie that introduces visitors to the unique aspects of the forest, its ecosystems and historical background.
The 40,000 square foot open-architecture facility re-opened last year after it was closed for nearly four years due to damages caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. For more information about El Portal Visitor and Community Center visit here: www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/elyunque/recarea/?recid=43379
USDA touches the lives of all Americans each day in so many positive ways. Under the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is transforming America's food system with a greater focus on more resilient local and regional food production, promoting competition and fairer markets for all producers, ensuring access to safe, healthy and nutritious food in all communities, building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate-smart food and forestry practices, making historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural America, and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and building a workforce more representative of America. To learn more, visit www.usda.gov.