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El Yunque National Forest celebrates successful first year for renovated visitor center

Brenda Peña López
El Yunque National Forest

 

In 2017 devastation reigned on Puerto Rico. Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the island just weeks apart, severely damaging critical infrastructure and destroying homes, businesses and public buildings. Power was out across the island, and a vast majority of residents were without clean drinking water. Thousands of people lost their lives during the hurricanes and in the aftermath. The road to recovery in Puerto Rico has been long. Today, the island still shows signs of the devastation. But as time goes on, the island is celebrating important recovery milestones.

El Yunque National Forest visitor center
Six months after Hurricane Maria, only a small portion of El Yunque National Forest was available for enjoyment. El Yunque National Forest’s visitor center, El Portal de El Yunque, was renovated and reopened in January 2021. The center includes an Exploration Pavilion, which provides visitors the opportunity to learn about the unique biodiversity of the Forest. (Photo Courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico)

The Forest Service visitor center was one such public building damaged during the 2017 hurricane season. In January 2023, El Yunque National Forest staff marked an important milestone and celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Forest’s visitor center reopening after it was closed for nearly four years due to damages caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria. 

Known as “El Portal de El Yunque” -- meaning “doorway to El Yunque” in English -- the center is also a hub for educational and interpretive services where Puerto Rican biodiversity and local culture play an important role.

“El Portal's first year was a great success. Its reopening carried El Yunque forward in our recovery, support for tourism, and engagement and momentum in co-stewardship with our communities and partners,” said David Ilse, El Portal project coordinator for El Yunque National Forest.

The visitor center has also become a collaborative space since reopening and is now co-stewarded by three partners: Vitrina Solidaria, Fundación Amigos de El Yunque and Eastern National. These nonprofit partners are offering innovative new programming at the center that reimagines the role of a Forest Service visitor center.

“These nonprofit partners provide leadership to the vision and operations of El Portal,” said Ilse. “They are leveraging the facility to the benefit of visitors and our communities, uplifting our public in ways the Forest Service and El Yunque never imagined.”

Eastern National facilitated more than 2,000 interpretive and educational talks in El Portal and partnered with the Río Grande Intellectual Disabilities Program, which assists individuals with intellectual disabilities in the development of skills that will help them become self-sufficient and thrive in their community.

Tourists climb La Coca Waterfall in El Yunque National Forest
Tourists climb La Coca Waterfall in El Yunque National Forest. About 1.2 million people visit El Yunque National Forest each year. In fact, these visits to El Yunque represent 20% of the Puerto Rican tourism economy. (USDA Photo by Preston Keres.)

Vitrina Solidaria supported and trained 61 local entrepreneurs to contribute to the economic and tourist development of the El Yunque region.

Fundación Amigos de El Yunque hosted 13 events for the community and facilitated the participation of 94 school students in El Portal trail restoration, completing 564 hours of volunteer work.

The improved version of El Portal also 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.

“With information easily available on a cellphone, visitor needs have changed, along with the role of visitor centers. We are reimagining a visitor center that meets the needs of users today by developing a space that focuses on visitor experience and adds value to our partners and communities,” said Keenan Adams, forest supervisor for El Yunque National Forest. “It’s the true definition of a multiple purpose space. We hope this provides a model that can be replicated in other visitor centers across the country.”

The renovated 40,000 square foot open-architecture facility also improves accessibility and opportunities to leverage the space for diverse uses in the future. About 1.2 million people visit El Yunque National Forest each year, including locals and visitors to Puerto Rico. In fact, these visits to El Yunque represent 20% of the Puerto Rican tourism economy.

tropical forest landscape
El Yunque National Forest is home to over 200 species of trees and plants, 23 of which are found nowhere else. (USDA Forest Service photo)

With such a high volume of visitors, vehicle congestion in the Forest has been a challenge for 80 years. Each day, 3,000 cars look to enter the Forest, which has only 300 parking spaces. Plans are underway to alleviate some of that strain. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Chief Randy Moore recently visited El Yunque to announce that the Forest Service will invest $1 million to develop a park and ride system to shuttle visitors into the Forest, allowing more people to enjoy El Yunque.

“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 Chief 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.”

 

https://www.fs.usda.gov/features/el-yunque-national-forest-celebrates-successful-first-year-renovated-visitor-center