PUERTO RICO — Since September 2017, after the passage of hurricanes Irma and Maria through Puerto Rico, local USDA Forest Service staff, interagency Incident Management Team members from across the U.S along with locally hired temporary employees and contractors have worked diligently to restore services and facilities to the El Yunque National Forest. To date over 125,000 man-hours have been logged in recovery work.
Damage assessments by biologists, engineers and operational staffs provided initial and ongoing information to formulate a strategy for recovery efforts. A small contingent of off-island resources remain to support the forest, mainly assisting with clean-up and rehabilitation of some remaining projects.
One ambitious project recently completed was the reconstruction of over 600 feet of boardwalk that supports a section of the pipeline for the forest’s potable water system. Along with that, repairs to the water treatment facilities were also completed.
Over 90 percent of the downed trees along 24 miles of forest trails have been removed by incident crews. Still, significant trail and road reconstruction is still needed to repair landslide and erosion damage. Assessment of trail damages was conducted, plans were formulated and partnerships created to facilitate the repairs and reconstruction necessary to open trails once they are again safe for public access. However, most popular main recreation areas still have limited accessibility due to landslides and road construction work currently in progress with oversight by the Federal Highway Administration.
Prior to hurricanes Irma and Maria, El Yunque National Forest hosted over 1 million visitors annually and contributed to the regional economy through recreation and tourism. While much of the forest remains closed to public access, crews worked hard to secure access to some areas where visitors can enjoy scenic views, a waterfall, access to a river and hike a portion of a trail. Special use permits have been issued to over 100 tour operators who are now able to resume forest tours on a limited basis.
Forest facilities including El Portal Visitor Center and Forest administrative offices were impacted and remain closed for rehabilitation. In response to this challenge, the Forest Service saw a unique opportunity to increase engagement with local communities, network with new and existing partners and continue to serve its visitors. One initiative is the development of Portalito hubs – which serve as small, standalone versions of El Portal Visitor Center – to operate as effective centers of community development, activity and communication between El Yunque National Forest and surrounding communities. Portalito hubs serve as a bridge between the USDA Forest Service, underserved areas and community partners. The effort seeks to foster interconnectivity and focus on education, economic growth, co-management and volunteering in surrounding communities.
The first Portalito hub, opened nearby to where El Portal Visotor Center is currently located, in the community of Palmer in March. The hubs are hosting several workshops, including opportunities to learn about sustainable concepts such as solar energy systems and are sharing information with communities, visitors, teachers and students on forest natural resource and hurricane recovery. Local middle school students are using the facility for projects including planting a garden while learning about medicinal plants.
In addition to announcing the opening of El Portalito: Palmer, forest staff along with the Forest Friends of Group, Amigos de El Yunque, and volunteers also hosted in March an International Day of Forests event welcoming over 800 participants to experience the forest in its state of recovery and recuperation while enjoying a day of interpretive hikes, talks, demonstrations, music and culture.
The next Portalito hub will be hosted out of an existing historic structure, a ranger station, located on the east side entrance to El Yunque National Forest. This hub will be followed by a third one, which will be located somewhere near the southern part of the forest. Currently, the rehabilitation of and subsequent reopening of El Portal Visitor Center is expected to take place around November 2019.