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July 05, 2012

Saving a Piece of Paradise

Late June brought several pieces of great environmental news: Colorado's Roan Plateau was spared from oil and gas drilling, and the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the EPA's position that the Clean Air Act requires the federal government to impose limits on greenhouse gas emissions from industry and vehicles.

But neither of those victories registered with the youngest environmentalists in the Brune household like the news that Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño had signed a law protecting nearly 2,000 acres of the island's Northeast Ecological Corridor from development.

The leatherback sea turtles get to keep their nesting grounds.

Two years ago, not long after I started with the Sierra Club, our family visited Puerto Rico, which has the Club's newest Chapter. We'd timed our visit to coincide with the Festival del Tinglar (Festival of the Sea Turtle), put on every year by the Puerto Rico Sierra Club and the Coalition for the Northeast Ecological Corridor.

When we arrived at the festival, Puerto Rico Chapter Director Camilla Feibelman greeted my wife and me briefly, and then turned her full attention to our kids, Olivia and Sebastian. Their eyes grew wide as they listened to tales of newly hatched baby sea turtles breaking for the sea and flopping across the sand as fast as their tiny flippers can propel them.

The Corridor is one of the most important nesting grounds on earth for the endangered leatherback sea turtle, but its bioluminescent lagoon, mangrove swamps, coral reefs, and dense tropical rainforest are also home to more than 50 rare, threatened, and native species. "This place is better than Avatar," says Camilla.

Yet for years, the Corridor has been threatened by two proposed mega-resorts that would include 1,900 new residential and tourist units and three golf courses. Needless to say, golf courses and baby sea turtles do not mix.

The next day, we went on a hike through the Corridor's El Yunque rainforest -- the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest Service's jurisdiction -- replete with hanging vines, crags, and waterfalls. We also visited the Corridor's bioluminescent lagoon, which glows an otherworldly shade of green at nighttime when you paddle through the water. And best of all, we were fortunate enough to a giant leatherback lay her eggs on the beach by the full moon’s light.

How did the Puerto Rico Sierra Club and other grassroots groups keep this wondrous place from being turned into condos and putting greens? Through good old-fashioned grassroots organizing -- leading tours, putting on the Sea Turtle Festival, and mobilizing Puerto Rico's citizens to action. As with so many environmental battles -- this one had to be won more than once. In 2008, former Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá had designated the Corridor as a nature reserve, only to have his successor, Governor Fortuño, reverse that decision upon taking office in 2009.

Signing this bill represents a remarkable reversal for Fortuño, although in truth, he could hardly have done otherwise. The Puerto Rico House and Senate had passed the bill unanimously, with both local parties joining in their entirety as coauthors.

So to Camilla and all the hundreds of members of the Puerto Rico Sierra Club who have fought for years to protect this pristine piece of paradise -- congratulations and a big thank you from everyone in the Brune family.

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