Preserving a Special Piece of La Isla del Encanto
The Sierra Club's newest chapter won a huge victory—for the second time—the last week of June when Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño signed a law protecting nearly 2,000 acres of the island's Northeast Ecological Corridor from development.
For years, the Corridor—also known as the NEC—has been threatened by two proposed megaresorts that included 4,900 new residential and tourist units and three golf courses.
"We did hundreds of presentations to children about sea turtles and the Corridor; we collected thousands and thousands of petitions; we put on the Festival del Tinglar (sea turtle festival) for six years running; we did cleanups in anticipation of turtle nesting season, we led tours of the Corridor; and we involved thousands of people in our grassroots effort," says Puerto Rico Sierra Club organizer Camilla Feibelman, at left.
(Feibleman was the 2012 recipient of the Sierra Club's Special Achievement award, in large part for her leadership in protecting the Northeast Ecological Corridor. She was also instrumental in fighting a proposed pipeline and incinerator, and she spearheaded the effort to involve the Sierra Club in New York City's Puerto Rico Day parade, the largest parade in the U.S.)
Above, the 2011 Puerto Rico Day parade; below, the 2010 Festival del Tinglar.
Encompassing palm-fringed beaches, wetlands, forests, coral reefs, mangrove swamps, and a bioluminescent lagoon, the Northeast Ecological Corridor is one of the most important nesting grounds on earth for the endangered leatherback sea turtle, below—the largest of all sea turtles.
The NEC is home to more than 50 rare, endemic, and threatened species, including the Snowy Plover, Brown Pelican, Puerto Rican Boa, Hawksbill Sea Turtle, and West Indian Manatee. The El Yunque National Forest, adjacent to the Corridor, is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest Service jurisdiction.
"This place is better than Avatar," Feibelman says.
Although many Puerto Ricans consider the NEC to be the environmental crown jewel on the Isle of Enchantment, in 1996 the Northeast Coast Tourism Development Conceptual Plan was approved, opening the way for Four Seasons Resorts and Marriott International to built two megaresorts in the Corridor. (Neither project ever got its permit.)
A grassroots campaign to preserve the NEC immediately sprung up, and in 2005 the newly-established Puerto Rico Sierra Club teamed up with more than 20 other citizens groups to form the Coalition for the Northeast Ecological Corridor.
They succeeded in 2008, when then-Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá designated the Corridor as a nature reserve. That's Acevedo Vilá below at left with former Sierra Club President Eduardo Gonzalez, and at right holding up the executive order protecting the NEC.
But in 2009, newly-elected Governor Fortuño reversed the decision, paving the way for resort development.
"After Governor Fortuño undid the protection, people reacted overwhelmingly," says current chapter president Orlando Negron. "The governor's new plan for the Corridor left it fragmented, with 450 acres of the reserve still open for development. Over 500 people showed up at public hearings calling for preservation of the Corridor as a whole."
Above and below, citizens turn out in force to voice their support for protecting the NEC.
The testimony was ignored, however, and in July 2011 a development plan for the NEC was approved by the Puerto Rico Planning Board. The Coalition went straight to the state legislature, asking them to protect all the Corridor's public lands. They agreed, and in May of this year the Puerto Rico House and Senate unanimously approved a bill protecting 1,950 acres of public lands in the Northeast Ecological Corridor as a nature reserve, with both local political parties joining in their entirety as co-authors. Governor Fortuño, recognizing the depth and breadth of public support for protecting the Corridor, signed the bill on June 25.
"Now finally it's time to implement our vision," says Carmen Guerrero, a member of the Coalition for the Northeast Ecological Corridor. "Nearly 1.5 million people visit El Yunque National Forest every year, but they don't stay in the area. We want the Corridor to become a complementary destination to El Yunque, and the quaint Spanish-style town of Luquillo (see below), located between El Yunque and the NEC, to be developed as a gateway community to the Corridor, creating urban infill and economic opportunities for local people."
"This victory is proof that when people participate in government they can make true change, "Feibelman says. "The people spoke and the governor had to listen."