A beach in Puerto Rico's Northeast Corridor. Photo by Jennifer Hattam.
Critically endangered Leatherback sea turtles must feel like humans have it out for them. As they cope with the massive BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the least we could do is keep one of their most important nesting areas safe. Yet if Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño has his way, that nesting area could soon be covered with luxury housing, hotels and golf courses.I'm talking about the beautiful Northeast Ecologico Corridor's pristine beaches, wetlands and dry coastal forest that lie adjacent to El Yunque National Forest, the Service's only tropical rainforest. The protection of the Corridor is one of the Sierra Club of Puerto Rico's top conservation priorities, and is also one of the most important U.S. nesting grounds for the Leatherback, the world's largest sea turtle.
Covering more than 3,000 acres in the northeast corner of Puerto Rico, the Northeast Ecologico Corridor had been designated as a nature reserve in 2008 by preceding governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá after a multiparty effort in the state legislature. But in October 2009, the new governor, Luis Fortuño, removed the designation allowing for large-scale development in the area, including more than 4,500 residential and tourist units and four golf courses.The Corridor is the second most important Leatherback turtle nesting beach in U.S. jurisdiction, and of the top three, it is now the only one without protection as a nature reserve.
In addition to being a key nesting area for the Leatherback, the Ecological Corridor is home to more than 50 rare, threatened, endangered, and native species, including the Snowy Plover, the Brown Pelican, the Puerto Rican Boa, the Hawksbill Sea Turtle, and the West Indian Manatee.
Instead of becoming a governor noted for his protection of the environment, Luis Fortuño is now known as the first governor in the history of Puerto Rico to eliminate a nature reserve in its entirety.
According to Camilla Feibelman, a Sierra Club organizer in Puerto Rico, (who works with thousands of residents and local and organizations toward preserving the Northeast Corridor) Fortuño's plan does not make much sense—it's as if he didn't know what the original nature reserve designation included. That management would have allowed the construction of eco-lodges in the Corridor and the only step left was for the planning board to approve the plan.
It's not as if there are not great economic opportunities in leaving the area with its nature designation. "The protection of the Northeast Ecological Corridor represents not only an opportunity to protect this critical Leatherback turtle nesting area, but it is also an opportunity to develop nearby towns as gateway communities with small businesses and good ecotourism jobs," said Feibelman.
Hikers on a trail in the lush Northeast Corridor rainforest. Photo by Jennifer Hattam.
She added that another oddity is that the Puerto Rican government is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote El Yunque National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service's only tropical rainforest, as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World—yet at the same time the government now wants to open El Yunque's coasts to hotel-luxury residential projects, golf courses, shopping centers, and a new road.
What's the sense in that? There is a way to protect this valuable area while also having it help boost the local economy. A coalition supporting the nature designation of the Northeast Corridor (including the Sierra Club) sees an economic development proposal based on the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit El Yunque each year and the many more who will come if the forest wins a spot among the New Seven Wonders of the World. The Corridor is a complementary destination, where people can kayak, bike, camp, hike but most especially see the Leatherback turtle nesting.
And in fact, I had the opportunity to visit the Corridor and the surrounding area during a visit to Puerto Rico several years ago. Visiting the northeast of Puerto Rico was like a slice of Costa Rica but closer to home. We biked, we hiked, we kayaked in a biolumnescent lagoon - it was a wonderful experience in an amazing place.
Please join me and the Sierra Club to ensure the future of the Leatherback and the Corridor. The Sierra Club is working on steps to return the designation of Nature Reserve at the local level, but nationally the Club's legal team is petitioning U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to protect the Corridor's beaches as critical habitat. Since the agencies have not met the required deadline to issue a preliminary opinion on the issue, the Club may be forced to file suit, because, as the petition points out, how can our endangered species recover if they do not have the habitat necessary for nesting?
You can protect the Corridor too! Write to governor Luis Fortuño asking him to return the Nature Reserve in its entirety. Take action and help protect the area.
Read more about conservation:
Conservation Works: NOAA Declares Four US Fish Stocks Rebuilt to Healthy Levels
6 Conservation Successes That Brought Animals Back from the Brink
Why Conservation Matters in Conflict Zones