In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, ACE Puerto Rico has been hard at work to reopen trails in the El Yunque National Forest. To give some background, ACE Puerto Rico was established in 2015 with its first project partner at San Juan National Historic Site (NPS). The branch has now expanded its’ reach to the east side of the island. Hurricane Maria hit soon after ACE and the US Forest Service began its partnership in El Yunque and fixing the damage has been the primary focus for the ACE crew. The crew members at this branch are all Puerto Rican locals, many of whom grew up in communities surrounding the forest.
El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest within the US national forest system and provides 10% of the water for the whole island. The forest is located in the northeastern region of the island on the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo mountains. At 28,000 acres, it is the largest block of public land in Puerto Rico. “This forest is a powerful symbol for this community,” said crew leader Alberto Rivera, “I think for the rest of the island, the east is the Yunque.” The heavy rainfall creates a jungle-like setting with tree ferns, palms, and lush foliage as well as waterfalls and forest creatures, including the critically endangered Puerto Rican amazon parrot.
In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated many areas around the island, including El Yunque. Many of the buildings and trails in the forest that were closed for repairs have since been reopened through the efforts of the US Forest Service and the ACE crew! El Yunque is a resilient forest that has recovered tremendously on its own from the initial damage of the hurricane but continues to see the effects of the immense rainfall and high winds. These impacts include down trees, debris clogging drains along the trail and road, and damage to the facilities within the forest.
For some of the crew members this is their first job, Rivera stated, “ACE El Yunque has given the opportunity for young adults to learn valuable life skills, connect with nature, and create a second family. We’ve had the opportunity to learn and work side by side with El Yunque’s watershed, heritage, ecosystem, operations, and public services team on different projects.” The crew is comprised of Rivera and four community members, Estefany Gonzalez, Jan Carrasquillo, Wesley Santos, and Bryan Carrasquillo, who recently began employment with the US Forest Service. Over the last year, the crew has repainted the Yokahu Tower, performed trail maintenance on 13 miles of trail and helped open over six different trails, logged out over 70 trees, maintained forest roads and facilities, and assisted with volunteer groups. It’s safe to say that it has been a very busy and productive first year for this crew. ACE is so proud to be a part of El Yunque’s recovery and continued grandeur.