The 150-Year Mission to Reforest Puerto Rico

Sep 26, 2018

by Vann R. Newkirk II

RÍO PIEDRAS, Puerto Rico—There was a time when all the lushness around here did not exist. The University of Puerto Rico’s botanical garden is arrayed just south of the metropolitan core of San Juan, nestled between the city and a state forest. The variety of plants is stunning—but still far from complete. Just 80 years ago, a moment in the life of forests, only 6 percent of Puerto Rico was covered in trees. Like much of the rest of the Caribbean, colonial deforestation had reshaped and denuded the island, with massive plantations and the timber trade converting almost every square inch of Puerto Rico. Only the decree of the Spanish Crown preserved any of the old-growth forest, a sylvan remnant of El Yunque in the east, that once covered the island. The gradual return of trees to the island has been a growing but still fragile trend.

That trend was put on hold by Hurricane Maria. Even the ancient rainforest of El Yunque faced severe damage from that storm, and smaller secondary forests fared no better. The 155-mile-an-hour winds of the Category 4 hurricane devastated homes, power lines, and tree cover alike. The defoliation was so thorough that it could be measured by aerial photographs taken by nasa, the deep green replaced by the ugly brown of mud and bare bark. The millions of pounds of rotting vegetation that sloughed off into streets and waterways was so thick that it limited travel, overwhelmed municipal trash services, and created public-health problems. A year later, the green has crept back, but the experiment of reforestation is still finding its footing, and the environment is only beginning its recovery.

In a tiny lot adjacent to the botanical gardens in Río Piedras, the seeds of that recovery are being sown. A tree nursery run by the nonprofit Para la Naturaleza features shaded greenhouses full of aspirant seedlings that will one day dominate the canopy, and rows of saplings placed outside to expose them to the elements. One hundred and ninety species of trees representing endemic and native species are on display in boxes and pots throughout the lot, which is one of five nurseries representing different climes across the island. The seedlings are still wispy, and many of the younger saplings might be mistaken for bushes. But the organization’s plan is that these will one day be the mighty anchors of old forests, markers of a new post-Maria order in Puerto Rico.

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