Puerto Rico's trea­sured rain­for­est

AN­OTHER VIC­TIM OF HUR­RI­CANE MARIA:

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - WORLD - By Luis Ferre-Sadurni

LUQUILLO, PUERTO RICO >> When you looked up, you could once see noth­ing but the lush, emer­ald canopy of tabonuco and sierra palm trees cover­ing El Yunque Na­tional For­est.

That was be­fore Hur­ri­cane Maria oblit­er­ated the only trop­i­cal rain for­est in the U.S. for­est sys­tem. Left be­hind was a scene so bare that on a re­cent visit, it was pos­si­ble to see the con­crete sky­line of San Juan about 30 miles west — a pre­vi­ously unimag­in­able sight.

El Yunque, pro­nounced Jun-kay, has been an enor­mous source of pride in Puerto Rico and one of the main driv­ers of the is­land’s tourism in­dus­try. The 28,000-acre for­est on the east­ern part of the is­land has over 240 species of trees; 23 of those are found nowhere else. Over 50 bird species live among the for­est’s crags and wa­ter­falls. But sun­light now reaches cav­i­ties of the for­est that have not felt a ray of light in decades, bring­ing with it a scorch­ing heat. “Hur­ri­cane Maria was like a shock to the sys­tem,” said Grizelle González, a project leader at the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of Trop­i­cal Forestry, part of the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture. “The whole for­est is com­pletely de­fo­li­ated.”

The hard­est hit ar­eas at the top of the for­est “might take a cen­tury to re­cover,” González, who has worked at El Yunque for 17 years, said. Tree trunks that still stood were left brown, stripped of their leaves and dark-green mosses. Land­slides have scat­tered the for­est with mounds of dis­placed soil and boul­ders.

A dev­as­tated land­scape

The bil­lions of gal­lons of water that rain ev­ery year on the eight ma­jor rivers that orig­i­nate here sup­ply 20 per­cent of the drink­able water in Puerto Rico.

“What’s go­ing to hap­pen if the ecosys­tem has less ca­pac­ity to cap­ture that water, get it into the streams, and into the mu­nic­i­pal water sys­tems?” Sharon Wal­lace, the for­est su­per­vi­sor for El Yunque, said.

Bryophytes, mosses that grow on tree trunks, col­lect a lot of the water that goes down the moun­tain, Gón­za­lez said. But trees were stripped of the mosses, es­pe­cially on the face that re­ceived the di­rect fury of Maria’s winds. The bird pop­u­la­tion also suf­fered a dev­as­tat­ing hit. Birds are typ­i­cally af­fected af­ter hur­ri­canes rav­age trees of the food they eat. But on an ini­tial scouting trip to the ac­ces­si­ble parts of the for­est, Gón­za­lez said she saw the bodies of dozens of black­birds and pearly-eyed thrash­ers that had died be­cause of the hur­ri­cane’s gal­lop­ing gusts. The liveli­hood of the Puerto Ri­can par­rot, an en­dan­gered species liv­ing in El Yunque and Río Abajo State For­est, is of spe­cial con­cern. The col­or­ful bright-green bird with a dis­tinc­tive red stripe above its beak is found only in Puerto Rico and is the only na­tive par­rot species in the United States. The tourism in­dus­try in Puerto Rico is deeply in­ter­twined with its en­vi­ron­ment. About 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple visit El Yunque ev­ery year for its hik­ing trails, zip-lin­ing, camp­ing and wa­ter­falls. But the rain for­est has re­mained closed since Maria left roads in­ac­ces­si­ble and all its recre­ational fa­cil­i­ties re­ceived blows, Wal­lace, the for­est su­per­vi­sor, said. “We don’t know how long it is go­ing to take to re­open,” she said.

And on an is­land, where 58 per­cent of the acreage is forests, Maria’s eco­log­i­cal dam­age was wide­spread.

For­est will even­tu­ally flour­ish

The pop­u­la­tion of moun­tain co­qui, one of the 14 species of a small na­tive frog, with a dis­tinc­tive mat­ing call heard at night across the is­land, was se­verely re­duced by Hur­ri­cane Hugo in 1989, Rafael Joglar, a her­petol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Puerto Rico, said.

Hur­ri­cane Maria could be the fi­nal straw for that species, Joglar said. “It wor­ries us that it’ll be the next species to dis­ap­pear in Puerto Rico. The worst would be if we get a dry sea­son — that would be the mor­tal blow other than the hur­ri­cane.”

Over 1 mil­lion bats, en­com­pass­ing 13 dif­fer­ent species, call Puerto Rico their home, Allen Kurta, a pro­fes­sor of bi­ol­ogy at East­ern Michi­gan Univer­sity, said. A ma­jor­ity of the bats in Puerto Rico live in caves and prob­a­bly weath­ered the storm bet­ter than those that roost in trees, he said. Some ex­perts say the is­land’s en­vi­ron­ment will re­cover and even­tu­ally flour­ish. Hur­ri­canes are part of Puerto Rico, nat­u­ral cleansers of the trop­i­cal ecosys­tem, sci­en­tists say. Na­ture’s mech­a­nisms will kick in, they say, and spark the for­est’s nat­u­ral re­cu­per­a­tion just as they did af­ter Hur­ri­cane San Ciprian in 1932 and Hur­ri­cane Hugo in 1989. “Ob­vi­ously there’s a neg­a­tive im­me­di­ate ef­fect,” a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist, Jafet Vélez, said. “But we know by ex­pe­ri­ence that, long-term, this will cause a re­ju­ve­na­tion in the veg­e­ta­tion of the for­est that will ben­e­fit all the species that re­side there.”

New sun exposure will spark a re­birth of la­tent plant species in the for­est’s thicket that once stopped grow­ing be­cause of dense canopies that blocked sun­light, Vélez said. Some species might over­take oth­ers, chang­ing the

eco­log­i­cal com­po­si­tion. And leaves brought to the ground, Gón­za­lez said, could be­gin to act as a fer­til­izer that will help plants re­cu­per­ate. “The flora and fauna in Puerto Rico, the bio­di­ver­sity, has adapted to work through hur­ri­canes,” Joglar said.

For now, it is a mat­ter of how long it will take for na­ture to take its course af­ter be­ing bat­tered by the dead­li­est hur­ri­cane in Puerto Rico’s mod­ern his­tory.

Hur­ri­cane Maria’s dev­as­ta­tion can be seen last Fri­day at El Yunque Na­tional For­est in Puerto Rico. The for­est is home for 240 species of trees, 23 of those found nowhere else.

NEW YORK TIMES PHO­TOS

Puerto Ri­can par­rots, an en­dan­gered species liv­ing at El Yunque Na­tional For­est, are the only na­tive par­rot species found in the United States. With their habi­tat dev­as­tated, one forestry ex­pert said it could take up to a cen­tury to re­cover.

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