30 October 2020

Reconnecting with the forest during COVID-19: Adaptation and opportunities in El Yunque National Forest

Written by: Carla Ayala Crespo

The past four years have been especially hard for El Yunque National Forest, the only rainforest of the U.S. National Forest system. The forest, located in northeastern Puerto Rico, was struck in 2017 by two consecutive hurricanes. Hurricane Maria, the strongest of the two hurricanes, hit the island with winds of 155 miles per hour, devastating lives, infrastructure, properties, and natural resources, including the rainforest.

This year, El Yunque continues its recovery process from the hurricanes, having made significant progress in vegetation regrowth and building rehabilitation. In March, however, the forest and the island received another blow. The COVID-19 virus started to spread quickly in Puerto Rico, causing island-wide lockdowns and the closure of the forest for precautionary measures. During the lockdown, the Forest Service staff in Puerto Rico worked relentlessly to apply the CDC guidelines in their unit. In the process, the way recreation and outreach occur in El Yunque was changed drastically. By July, the forest implemented a reservation system through the website, to control the number of people that entered the principal attractions of the forest and to protect the health of both staff and public.

The public has voiced a mostly positive response to the new reservation system. However, there have been reports of frustrated visitors leaving the forest because they were not aware about the reservation system. Information about the new system is posted in official social media accounts and website of the forest, but different ways to share the information are being evaluated. Nonetheless, visitors that are satisfied with the new system frequently remark the efficiency shown by the entrance management. According to reviews available in the website, the entrance to the forest is now described as fast and easy, less crowded, and safe.

This change, in addition to providing a safer experience for visitors, helped to solve, in part, an agelong user capacity problem in one of the most visited attractions of the forest: the recreational area of Puente Roto, or Broken Bridge in English. On weekends and holidays, this recreational area would get extremely crowded and the exorbitant number of cars created unpleasant traffic congestion. Today the panorama is different and allows for a more serene experience.

Nowadays, these serene outdoor experiences are becoming increasingly relevant and necessary to the people, as studies continue to show the various mental and physical health benefits of spending time in natural spaces. Some people, after experiencing the lockdowns and stay-at-home mandates due to COVID-19, have begun to recognize the importance of connecting with nature.

Visiting the forest, with its new reservation system, can provide that natural connection and distraction that is sorely needed during these hard times. Recognizing that not everyone may be able to visit the forest for different reasons, the El Yunque National Forest staff prepares informative and engaging videos as a series of virtual ranger talks, available in the forest’s official social media accounts. These talks continue to show the beauty of the forest and educate visitors about the inhabitants of the forest and the importance of the resources found there.

El Yunque, like a lush and green representation of Puerto Rico, reacts to and is affected by all the major historical events that occur in the island. After Hurricane Maria, the resilience of both El Yunque and the people shone bright. Now, with COVID-19, our adaptability emerges. The Forest Service, acting in accord to its mission, continues to show its commitment to Puerto Rico and the communities nearby the forest.

Agency: U.S Forest Service

Program: Resource Assistant Program (RAP)

Location: USFS Headquarters, Washington Office

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