El Yunque is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System. 600,000 visitors a year enjoy the beauty of the 28,000 acre forest, and hundreds of species rely on this ecosystem, including 23 unique species of trees that are found nowhere else on earth, and the iconic Puerto Rican parrot, also unique to El Yunque. In all, 250 species of plants and 200 animals call El Yunque home — an impressive level of biodiversity. The forest supplies 20% of the water for the Island, as well.
Hurricane Maria was hard on El Yunque, just as it destroyed cities, towns, and villages across the Island. The canopy was largely defoliated, and researchers say that 20% of the trees may have been lost. Some researchers estimate that it could take a century for El Yunque to return to the character it had before the hurricane.
The forest is closed to human visitors, and the National Forest Service doesn’t expect to reopen it until later in 2018. Safety is the primary concern, since downed power lines and continuing landslides make it dangerous to explore. This will have an effect on Puerto Rico’s economy, because El Yunque is an important part of the Island’s tourist industry.
But hurricanes are a natural part of life on a tropical island. While scientists agree that human choices are accelerating climate change and more intense hurricane activity is one of the consequences, hurricanes are a natural phenomenon. Clearing away the canopy allows plants that have been dormant to flourish in the light that now can reach them. New species have opportunities, even as the established species rebuild their communities.
Flooding and landslides have changed the forest’s appearance and the skyline of San Juan is now visible from the forest. It is not known how the rain forest might change as it grows. These changes worry many people, but they also provide important opportunities to study the process of growth in a rain forest. Since El Yunque has been a nature reserve longer than Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States, scientists will have a rare opportunity to learn more about the way an established rain forest recovers from natural disaster.
The process is not predictable, and no one can say for certain how long it will take, but experts are confident that the rain forest can return to its spectacular beauty and be just as valuable to the people of Puerto Rico as it has been in the past. The same can be said for the rest of the Island.