El Portal de El Yunque reopens with changed management plan
By John McPhaul
With a new collaborative management approach along with non-governmental organizations and a greater integration of communities, El Portal de El Yunque National Forest reopened on Thursday after an investment of $20 million assigned by the United States Congress to the U.S. Forest Service for recovery from Hurricane Maria.
El Portal, which was originally opened in 1996 but had remained closed since the impact of Hurricane Maria in 2017, boasts a renovated façade and attractions that invite the public to explore, discover and connect with the forest. New interactive exhibits, artwork, accessible trails, and interpretive panels in English and Spanish have been added to promote natural resource conservation education.
“In the past, El Portal was managed for mass tourism and did not provide a space for the community, collaborators and local tourists. This revitalization turned El Portal into a visitor center with a community component,” El Yunque Supervisor Keenan Adams said at a press conference. “Through El Portal, the Forest Service will now provide opportunities for education and participation, and our collaborators will take advantage of the space to improve the social well being of our communities. This is the main community and visitor center in the Caribbean, and we would love for all Puerto Ricans to come and experience it.”
Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia added that “the El Yunque National Forest, the only one of its kind in our nation, is of great value to our island, both for its tourist attraction and for the biodiversity that it contributes so much to our ecosystem.”
“Since the passage of Hurricane Maria, El Portal has been closed due to the damage that occurred,” the governor said. “And our El Yunque also received tremendous blows as a result of nature itself, and its recovery has been impressive.”
The governor signed an executive order at the ceremony excluding areas bordering El Yunque and the Northeast Ecological Corridor from the planning category that expedites approval of construction projects.
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón recounted that “in 2019, I brought a delegation from the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources to help them understand the importance of restoring the only tropical rainforest in the entire nation. Our efforts bore fruit by securing $67 million in federal funds for its restoration and today, with an investment of $20 million in federal funds, we celebrate the reopening and reconstruction of El Portal, an investment that multiplies with the impact on tourism and the economy by having been granted in their vast majority to local contractors.”
“I look forward to continuing to work, alongside the El Yunque National Forest staff, to continue making progress such as efforts for the Forest Service to prioritize deferred maintenance and land acquisition projects in El Yunque, through funds allocated under the Great American Outdoors Act,” the resident commissioner added.
The 40,000-square-foot structure -- situated on 15 rainforest acres -- now features 6,200 square feet of office space, collaborative work with organizations, conference rooms, a warehouse,a partner-managed store, a restaurant, a movie theater, an exhibition pavilion and a room for social or corporate events. The facilities have a capacity for 1,668 people.
With the reopening of El Portal, El Yunque will also premiere a film that shows visitors characteristic aspects of the forest, its ecosystems and its historical legacy. The production was directed by Puerto Rican filmmaker María Falcón. As in the film made in 2009, Benicio del Toro narrates the English version, and also participates in the Spanish version, narrated by actress Cordelia González.
Meanwhile, the collaborating organizations perform different functions in the new operation. Vitrina Solidaria manages the co-working space, Fundación Amigos de El Yunque coordinates and promotes educational events and activities, and Eastern National manages the entrance and main concessionaire.