El Yunque Rainforest (Alternative Spring Break at UVA)

The University of Virginia offers many opportunities to go out and do service for the community. One such opportunity is Alternative Spring Break. ASB is a nationwide organization that promotes service trips for students. These trips can be associated with the Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture, Habitat for Humanity, local organic farms, et cetera. Student leaders organize the trips and read through anonymous applications to select students for their particular trips (at UVA this is done in the fall– this year over 600 applications were submitted!).

For more information about ASB, you should visit the ASB web page (and apply in the fall!): http://altbreak.org/

This year, I was lucky enough to go on a trip to El Yunque National Rainforest, a rainforest located in Puerto Rico and run by the Department of Agriculture Forest Service. While on the trip we helped with park maintenance: cleaning, painting, digging ditches to allow water flow, etc. This service, while seemingly unrelated to sustainability, promotes park attendance– an increasingly important aspect of sustainability. National parks and forests provide the rare experience, at least in the United States, of relatively natural immersion and preservation. In a world of houses, concrete and natural control, visiting preserved natural areas reminds us of the cost of civilization growth. It is almost effortless to mow down a natural area in the name of human development, but being in these parks and talking to the rangers who work and live in these areas, we are reminded of the beauty and the importance of preservation. One of the main goals of the Forest Service is to conserve natural resources while still promoting human goals– a key aspect of sustainability. Many forests under USDA control have carefully monitored logging which generates money used for other government services. Rainforests, however, provide other useful services.

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Deforestation of rainforests is an enormous environmental controversy as it is generally accepted as a cause of global climate change. The practice itself is intensely unsustainable as rainforests are some of the most sensitive, diverse ecosystems and are nearly impossible to revive once destroyed. Rainforests also act as a carbon sink which limits the effects of human carbon emissions from transportation and industry. The USDA has been working to expand the El Yunque Rainforest since its acquisition in 1903. The rainforest’s size has increased from 14,000 acres to 28,000 in the past century. Additionally, the El Yunque provides a significant portion of Puerto Rico’s fresh water (the greenery acts as a filter for the many rivers that flow through El Yunque) making park maintenance invaluable to the community and economy.

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While in the park, our trip had the opportunity to interact and learn about the rainforest from our incredible site contact. We learned about invasive species that have wreaked havoc on native populations (particularly the mongoose which was brought from Spain to decrease rat populations, but was largely ineffective as the two species are active at different times during the day), the decline of large mammal populations due to human development (the only native mammal in the forest are the bats), and endangered species (such as the Puerto Rican parrot). We also had the opportunity to visit several recreational areas including the La Mina waterfall, several rivers, and Luquillo beach. And they were experiences like no other (I highly recommend them if you are ever travelling down to the Caribbean). Visiting these magnificent sites was an easy reminder of all of the things in this world that we need to sustain for future generations. Sustainability is about making the most out of what we have in order to move forwards, and preserving natural wonders like the El Yunque Rainforest is a necessity.

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To read more on the El Yunque: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/elyunque/about-forest/?cid=fsbdev3_042985

And to read more on the importance of rainforests: http://www.rainforestconcern.org/rainforest_facts/why_are_rainforests_important/

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