Puerto Rico's Problems Shouldn't Be Solved By Selling Public Lands

Rather than proposing to sell off wildlife refuges for short-term gains, our leaders and legislators at all levels should be thinking about how to protect them for the long term, so our children and grandchildren can visit them.
04/06/2016 07:39 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2017

In recent weeks, there have been a number of proposals to help the commonwealth of Puerto Rico deal with its enormous debt, which is $72 billion and growing, and which has caused major economic headaches for the island.

But any action taken by Congress shouldn't involve selling off parts of Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, which is one of the ideas in a bill proposed recently in the House of Representatives.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently made her first trip to Puerto Rico and declared that "we need to be very, very careful...Giving up public lands or natural areas to development is not synonymous with economic growth and development." She added "this is a beautiful place with tremendous natural resources, cultural resources, historic resources..."

The Secretary is correct, and the proposal to permit development in the refuge should be dropped from any measure Congress eventually adopts. While Puerto Rico's financial problems are very serious and need to be addressed, permitting development of our public lands should not be part of any solution.

Vieques is a unique place. In 1941, as World War II began, the U.S. Navy took it over and used it for gunnery practice by ships at the nearby Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. But when that base was closed, Vieques was no longer needed, the Navy left the island in 2003 and most it was turned into a National Wildlife Refuge.

It has quickly become one of the Caribbean's top tourist spots and was recently voted by the public as the fourth best of the nation's more than 560 refuges.

While Puerto Rico certainly has many challenges, it also has some of the best beaches and most spectacular natural habit in the Caribbean, which is why The Trust for Public Land has worked on the island for years. Just east of San Juan's touristy Condado beaches, we protected the most important sea turtle habitat in the Caribbean. And on the island's southwest corner, we helped protect land at the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge.

In recent months, there has been much attention in the media about proposals to sell or turn over to the states some of our public lands. But what critics of public lands don't understand is that the "public" in that discussion is all of us. Together, we jointly own all those lands, whether they are located in America's national parks, or the wildlife refuges in Puerto Rico and other places.

Our public lands are the envy of the world, and people visit them from all over the globe. In fact, the federal agencies which oversee those lands on our behalf have developed international offices to help other nations protect their own lands.

Rather than proposing to sell off wildlife refuges for short-term gains, our leaders and legislators at all levels should be thinking about how to protect them for the long term, so our children and grandchildren can visit them.