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CEP Technical Report No. 36 1996: Status of Protected Area Systems in the Wider Caribbean Region
Country Profiles


Area 8,897 sq. km.


Summary Table

No. of
Protected Areas (PAs)
PAs with Marine or Coastal Zones Extension
Category I 0 0 0
Category II 0 0 0
Category III 0 0 0
Category IV 28 8 35,278
Category V 0 0 0
Categories VI-VIII 1 0 11,340
Biosphere Reserves 2 1 15,346
World Heritage Sites 0 0 0
Ramsar Sites 0 0 0
Total (1) 30 8 46,618

(1) Totals have been adjusted to avoid double counting areas that are classified in 2 or more categories.


Policy and Legislation

Puerto Rico is a self-governing commonwealth in free association with the United States of America, and laws and regulations enacted by both US federal and Puerto Rican (commonwealth) legislatures apply. While the United States has a wide range of legislative measures (see US profile in this volume) dealing with the protection of sites, no national parks, monuments or marine sanctuaries have been established in Puerto Rico.

Only three categories of protected area have been created under US federal legislation in Puerto Rico: National Wildlife Refuge, National Forest, and National Estuarine Research Reserve. The only designation which comes under the jurisdiction of the US National Park System is San Juan Historic Site, established under the 1935 Historic Sites Act. The relevant legislation is summarised below.

National wildlife refuges can be established under an Act of Congress, but can also be transferred to the authority of the FWS by transfer of land from another agency (federal or state), or by receipt of a gift of land (from a state or unit of local government, a private organisation or an individual).

National forests are established under the authority of the Creative Act or Forest Reserve Act, 1891, which authorises the President to withdraw portions of the public domain for designation. Several later acts clarify the management and objectives of the reserves, including the Organic Administration Act, 1897, which defines areas as being for the protection of water flow and the provision of a continuous supply of timber; and the McSweeney-McNary Act, 1928, which established research as a major function of the Forest Service. The Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act, 1960 recognised the range of uses to which forest lands could be put, and areas of natural forest can be designated under the Wilderness Act, 1964.

The Coastal Zone Management Act, 1972 makes provision for the creation of a national system of estuarine research reserves representative of the various biogeographical regions and estuarine types in the United States, called the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Areas are designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Provision for the establishment of national marine sanctuaries is made under the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act, 1972. The Act authorises the Secretary of Commerce to designate ocean and coastal waters as national marine sanctuaries for the purpose of preserving or restoring their conservation, recreational, ecological or aesthetic value. Designation under the Act has the advantage of protecting a discrete ecosystem, as opposed to individual natural resources and species under several different laws. The sanctuary designation process was significantly amended in 1984 to increase the emphasis on sustainable multiple use and planning. The designation process begins when NOAA selects an area from its own site evaluation list to be an active candidate. Only after the drafting of management plans, two environmental impact statements, and a public hearing can the area be designated.

Puerto Rican laws make provision for the designation of Commonwealth Forests, Wildlife Refuges and Natural Reserves. The Forestry Law (Ley de Bosques) No. 133, 1975 makes provision for protection and administration of forests. Wildlife habitats can be protected under the Department of Natural Resources (Departamento de Recursos Naturales, DRN) Organic Law, as amended, and the Wildlife Law (Ley de Vida Silvestre) No. 23, 1972, under which two wildlife refuges have been declared. Natural reserves are designated by the Puerto Rico Planning Board and the DRN, under the Puerto Rico Coastal Zone Management Plan.

The Department of Natural Resources conducted a review of endangered species of flora and fauna as part of the Natural Heritage Programme (Programa de Patrimonio Natural), initiated in 1983. The study identified the areas most important to their survival, and as a result, the Regulation on Threatened and Endangered species was developed.

The Regulation on Threatened and Endangered Species, taking its authority from the Wildlife Law, sets out procedures for protecting species and their habitats, and lists species and critical habitat in the appendices. Section 5 of the Regulation gives the Secretary authority to designate areas as critical habitats, and twelve areas providing habitat for seven species have so far been designated (DRN 1985).

The Natural Heritage Act (Ley del Programa de Patrimonio Natural), 1988 makes provision for the creation of a natural heritage programme within the DRN, with funds to acquire, restore and manage areas of natural value identified by the programme. The aim of this programme is to augment conservation efforts currently in effect by facilitating the acquisition of land, and increasing co-operation between governmental and non-governmental conservation organisations.

International Activities

Conventions & Treaties

Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region (Cartagena Convention, 1983)

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, 1973)

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOS, 1982)

Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Migratory Species, 1972)

Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar, 1971)

Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere (Western Hemisphere Convention, 1940)

Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (World Heritage, 1972)

Programmes & Associations

Caribbean Conservation Association (CCA, 1967)

Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP, 1981) and its Specially Protected Areas & Wildlife Programme (SPAW, 1990)

UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB, 1972)


Four US federal agencies and three Puerto Rican agencies, as well as private conservation organisations, have a role in protected areas administration.

The US National Park Service (USNPS), part of the US Department of the Interior, is responsible for administration and management of the national park system. However, no natural sites in Puerto Rico have been assigned the national park designation, and the NPS has responsibility for only one site, San Juan Historic Site (Díaz-Soltero, pers. comm., 1988).

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), a federal agency within the US Department of the Interior, is responsible for managing national wildlife refuges in Puerto Rico (Díaz-Soltero, pers. comm., 1988). These form the major direct habitat preservation effort of the Service and there are four established refuges. The USFWS is also responsible for the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and the protection of wetlands (Silander, pers. comm., 1991). While management objectives may vary considerably from site to site, refuges are established essentially for the restoration, preservation and management of wildlife habitat, and for the preservation of threatened and endangered species.

The US Forest Service (USFS), which is a part of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), is responsible for national forests and wilderness areas. In Puerto Rico the USFS is responsible for the management of Caribbean National Forest, or Luquillo Experimental Forest (Díaz-Soltero, pers. comm., 1988).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is a part of the US Department of Commerce, is responsible for administering the National Estuarine Reserve Research System (NERRS), through the Marine and Estuarine Sanctuaries Division of the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM), Sanctuary's Programme Division. Jobos Bay NERRS is administered by the Puerto Rico DRN and a management plan was prepared in 1983.

There are three Puerto Rican agencies with responsibility for natural resources: the Department of Natural Resources (Departamento de Recursos Naturales, DRN), the Planning Board and the Environmental Quality Board (EQB).

The DRN is the governmental organisation responsible for nature conservation, and administers various state and federal laws affecting wildlife and its habitats. The 14 commonwealth forest reserves (bosques estatales) are administered by the Puerto Rican Forest Service, which is a part of the DRN. The wildlife refuges (refugios de vida silvestre) and natural reserves (reservas naturales) are managed by the Division of Sanctuaries and Natural Reserves, which is within the Area of Forests, Sanctuaries, and Natural Reserves of the DRN.

The Puerto Rican Planning Board, working with the DRN, is able to recognise recreational and natural resource values of areas, within the planning process. There are, for example, special planning areas designated in the Puerto Rico Coastal Management Plan.

Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) work in conservation and promote protected areas, including the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico (Fideicomiso de Conservacion de Puerto Rico) and the Puerto Rico Conservation Foundation (Fundación Puertorriqueña de Conservación) (Vera, pers. comm., 1992).

The Conservation Trust is dedicated to conservation under a Deed of Constitution between the United States and Puerto Rico in 1970. The Trust has acquired several sites of land to establish nature reserves. Among these sites are the San Cristobal Canyon, the Punta Guaniquilla Reserve, the Cabezas de San Juan headland and lagoons and the Hacienda La Esperanza.

The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and the Puerto Rico Conservation Foundation provide support to establish the conservation data centre of the Natural Heritage Programme (Vera, pers. comm., 1992). The Natural Heritage Programme, established in 1988, encourages co-ordination between governmental institutes and NGOs in order to improve protected area selection and management. As part of this programme, a Consultative Council (Consejo Consultivo) was created to assess the activities of the DRN, ensuring co-operation with NGOs and compliance with the objectives of the programme.


Puerto Rico is a small and fairly mountainous island, with 80% of all level land situated in the coastal plain, where overpopulation and development exists. Following the classification system formulated by Holdridge (1967), six life zones occur, ranging from dry forest at sea level to rain forest and wet montane forest (Ewel and Whitmore 1973).

The dominant life zone is subtropical moist forest, covering over 58% of total land area, characterised by annual rainfall of 1100 mm to 2220 mm and temperatures between 18C and 24C. This zone is located in the central mountain region and along the coast (Ewel and Whitmore 1973). Much of this region has been deforested. Grasses now form the predominant vegetation type and farming is extensive.

The subtropical wet forest zone occupies much of the higher parts of mountains with a high annual rainfall of 2000 mm to 4000 mm. Characteristic vegetation types are epiphytic ferns, bromeliads and orchids. Much of this zone is covered by coffee plantations, particularly in the western region of the island, and some sugar cane has also been grown here. The zone is very important as a source of runoff, supplying water to the drier coastal areas where the majority of the population is located coast (Ewel and Whitmore 1973).

There are two lower montane life zones, subtropical lower montane wet forest and subtropical lower montane rain forest. The former is the most extensive of the two, covering the eastern and central parts of the island up to the summits of most mountains above 1,000 m, and is characterised by three types of vegetation: mature, open canopy colorado forest; cloud forest comprising dwarf trees and mosses; and palm brakes consisting of pure stands of a single palm species. This zone is too fragile for any commercial forestry or agriculture, although some dairy cattle are grazed.

The subtropical lower montane rain forest zone, is the smallest area of all the zones, and accounts for only 0.1% of total land area. It is located in a single band on the leeward side of the Luquillo Mountains, entirely within Luquillo Experimental Forest. The vegetation is very similar to that of the subtropical lower montane wet forest zone, but with a greater abundance of epiphytes.

Immediately below these two zones is the subtropical rain forest zone, also occurring only in a single band and characterised by heavy rainfall. Located in the alluvial coastal areas is the subtropical dry forest zone, the driest on the island with average annual rainfall of 600 mm to 1000 mm. The vegetation tends to form complete ground cover and is almost entirely deciduous (Ewel and Whitmore 1973).

Since the arrival of European colonists, 90% of Puerto Rico has been deforested, and almost all remaining forests are intensively disturbed. Much of the present tree cover is in the form of coffee plantations and secondary forest. The area covered by secondary forest has indeed increased more recently to about 40%, with the decline of the sugar cane industry (Brash 1987). Only 0.2% of the original forests now remain, largely in Luquillo Experimental Forest and Guánica Commonwealth Forest (Wiley 1985).



The first reserve to be established was Caribbean National Forest, also known as Luquillo Experimental Forest, from land that previously belonged to the Spanish Crown in 1907 (Little and Woodbury 1980). By 1980, a system of 14 commonwealth forests was well distributed across the island, covering 24,000 ha ranging from mangrove forest in coastal regions to high alpine forest at the peaks of the Luquillo Mountains (Little and Woodbury 1980).

No marine sanctuaries have been established in Puerto Rico; the proposed La Parguera National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) was not implemented. There are no candidate national marine sanctuaries, but Cordillera Reefs remains on the (1983) NMS site evaluation list (Foster and Archer 1988). The Jobos National Estuarine Research Reserve was established in 1987 through US federal-Puerto Rican co-operation as part of the National Estuarine Reserve Research System (NERRS), which is a nation-wide network of 16 areas. They are to provide long-term education and research opportunities (NOAA 1987).


Caribbean Field Office, US Fish and Wildlife Service, PO Box 491, BOQUERON, Puerto Rico 00622 Tel: (809) 851-7297 Fax: (809) 851-7440)

Caribbean Islands National Wildlife Refuges, US Fish and Wildlife Service, PO Box 510, BOQUERON, Puerto Rico 00622

Caribbean National Forest, Forest Service, US Department of Agriculture, PO Box 25000, RIO PIEDRAS, Puerto Rico 00928

Departamento de Recursos Naturales, (DRN), Programma de Patrimonio Natural, PO Box 5887, PUERTA DE TIERRA, Puerto Rico 00906 Tel: (809) 723-1464 (809) 723-3090 Fax: (809) 722-2785

Institute of Tropical Forestry, Forest Service US Department of Agriculture, PO Box 25000, RIO PIEDRAS, Puerto Rico 00928

Marine and Estuarine Sanctuaries Division, Office of Ocean and Coastal Resources, NOAA, 1825 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 714, WASHINGTON DC 20235

National Park Service, PO Box 712, OLD SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico 00902

Fideicomiso de Conservacion de Puerto Rico (Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico), PO Box 4747, SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico 00905

Fundación Puertorriqueña de Conservación (Puerto Rico Conservation Foundation), Calle O'Neill #11, HATO REY, Puerto Rico 00918 Tel. (809) 763-9875 Fax: (809) 763-9895

Office of the Governor of Puerto Rico, PO Box 82, La Forteleza, Apdo. 82, San Juan, PR 00901 Tel: (809) 721-7000 Fax: (809) 766-2483


Birdsey, R.A. and Weaver, P.L. (1982) The forest resources of Puerto Rico. USDA Forest Service Resource Bulletin, SO-85, Southern Forest Experiment Station, New Orleans, LA. 59 pp.

Birdsey, R.A. and Weaver, P.L. (1987) Forest area trends in Puerto Rico. Research Note SO-331. USDA Forest Service, Southern Forest Experiment Station, New Orleans, LA. 5 pp.

Brash, A.R. (1987) The history of avian extinction and forest conversion on Puerto Rico. Biological Conservation 39:97-111.

Davis, S.D., Droop, S.J.M., Gregerson, P., Henson, L., Leon, C.J., Lamlein Villa Lobos, J., Synge, H. and Zantovska, J. (1986) Plants in danger: what do we know? Conservation Monitoring Centre, Kew, UK. 461 pp.

DRN (1980) Suplemento técnico para la Reserva Natural Caja de Muertos. Departamento de Recursos Naturales, Area de Investigaciones Científicas, San Juan. 246 pp.

DRN (1983) Suplemento técnico para el plan de manejo de la Reserva Natural de Bahía de Jobos. División de Asesoramiento Técnico Area de Investigaciones Científicas, Departamento de Recursos Naturales, San Juan. 144 pp.

DRN (1985) Regulation to govern the management of threatened and endangered species in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Department of Natural Resources, San Juan. 34 pp.

Dodd, C.K. and Ortiz, P.R. (1983) An endemic gecko in the Caribbean. Oryx 17(3):119-121.

Ewel, J.J. and Whitmore, J.L. (1973) Ecological life zones of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Forest Service Research Paper ITF18. USDA Forest Service, Río Piedras, Puerto Rico. 72 pp.

Figueroa Colón, J.C., Ortiz, P.R., Quevedo, V. (1984) Directrices para la evaluación de áreas naturales en Puerto Rico. Departamento de Recursos naturales de Puerto Rico.

Foster, N.M. and Archer, J.H. (1988) The National Marine Sanctuary programme - policy, education and research. Oceanus 31(1):4-17.

Green, S. (1985) The U.S. national marine sanctuary programme. In: Lien, J. and Graham, R. (Eds.), Marine parks and conservation: challenge and promise. Volume 2. The National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada, Toronto. p.45-p.54.

Little, E.L. Jr., and Wadsworth, F.H. (1964) Common trees of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Agricultural Handbook No. 249, Washington D.C., USA. 1217 pp.

Little, E.L. Jr., and Woodbury (1980) Rare and endemic trees of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Conservation Research Report No. 27. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington DC. 18 pp.

Lugo, A.E. and Brown, S. (1981) Ecological monitoring in the Luquillo Forest Reserve.

Ambio 10(2-3):102-107.

Mohlenbrock, R.H. (1987) Elfin forest, Puerto Rico. Natural History 12:20-22.

NOAA/DRN (1983) Jobos Bay National Estuarine Sanctuary, management plan. Office of Ocean and Coastal Resources Management and Department of Natural Resources. 87 pp.

Raffaele, H.A. (1983) A guide to the birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Fondo Educativo Interamericano, Río Piedras. 249 pp.

Scott, D.A. and Carbonell, M. (1986) Inventario de humedales de la región Neotropical. IUCN, Cambridge and IWRB, Slimbridge, UK. 714 pp.

The Nature Conservancy (1977) Preserving Our Natural Heritage. Volume 1: Federal Activities. Prepared for the National Park Service, US Department of the Interior. Government Printing Office, Washington DC.

UNEP/IUCN (1988) Coral Reefs of the World. Volume 1: Atlantic and Eastern Pacific. UNEP Regional Seas Directories and Bibliographies. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK/UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya. 373 pp.

US Department of Commerce (1983) Proposed La Parguera National Marine Sanctuary draft environmental act statement and management plan. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Washington, DC. 169 pp.

US Department of Commerce (1984) Proposed La Parguera National Marine Sanctuary final environmental pact statement and management plan. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Washington, DC. 251 pp.

Wiley, J.W. (1985) Bird conservation in the United States Caribbean.

Bird Conservation 2:107-159.


Not available


Name of area IUCN & National Mgmt. Categories Presence of Marine or Coastal Zones Area
Year Established
Caja de Muertos IV NR YES 188 not avail.
Laguna Tortuguero IV NR   1,000 not avail.
Mona IV NR YES 5,554 not avail.
Cabo Rojo IV NWR YES 238 1974
Culebra IV NWR YES 633 1909
Desecheo IV NWR YES 146 1968
Laguna Cartagena IV NWR   324 1989
Boquerón Wildlife Reserve IV WR   237 not avail.
Humacao IV WR   1,026 1984
Jobas Bay IV NERR YES 1,371 not avail.
Cabezas de San Juan IV NA   128 1975
Cañón de San Cristóbal IV NA   332 1974
Hacienda La Esperanza IV NA   922 1975
Laguna Guaniquilla IV NA   157 not avail.
Lands adjacent to the Bioluminescent Bay IV CF   131 not avail.
Aguirre IV CF   936 1918
Boquerón Commonwealth Forest IV CF   803 1918
Cambalache IV CF   374 1951
Carite IV CF   2,695 1936
Ceiba IV CF   143 1918
Guajataca IV CF   927 not avail.
Guánica IV CF YES 4,006 1919
Guilarte IV CF   1,457 1935
Maricao IV CF   4,149 1919
Piñones IV CF YES 630 1918
Río Abajo IV CF   2,275 not avail.
Susúa IV CF   1,315 1935
Toro Negro IV CF   2,733 1934
Vega IV CF   448 1951
Subtotal   29 8 35,278  
Caribbean/Luquillo Experimental Forest VIII NF   11,340 not avail.
Subtotal   1 0 11,340  
Guánica Commonwealth Forest Reserve IX BR YES 4,006 1976
Luquillo Experimental Forest (CNF) IX BR   11,340 1976
Subtotal   2 1 15,346  

BR = Biosphere Reserves

CF = Commonwealth Forests

NF = National Forest

NA = Natural Areas

NERR = National Estuarine Research Reserve

WR = Wildlife Refuges

NWR = National Wildlife Refuges

NR = Natural Reserves

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Preface | 1. Introduction | 2. Relevant Issues... | 3. Status of Protected Areas Systems | 4. Conclusions... | 5. References | Country Profiles

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