Credit: Maritza Vargas (USFWS), flickr.

A new low: Politicians try to sell off Vieques National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico

Bishop’s legislation [PDF] proposes that some 3,000 acres of Vieques National Wildlife Refuge be conveyed to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which may consider opening the land up to private development in order to pay down its $70 billion debt.

The ill-advised provision drew immediate criticism from the Department of the Interior, which said in a statement that “the prospect that a future secretary may transfer land out of a Fish and Wildlife Service refuge for the benefit of private economic development efforts is troubling.”

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell also expressed concern, telling reporters that, contrary to privatization proposals, “giving up public lands or natural areas to development is not synonymous with economic growth and development.” Secretary Jewell called Vieques “a beautiful place with tremendous natural resources, cultural resources [and] historic resources” and extolled the economic possibilities of tourism to the area if it remains preserved as-is. (Indeed, outdoor recreation pumps $646 billion into the U.S. economy annually, with much of that activity supported by the presence of protected public lands).

A letter to Congress from the Hispanic Federation noted that the sell-off scheme “would jeopardize vital public lands, needed recreational space and precious ecosystems” and demanded that any legislation to address Puerto Rico’s debt also protect the land from development.

Vieques is a tropical paradise and should be untouchable

Vieques National Wildlife Refuge is an undisputed gem of the Caribbean. Sea turtles and manatees paddle through brilliant turquoise water that laps up against what have been called “the most beautiful beaches — on an island of beautiful beaches.” The refuge also protects rare ecosystems for resident and migratory birds. A panel of experts convened by USA TODAY’s 10 BEST travel division recently voted this the fourth best wildlife refuge in America (and it preserves traces of the indigenous Taino culture, too).

Much of the island of Vieques (above) is protected as a national wildlife refuge. Credit: David Schroeder, flickr.

The efforts of some anti-conservation members of Congress to treat this popular and irreplaceable wildland as a commodity to be bought and sold is appalling…but given the increasingly radical tactics and misleading rhetoric of the ongoing “land takeover” campaign, it sadly isn’t a big surprise.

Land takeover campaign marches on, courtesy of Rep. Bishop

It is fitting that Rep. Bishop is the architect of this new land takeover maneuver. In 2015, the congressman from Utah was the driving force behind the attempt to snuff out Land and Water Conservation Fund, which enjoys support across both political parties and helps provide things like playgrounds, recreation centers, parks and trails for communities throughout the country. He even convened a congressional working group to figure out ways that the states can take over America’s most cherished national public lands.

For years, industrial interests have waged a campaign pressuring state governments to seize national forests, refuges, wilderness and other shared lands owned by all of us so they can be privatized or auctioned for drilling, mining and logging. Recently, this regressive notion of reversing “America’s best idea” has spread to Congress, with anti-conservationists in the Senate and House — exemplified by politicians like Rep. Bishop — assuming the land seizure mantle.

If this extremist movement succeeds, we could lose access to our most treasured places and mar our amazingly diverse cultural and natural heritage.

Please don’t let this happen. Find your members of Congress on Twitter and tell them how you feel.


Originally published at wilderness.org.

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