If goodwill is key to a refuge’s success, Vieques National Wildlife Refuge faced tough odds.

When the refuge was established in 2001 at a Navy weapons storage site on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, it inherited not just thousands of acres of subtropical habitat, but a legacy of distrust.

Viequenses held protests to demand an end to 60 years of Navy bombing and land restrictions. In 2003, the Navy quit its island bombing range. But when Congress transferred that land to the refuge instead of returning it to local control, some community leaders fumed.

The refuge’s first task? Convincing citizens “we’re not the Navy,” says Vieques Refuge manager Mike Barandiaran. “We have worked hard to show local citizens we have common interests and we can achieve them better by working together.” Ten years later, it’s a new ballgame, and building community relations is one reason why.

To serve residents and tourists, the refuge has kept its many secluded refuge beaches open 365 days a year. It has repaired roads (including two to the island’s famed bioluminescent bay), built public restrooms, opened a new visitor center, trained local youth in conservation, and hired a bilingual, largely Puerto Rican and Viequense staff.

As requested by the community, the refuge has restored historic names (Caracas, La Chiva, Punta Arena) to beaches the Navy had rechristened Red, Blue and Green. And—most important—the refuge is protecting sea turtles, replanting mangroves and working with local citizens to spread a conservation ethos. What wins people to conservation here? National pride. Natural beauty. And economics: Nature–based tourism is a driver in the Vieques economy.

“This is the beginning of a brand–new age for us,” Barandiaran says.

Oscar Diaz, who led the refuge from its 2001 start to 2007, agrees. “Relations with the community are much better,” says Diaz, who today manages Cabo Rojo Refuge. “The Service has done an excellent job rebuilding trust.”

Cleanup of contaminants left by the Navy continues. Searches for unexploded ordnance complicate refuge work. But as the refuge and partners learn to balance habitat restoration with Navy vegetation removal, prospects for conservation are brightening.

Residents Help With Turtles

One focus is protecting endangered leatherback, hawksbill and green turtles that nest at the refuge. Each spring, residents help monitor nests on refuge beaches. “It’s too much for one person to do,” says Mitsuka Bermudez, a Viequense woman who protested against the Navy presence and now is vice president of TICATOVE, the refuge Friends group. “We have over 40 sea turtle nesting beaches. If it weren’t for volunteers with TICATOVE, we couldn’t do it.” More than 20 volunteers worked eight–hour patrol shifts in May.

Another focus is conserving native plants. Recently the refuge propagated two native endangered species—cobana negra and matabuey. On Earth Day local families helped transplant the seedlings to a new refuge greenhouse. They also learned about restoring native mangroves, which filter saltwater and stop beach erosion, and controlling invasive mesquite.

Engaging youth is a priority. In June the refuge co–hosted the island’s fourth youth fishing derby. More than 400 people—137 kids—attended. A Youth Conservation Corps team led a beach and pier cleanup. In June the refuge also co–hosted its second two–week conservation workshop for kids ages 5 to 12.

The common thread? “Buy–in from the community,” says refuge law officer Zack Kincaid. “That’s the thing here: trying to convince the community that we’re here to do some good. What did Aldo Leopold say? Ninety percent of wildlife management is people management.”

Vieques Refuge is determined to get that right.

Susan Morse is a writer–editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.