April 30, 2003
May 1, 2003, Vieques, PR -- Sunrise on the Island of Vieques. Fulfilling the commitment made by President George W. Bush shortly after his election, this morning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened the eastern end of Vieques, welcoming the public to the largest National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Approximately 15, 500 acres of the former Navy bombing range were officially transferred from the U.S. Navy to the Service as of midnight April 30. The Service has been working closely with the local community and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to ensure that the refuge would be opened in time for people to visit the new refuge during the community celebration, which is planned for this week.
“We welcome visitors to the eastern end of Vieques, and we’ll have more than twenty Service employees onsite throughout the week to answer the public’s questions and ensure public safety on these lands,” said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “At this time, we are opening Bahia Corcho (also known as Red Beach) and Bahia de la Chiva (also known as Blue Beach) for public enjoyment. However, due to unexploded ordnance, many parts of the refuge are closed to the public until they are safe. We ask the public to pay careful attention to posted signs which indicate what areas are opened and closed.”
The Navy, in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Service, returned to Bahia Corcho and Bahia de la Chiva over the weekend to survey these areas one last time to ensure that the public will be safe when enjoying these spectacular beaches.
“We understand how important these lands are to the people of Vieques, and the Service is proud to be managing these lands as a National Wildlife Refuge for people to use and enjoy,” said Hamilton. “We plan to start holding public meetings right away to work with the local community on a conservation plan for how these lands will be used in the future.”
In the meantime, the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge will be open each day during daylight hours for people to enjoy the following activities: hiking, biking, wildlife observation, use of the beaches at Bahia de la Chiva and Bahia Corcho, photography, and fishing. For the public’s safety and to protect the flora and fauna, the following activities will not be permitted at this time: entrance to areas designated as dangerous due to the presence of unexploded ordnance, hunting, capture of land crabs, camping, fires, and horseback riding.
“Today, we celebrate with the community of Vieques and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico a strong, new partnership,” said Oscar Diaz Marrero, Refuge Manager for the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. “The Service plans to have a formal open house in July; however, our Refuge Headquarters is already open to the public. We welcome people to stop by and find out more about the Service and the National Wildlife Refuge System.”
“We sponsored a local job fair in March and plan to hire several temporary and permanent employees shortly. In addition, we also have tremendous volunteer opportunities to provide environmental education, wildlife observation, and other activities to the public,” added Diaz Marrero. “In fact, this summer we are planning to implement the second year of the Youth Conservation Program on Vieques. Applications for the program are still available at our Vieques office.”
Many areas of the refuge will be closed to ensure public safety due to unexploded ordnance until they are cleaned up and deemed safe for public use. The Navy will retain responsibility for the clean-up effort. The Live Impact Area, which encompasses 900-acres on the tip of the eastern end, was designated as a Wilderness Area and closed to public access by an act of Congress. All other areas are scheduled to be opened as soon as they are cleaned up, and the Service is coordinating closely with the Navy, EPA, EQB, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on the clean-up effort. For information about environmental clean-up, contact U.S. Navy Public Affairs, (703) 697-5342.
The Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act of 2001, Public Law No. 106-398, as amended by Public Law No. 107-107, authorizes the land transfer. The land transfer will increase the area currently managed as a National Wildlife Refuge on Vieques to just over 18,000 acres. The Service currently manages 3,100 acres on the western end of Vieques, as well. The unique area includes beaches used by threatened and endangered sea turtles for nesting, subtropical dry forest, mangrove lagoons, salt flats and bioluminescent bays.
With this land transfer, Vieques National Wildlife Refuge becomes the largest refuge in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Caribbean Islands National Wildlife Refuge complex comprises a total of nine refuges. Five refuges are located in Puerto Rico: Cabo Rojo, Laguna Cartagena, Desecheo, Culebra, and Vieques. Three others are in the US Virgin Islands: Sandy Point, Buck Island and Green Cay. Another, Navassa Island, is located off the coast of Haiti. Refuges provide habitat for threatened and endangered species, migratory and resident birds, and other wildlife and offer outstanding wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities, including fishing, hunting, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation. Refuges also provides economic opportunities to local communities through nature-based recreational activities, while retaining the unique ecological integrity of the resources.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 540 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resources offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.
For more information about Vieques National Wildlife Refuge and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, visit our website at southeast.fws.gov/vieques or call the Refuge office at 787/741-2138 or 787/741-0659. The Vieques National Wildlife Refuge office is located at the Vieques Office Park, Road 200, km. 0.04, Vieques, Puerto Rico.
NOTE: You can view our releases or subscribe to receive them -- via e-mail -- at the Service's Southeast Regional home page at http://southeast.fws.gov. Our national home page is at: http://news.fws.gov/newsreleases/.
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