Beauty and the Bomb: Puerto Rico's Vieques
Bombs once exploded on Isla de Vieques during naval exercises. Now that the military range has been turned into a wildlife refuge, the fireworks on this Puerto Rican island are created by glowing microorganisms in its bioluminescent bay.
Last year the Environmental Protection Agency added the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Area at Vieques to its list of Superfund sites; the agency's report states the range and surrounding waters contain "extensive amounts of unexploded ordnance'' and may also hold mercury, perchlorate, depleted uranium, and other hazardous substances. The Navy has budgeted $76 million for the removal of ordnance and toxins over the next three years. Diaz-Marrero says the land will be cleaned to EPA standards for its current use as a wildlife refuge. However, he says, the Navy swept beaches to a depth of four feet--far more than the one-foot standard--because leatherback turtles can dig nests three feet deep. Still, he allows that places like the live impact area may never be entirely clean. Suffice to say the rehabilitation will be lengthy and expensive. The ongoing restoration of Kaho'olawe, a Hawaiian island also used as a U.S. military range, has already cost more than $400 million since 1997. "Sure, there's a lot of damage from the Navy,'' says Martin, "but there are areas that are still some of the nicest in the world: the bioluminescent bay, the coral reefs, the dry forest, the ancient forest on top of Mount Pirata.''
My last full day on Vieques, I ride to the west side with ranger Gisella Burgos, who has agreed to take me to the top of Monte Pirata, the island's tallest peak, which is currently off-limits to the public. The Department of Homeland Security operates a radar facility at the 987-foot summit, but Fish and Wildlife is negotiating to open most of the restricted site. Along Highway 200 we pass a boarded-up Navy checkpoint; small herds of free-range horses; and telephone poles being worked over by carpinteros, Puerto Rican woodpeckers. We then drive inland through a complex of overgrown ammunition bunkers. "Right now they're great habitat for bats,'' says Burgos, ticking off a belfry's worth of species: red fruit bat, cave bat, velvet free-tailed bat.
Beyond a pair of padlocked gates, the blacktop narrows and climbs through lush forest that was never cleared for cane. One more locked gate and the road spills onto a helipad with a stunning view: the purplish mountains of Puerto Rico to the west, Culebra to the north, and St. Thomas to the east. Nearby, a half dozen red-tailed hawks ride the updrafts, while the hidden song of an Adelaide's warbler floats forth from the old growth. In the shadow of the radar tower stands a small, tempting papaya tree; I weigh the national-security ramifications, then pick a trio of low, ripe, forbidden fruit. Their fate will remain classified.
On the descent we encounter a pair of exhausted hikers huffing up the road. Burgos stops the truck and gently informs them they're trespassing on government property. She pauses for a moment, as if to reconsider, then tells them to go ahead and have a look around the mountain: "It's too beautiful of a place to get locked up.''