SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico
Officials proposed a mixed land-use plan Thursday for a lush coastal region long coveted by developers, disappointing conservationists who demanded more protection for the former nature preserve that is a major nesting ground for endangered leatherback turtles.
The proposal would protect some parts of the northeastern coast near El Yunque rainforest, but also open the door for some development. In the past, the coastline's turquoise waters and pristine vegetation have caught the eye of Marriott International Inc. and Four Seasons Hotels Inc.
The government is trying a number of measures that aim to jump-start the economy of the U.S. territory, which is in its fourth year of recession and has an unemployment rate higher than any U.S. state.
Daniel Galan, secretary of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, said the plan is environmentally sound and nearly triples the amount of protected land.
Conservationists argue that those estimates include parts of El Yunque rainforest which are already protected by federal law, and say some of the areas are so swampy that they would never be targeted for development.
In all, nearly 700 acres (280 hectares) would lose protection, said Carmen Guerrero, an environmental planner and member of the Northeast Ecological Corridor conservation group.
"What we want is for that nature reserve to be preserved in its totality," Guerrero said.
Conservationists say it is one of the last remaining U.S. leatherback nesting sites. It is also home to 50 other threatened species including the Puerto Rican boa and the West Indian manatee.
Guerrero also worried that zoning for protected areas would not be honored.
In 2004, a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 86 percent of new urban areas built around El Yunque between 1985 and 2001 did not meet zoning requirements.
Former Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila designated the 3,200-acre (1,300-hectare) area a nature reserve in 2007, allowing only small, eco-friendly projects and some recreation areas.
But two years later, Gov. Luis Fortuno reversed that decision under pressure from local mayors who hoped development would create jobs.
Development "is very important for our municipality," said Angel Luis Rosa, municipal secretary of the nearby coastal town of Luquillo. "They have been limiting our potential for development. This worries us greatly."
The proposal also calls for protection of nine nautical miles extending to the tiny island of Culebra.
It will be presented during public hearings next month and could be approved by legislators as early as March, said Leslie Hernandez, interim president of the island's Planning Board.
The battle to preserve the area has previously found allies among celebrities including Benicio Del Toro, Edward James Olmos and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.