DEQ’s Jean-Karlo Lemus takes us on brief environmental tour of his homeland in Puerto Rico

My name is Jean-Karlo Lemus, and I’m fairly new to Oregon. I’ve spent time in Pennsylvania and Georgia, but I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. The trek from the Caribbean to the Pacific Northwest has been a… transition to say the least.

Oregon’s forests and mountains are not unlike the forests and mountains of my native municipality, Arecibo. Just more coniferous instead of tropical. People ask me all the time, “What do you miss about home?” I would definitely have to say Puerto Rico’s geology.

One of the first things that comes to mind when it comes to Puerto Rico’s natural resources are its beaches, but Puerto Rico has other treasures that lay further inland. Within eyeshot of the shores are Puerto Rico’s central mountain ranges: miles and miles of rainforest peppered with misty mountains. Even as you approach the shoreline, the terrain in the north never fully flattens, and hills pepper the horizon. In Spanish, these hills are called “mogotes.” In English, we call them “karsts”.

I can’t tell you what Puerto Rico’s sediment is like—I was a paleontology-kid, not a geology-kid. But I think the clay up in the mountains is, well, clay? And burrowing into the taller mountains reveals a wealth of tiny fossilized shells and quartz crystals, sometimes hunks of the stuff the size of a grapefruit. Karsts, I am told, are limestone formations peeled away, revealing the stone within. It’s like someone cutting into a beef wellington, only instead of crust and beef it’s green with stone layers.

Karsts are natural geological developments, caused by tremors and landslides. As the quakes of December 2019 showed, Puerto Rico is on a fault zone. But they can also be man-made. The northern karst range is a mixture of both. When Route 22 was being constructed to facilitate transit towards San Juan in the East, the easiest path to take was straight through the northern karsts, which were blasted to make way for the roads. As you drive along, you’ll notice that the exposed sections of the karsts are steepled from this construction work.

The range stretches several miles, extending past the greater Arecibo area and further eastward towards Manati. They pepper the roadsides along with hills and farmland, until the central forest turns to cities.

Besides being really pretty, the karsts are an important part of Puerto Rico’s environment. Foliage still grows on them, making them home to smaller mammals or birds. Their presence also helps regulate the weather, to an extent, facilitating rainfall and regulating temperatures in the local area. They also help buffer some of the winds that come in from the shore.

Their biggest threat, sadly, is housing. Puerto Rico’s population is just under three million, and the need for affordable housing never quite ends. The quickest solution many go for is gated housing, creating large neighborhoods of homes. Unfortunately, these take up a lot of space, which is at a premium in the island. Too close to the shoreline, and you risk damages from hurricanes and flooding. But too far inland and you have to contend with the tricky terrain and faulty infrastructure of the central rural areas. The south of the island presents the difficulty of being farther from the northern ports and traveling through mountains, so the only available space for gated neighborhoods is in the vicinity of karsts. The good news is, recent efforts have protected Puerto Rico’s geological formations. The bad news is, it’s still an uphill battle to preserve them.

Between Puerto Rico’s rapid industrialization in the 1950s and other outside influences, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure isn’t the most forward-thinking. It’s mostly been in recent years that greater efforts have been taken to preserve our karst ranges and to establish nature preserves in the northern coast. I can say that seeing our natural formations bulldozed isn’t something I miss about Puerto Rico. Oregon’s efforts in preserving its forests are a hard-fought victory, and I’m glad they exist. It’s the kind of thing I wish we had more of back home.

— Jean-Karlo Lemus, a native of Puerto Rico, started work in March 2020 at Oregon Department of Environmental Quality as a receptionist at DEQ headquarters. He enjoys writing about cartoons when he’s not at work.

Published by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

DEQ’s mission is to be a leader in restoring, maintaining and enhancing the quality of Oregon’s air, land and water.

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