Spotlight: Conservation on a crowded island

October 4, 2011

"Mom saves sea turtles!"

That's the answer you'll get from five-year-old Gabriel if you ask him what his mother does for a living. And while animal rescue isn't technically anywhere on Mildred Majoros's resume, Gabriel's description of her work is more apt than it might first appear.

Paradise lost, paradise preserved

The white-sand beaches of Puerto Rico are among only a handful of places on the Atlantic where endangered leatherback turtles lay their eggs. The fineness of the sand and gentle slope toward the water mean they're ideal for newborn hatchlings trundling toward the relative safety of the ocean.

But this unique habitat is under constant threat from coastal development. Degradation from beach resorts and other construction compromises not only turtle habitat, but an expansive web of delicate ecosystems-including mangrove forests, seagrass beds, and even coral reefs.

To Mildred, who spent childhood summers on the island in the care of Puerto Rican relatives on both sides of her family, the drive to protect these disappearing places is personal.

"I remember stepping off the plane and seeing so much greenery," she says. "It was almost like the Wizard of Oz-like going from the black and white of New York to full Technicolor. And I still get that sense of wonder-but it's a sense of wonder mixed with a sense of loss."

Preserving these Technicolor landscapes-like San Miguel Natural Reserve-has been at the heart of The Trust for Public Land's work on the island since it began projects there six years ago. Mildred, then a project manager who'd transferred from the Los Angeles office, provided a local connection that helped bridge the gap between conservationists and communities.

"There can be a reluctance to work with large entities from the U.S, a sense of, Oh boy, here's Big Brother coming to tell us how to be better. TPL's experience has been different because of our partnerships-whether it's with the government, property owners, or the local land trust," Mildred explains. "Things as simple as being able to go to a meeting and speak Spanish help them know that the face behind the project is someone with a vested interest in Puerto Rico."

In urban San Juan, TPL turns over a new leaf

With her office's reputation as the island's go-to conservation group now firmly established, Mildred is turning her attention to a new chapter in TPL's work: conservation in the city of San Juan itself.

To tourists most familiar with the iconic historic district, San Juan may appear postcard-perfect. But like metropolitan areas across the U.S. mainland, the city struggles with a shortage of parks and green space-and associated health problems, like obesity. It's a common challenge amplified by density: four million people live in Puerto Rico, and more than half call greater San Juan home.

Ambitious government officials have a vision of the city revitalized: expanded mass transit, more public beach access, and an interconnected system of parks and green space to span the whole city-not just tourist hotspots. 

"The city is looking for opportunities to restore and create a connected pedestrian environment from what are now very scattered urban open spaces," Mildred says. "This is where TPL can provide a lot of expertise-whether it's through a small pocket park, a community garden, or a Fitness Zone."

The work's in early stages, but Mildred-who'll draw on a background in urban planning and redevelopment as she fleshes out new partnerships with the city-is confident in TPL's direction.

"It's the logical next step for us," Mildred says. "There's a lot left to be done as far as our natural lands program goes, but there's a need for us to start helping here, too."

An island identity

Though she sees parallels between her work in Puerto Rico and on the mainland-in south Florida and greater Los Angeles-Mildred has an intimate familiarity with what makes the island unique.

"What's special about working in Puerto Rico is the sense of connection to the land, the desire to preserve the culture, the language, and all of the things that make Puerto Rico what it is," she says. "There's a desire to hold onto identity."