Heidi Scott remembers what greeted her when she arrived in Puerto Rico on a late January night.
"It was dark, rainy, no electricity," she said. "Lights were out, intersections of course weren't working."
The Ochoco National Forest employee had gotten there four months after Hurricane Maria devastated the small island. The Category 4 storm, now regarded as the worst natural disaster the U.S. territory has ever endured, toppled trees and destroyed bridges and other structures on the El Yunque National Forest and left millions throughout the U.S. territory without power, water or cellphone service.
"When I first showed up, there were still quite a few folks clearing roads and trails," Scott recalls.
In the Prineville office, Scott spends much of her workday behind a desk, completing paperwork as the local agency's Lands and Recreation Special Use Administrator, a job she has held for the past seven years.
"The lands side of that entails any type of use or authorization on National Forest System land that needs a permit or type of authorization," she explains, adding that it could be any of more 900 different uses. The recreation side of the job, meanwhile, involves handling different events on the forest.
While completing her education, which included an undergraduate degree in outdoor recreation management and experiential education and a master's in sustainable natural resources, Scott spent four months in Phoenix.
"I met a great group of people there," she said, "and one of my acquaintances from there knew my background as far as recreation and such goes, and knew that I could probably do the position in Puerto Rico as a recreation planner."
So, Scott put her desk job on hold and joined several hundred other Forest Service recruits, from engineers to soil scientists to contractors, who were asked to help rebuild forest infrastructure.
"There was a lot of boots-on-the-ground time, which was great," Scott said. "As a recreation planner, you have to understand the scope of what you are planning for."
The El Yunque National Forest looks and sounds vastly different than the Ochoco. You won't find pine or fir trees or any of the grasses and underbrush that cover the local landscape. Instead, the roughly 28,000-acre forest is home to more than 240 species of tropical trees and plants, 26 of which are found nowhere else in the world. Instead of mule deer and elk, the lone rainforest in the United States National Forest System is habitat to rare tropical wildlife, including the Puerto Rican Parrot, one of the 10 most endangered species of bird on the planet, and Coquies, which are known for their unique "ko-kee" call.
"The sound of the Coqui, you can never forget that," Scott said.
And while the Ochoco National Forest provides recreation and tourism options, the economy depends heavily on the tourism draw of the El Yunque. Tour buses regularly shuttle visitors from cruise ships to the forest for hiking and picnicking as well as horseback excursions.
"When I first showed up there, the cruise ships hadn't been issued any permits yet," Scott recalls. "I really wanted to focus on getting those permits issued and get the economy back up and running. Tourism is a huge deal there."
The work didn't end there. Scott dealt often with landslides that had blocked different corridors of the tropical forest, brainstorming ways to re-establish infrastructure and lay plans for new recreation on the devastated landscape.
Because Maria had destroyed much of the major corridor, located on the higher elevations of the El Yunque, the lower elevation portions of the forest suddenly became more accessible in the short term for recreational opportunities.
"I think it was a change from the norm," Scott said. "The hurricane kind of cleaned the slate to some extent."
Instead of focusing exclusively on repair of the El Portal Rainforest Center, a two-year project, she and other members of her team worked to remodel of the smaller El Verde guard station.
Scott concluded her stay in Puerto Rico in late May, returning home two weeks ago. Repair work remains and probably will for another year or two, but she saw a lot of progress during her four-month stay.
Roads were more passable, the water intake system at the Forest Service office was fixed, and drinking water was once again available at the facility. The hotel she and her team had called home finally got power restored right before she left, eliminating the need for a generator that often broke down from constant use.
The 35-year-old Bend resident is glad to be home. She missed her 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, having only seen them during spring break when they visited the island with her mother for the week.
"It was really difficult," she admits. "To actually leave my family for four months and live in a very different environment, it takes a lot of physical and mental capabilities to pull that together and be able to help out."
Yet at the same time, she misses Puerto Rico and helping rebuild the El Yunque. She will remember fondly the one-of-a-kind sounds of the rainforest. She smiles as she talks about her encounter with some native fish during a bridge repair effort.
"They would swarm you," she says, noting that the fish have nothing to fear since fishing is not allowed in that particular river. "I would put my hand on the edge (of the water) and they would just come to you. It was cool."
Reflecting on her special assignment, Scott sums up her experience in a quote she has crafted and shared with many of her fellow Forest Service colleagues.
"From the forest of clouds to the eight mighty rivers of El Yunque to the tropical splendor of the small, bright-green Puerto Rican parrot — one of the 10 most endangered species of bird in the world — I stand witness to the resilient spirit of the people of Puerto Rico. The beauty of El Yunque National Forest is a place that will be forever etched in my memory with Coquies singing at night, and will draw me back again someday."
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