El Yunque – El Portal Store Reopens
Eastern National has provided educational services to the visitors of El Yunque National Forest since 1988. Over the years, Eastern National team members have had a remarkable partnership with the US Forest Service, and we have worked collaboratively to provide an excellent visitor experience. By 2017, Eastern National was operating retail stores and providing visitor services and interpretation at El Portal visitor center, near La Coca Falls, at the Palo Colorado Visitor Center near La Mina Trail, and at the Yokahu Tower. With a large retail footprint throughout the forest, this operation was Eastern National’s third highest-revenue store, and 100% of the proceeds of our sales were returned to support educational, conservation, and scientific research for El Yunque National Forest.
On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma touched down in Puerto Rico causing devastating loss of life, flooding, power outages, and damage to the island. Ten days later, Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc across the entire island. It took days to make contact with Eastern National staff throughout Puerto Rico. Luckily, all team members were accounted for, and while some sustained significant damage to personal property, everyone was safe. The El Portal Visitor Center incurred significant structural damage and was closed to the public until it could be renovated and restored to a safe space.
Over the next few years, Eastern National collaborated with U.S. Forest Service (USFS) staff to continue to provide visitor services through shifting operating models. A temporary facility, El Portalito, was open outside of the forest borders in Palmer, Puerto Rico. EN team members provided visitor services, a retail store, and orientation to the forest. In partnership with the USFS, Eastern National team members navigated impacts to visitation and sales from the federal government shutdown over the winter of 2019, severe weather, forest recovery and construction, and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The team determined the best use of interpretive funds would go towards reimagining the Eastern National store and educational services at El Portal de El Yunque. From March 2020, the remaining funds were used to develop a new film for El Yunque National Forest, to hire an Interpretive Programs Manager (Taymi Maldonado), to liaise with the Forest Service during construction of the visitor center, and to design and install a new educational retail environment and product assortment for a new generation of El Yunque visitors.
Throughout 2021, the Eastern National team, led by Megan Shelley, Chief Operating Officer, and Stacy Madalena, Director of Retail, worked collaboratively with Keenan Adams, Forest Supervisor, David Isle, Public Services Staff Officer, Delissa Padilla Nieves, Jeffrey Ellison, and the entire USFS team at El Yunque to formalize the new level of service EN could provide to El Portal. Eastern National agreed to manage interpretive fee collection and to prepare to accept donations on behalf of the Forest Service, in addition to operating a retail store. EN Regional Manager Cindy Piccolo worked with Taymi and the Human Resources Department to recruit, hire, and train the retail store, fee collection, and visitor service team members.
EN Merchandise Manager Julianna Haviv curated a custom product assortment to align with the forest’s interpretation, education, and conservation goals. This included selecting products with an emphasis on sustainability and local artisans. A new collection was introduced to support the forest’s sustainability messaging and “ridge to reef connection,” which includes products that are either made from recycled materials or are a replacement for single-use plastic. Several elements of the store are constructed from mahogany wood salvaged from the forest after the hurricanes. The emphasis on the importance of local vendors did not only extend to the product assortment. EN re-imagined the interpretive retail space with Puerto Rican design firm, Carlos Bobonis Industrial Design Studio, and artist Carla Colón.
El Portal de El Yunque Visitor Center re-opened to the public with a socially distanced ribbon-cutting event on January 20, 2021. If we compare sales results for the first full month of operations to the same time period in 2017, the new operation is exceeding revenue by 5%. Today, Eastern National products and services are provided in both English and Spanish. With the new Adopt-a-Parrot program, visitors can purchase a custom Puerto Rican Parrot plush animal and receive an adoption certificate. Proceeds of the purchase will directly support the parrot habitat. Parrot education is also a part of the parrot “smart products” in the store. Customers who purchase a parrot-themed item from this collection can scan the QR code to watch videos, play trivia, and learn more about parrots and the forest. This enables us to extend education through our products long after visitors leave the store. Eastern National is proud to support El Yunque National Forest’s conservation education, and we look forward to continuing our longstanding partnership with the U.S. Forest Service for many years to come.