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Mar 31, 2004

Hidden Valley Falls declared natural monument

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It’s a classic beauty that, thanks to a whim of mother nature, has fallen on hard times. Patrick Jones reports from the Mountain Pine Ridge on plans for the rehabilitation of one of our most precious protected areas.

Patrick Jones, Reporting

For over four decades, the cascading waters of the Hidden Valley Falls have been attracting Belizeans and foreigners alike. Today that site took on special designation when Minister of Natural Resources Johnny Briceño signed a Statutory Instrument legalizing this scenic part of the Mountain Pine Ridge reserve as a natural monument.

Johnny Briceño, Min. of Natural Resources

“The Thousand Foot Falls, everybody recognises the Thousand Foot Falls as one of the sites to visit. When you come to the Mountain Pine Ridge if you do not visit the Thousand Foot Falls, you did not come to the Mountain Pine Ridge. So certainly we felt now that it is in the hands of government we needed to put it into, give it a specials status. And because of the characteristics, the geography, the looks of it being a thousand foot high, we felt that declaring it into a natural monument it is going to get that special status and more importantly it is going to be protected which is very important for generations to come.”

But more than just singling out this one resource, Briceño says the broader plan is to market the resources of the whole area for income generation, an alternative to logging, in the wake of the loss of over ten thousand acres of pine forest to the bark beetle.

Johnny Briceño

“We’re looking at creating partnerships between the NGOs, private sector, and government. There is so much we can do here. When you look at the Thousand Foot Falls for instance, you look at the Rio On area, the caves, the Douglas da Silva area where we have so many abandoned small houses that can be converted into cottages that we can be renting to Belizeans. It’s a matter of trying to find, put the area to use for sustainable development, creating economic opportunities, not only for the Forest Department, but also for the communities that surround this area.”

And to ensure that surrounding communities reap the benefits, a master plan, or blue print for the development of the area, has been drafted. One of the architects of the document is Osmany Salas.

Osmany Salas, Policy Advisor

“Historically, the Mountain Pine Ridge was very important as far as its timber value, but with the damages cause by the pine bark beetle and how that affected the industry, the tourism value has sort of come up above the surface. I mean as far as recreation, the Mountain Pine Ridge has always been a popular destination for Belizeans and for international visitors, but that tourism potential has never been quite fully capitalized on.”

The number of visitors to the Mountain Pine Ridge last year has been recorded at twenty-four thousand and with projections for that same amount of people to visit the area this year, Briceño says its important to tap that that tourism potential.

Johnny Briceño

“Last year we had over two hundred thousand overnight visitors. Cruise ship tourism this year we expect over nine hundred thousand visitors; we need to take advantage of that. We just can’t sit down and cry that we lost here, but how is it that we can continue to develop the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, how is it that we can continue to play a critical role in the development of Belize. So we felt that by hooking on to tourism or teaming with tourism, the logging activities can continue but we can still find other opportunities for the Forestry Department, for government and for the people.”

Part of the plan is for implementation of a fee structure to fund the proposed developments. Briceño says everything will be done to ensure that the area is not priced out of the reach of ordinary Belizeans.

Johnny Briceño

“But if we want to put signs, we want to put more infrastructure, we want to be able to put barbecue pits and bathroom facilities, somebody has to pay for it. And the only way you can do it is by charging user fees. Like in everything, we always take consideration about Belizean and certainly we expect them to be able to charge lower fees than we would be charging the foreign visitors, so we will always keep that in mind.”

The visitor-user plan for the Mountain Pine Ridge will be implemented in three phases, with the first phase expected to cost a half a million dollars. Patrick Jones, for News 5.

The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve is comprised of one hundred and ten thousand acres of mostly pine forest.

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