IMAGE: PUERTO RICO BEACH
Andres Leighton  /  AP
This beach, known as "La Selva," is part of the newly created Northeast Ecological Corridor reserve in Luquillo, Puerto Rico.
updated 10/5/2007 12:27:24 PM ET 2007-10-05T16:27:24

Against the backdrop of a pristine coastline, Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila signed an order Thursday to preserve a white-sand beach fringed with tropical forest where proposals for hotel resorts sparked widespread protests.

The 3,240 acres of public and private land, including a gently sloping beach used as a nesting area by endangered leatherback sea turtles, will become a nature reserve with the possibility for small-scale ecotourism ventures.

"We recognize the ecological and ecotourism value of the area," Acevedo said.

Thursday's ceremony took place on the first section of the Northeast Ecological Corridor acquired by the U.S. territory: a 270-acre parcel transferred from the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land, which purchased it for $12.5 million.

The government has eight years to arrange funding for the reserve's other five parcels and finalize agreements with private owners, said Javier Velez Arocho, Puerto Rico's environmental secretary.

Opposition to resort proposals in the unspoiled area rallied celebrities including actor Benicio Del Toro, environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy and activist and actor Edward James Olmos.

"My children's' children will be able to come here and see what you see here today," Olmos said, thanking the trust for securing the rights to the beachfront parcel known for its thick brush and coconut palms.

Four Seasons Hotels Inc. had pitched a $579 million project with roughly 1,025 residential units, a casino and golf courses. In another parcel, Marriott International Inc. proposed another large resort. Both companies said their projects would be designed to have a minimal environmental impact, but the proposals stalled while awaiting government approvals.

Conservation groups battled for years to protect the land from bulldozers that have turned vast stretches of the Caribbean island's coastline into commercial and residential developments.

"Today the governor of Puerto Rico listened to the people to protect these 3,240 acres," said Camilla Feibelman, coordinator of the Sierra Club's Puerto Rico chapter.

The administration will develop a management plan over the next eight months that may allow for two small developments of no more than 250 rooms, Velez said.

"We are looking to find a balance between conservation and economic development," he said.

The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, a nonprofit organization, has pledged to provide $10 million if necessary to preserve land in the corridor, Velez said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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