Note: This is an expanded version of a sidebar published in the High Country News magazine, accompanying a main story profiling Sonoran rancher Carlos Robles Elías and an editor's note providing more perspective. The first nine items here correspond to numbered locations on the sidebar map of Northwest Mexico; below those nine, there's a list of conservation groups and additional conservation areas. Most of the conservation areas are shown on the map, but only the first nine are numbered on the map.
(1) Mexico's conservation system begins with six kinds of federally protected areas, including national parks and reservas de la biosfera (biosphere reserves). Miguel Ángel de Quevedo, known as el apóstol del árbol (the apostle of the tree), and President Lázaro Cárdenas - Mexico's rough counterparts to John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt in the U.S. -- helped create the nation's park system and forest reserves in the early 1900s. The second big wave of conservation began in the 1970s -- amid crises such as deforestation and notorious air pollution in the capital city -- and accelerated under presidents Carlos Salinas, Ernesto Zedillo and Felipe Calderón, who is still in office. During this period, the number of Mexican conservation groups has increased more than tenfold and U.S. groups have become more active in Mexico. Also, the Mexican government has established new environmental agencies, designated new protected areas, and created programs to address pollution and threats to biodiversity. For the first time, an environmental agency holds cabinet-level status -- el Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, or SEMARNAT. An arm of that agency -- El Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas, or CONANP -- runs hundreds of conservation areas totaling more than 60 million acres, or 12 percent of the country's land. Northwest Mexico's federally protected areas are shown in green on this map, and include islands in the Sea of Cortez, marine habitat for vaquitas (a rare species of porpoise), mountains rising above 10,000 feet in Baja California, and the 1.76-million-acre Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar, #1 on the map, home to massive dunes, volcanic craters and pockets of lush desert vegetation.
(2) Only about 28 percent of the land within Mexico's conservation areas is federally owned; most land within their boundaries is owned by ranchers, or managed as collectives for two kinds of rural communities (ejidos and comunidades). And the government and the rural communities are short of funds for conservation. In rough numbers, over the past 20 years, the annual budget for CONANP, which runs all the federal conservation areas, has been increased from an almost invisible $1 million to about $100 million -- still only a few dollars per acre. So Mexico's system has to emphasize private enterprise, trying to steer local economies into sustainable logging, sales of trophy hunting and other activities that don't trash the land. Meanwhile, conservation groups based in both countries are buying key habitat in Northwest Mexico and using financial incentives to battle various threats including fragmentation of wildlife migration corridors, deforestation and proposed coastal resort development. ProNatura Noroeste, a Sonoran branch of Mexico's oldest conservation group, has bought 76 conservation easements covering about 212,500 acres -- paying individual landowners and ejidos $20 to $80 per acre to keep land and water rights from being used for subdivisions, logging and grazing. WiLDCOAST, based in San Diego, has purchased land and easements to protect 24 miles of Baja coastline. In the remnants of the Colorado River Delta (#2 on the map) -- habitat for 300,000 migratory birds and part of a 1.9-million-acre biosphere reserve -- the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute has partnered with ProNatura and Environmental Defense to raise money to create "Mexico's first water trust," buying irrigation water to restore about 50,000 acres of wetlands. However, another 110,000 acres of delta wetlands still need restoration, according to the Institute.
(3) Carlos Robles Elías -- the subject of our magazine's cover story -- is trying to protect habitat along Río Cocóspera on his 10,000-acre portion of Rancho El Aribabi. Among other strategies, he secured government approval to manage wildlife as one of Mexico's UMAs -- short for Unidades para la Conservación, Manejo y Aprovechamiento Sustentable de la Vida Silvestre. The UMA program began in the 1990s as another private-enterprise conservation method: Ranchers and ejidos develop plans to make money on maintaining populations of deer, bighorn sheep and other wildlife -- mostly by selling trophy hunts -- and then apply for approval. (Hunting can only be done on UMAs now.) About 900 ranchers have UMAs in Sonora alone, covering more than 30 percent of its land area. The concept is widely praised, but there are many problems with how it's carried out. The government provides funding to help some of the UMAs, but the program's total funding averages out to a few cents per acre. There's a great deal of looseness in how UMA plans are done and little or no monitoring of the results. UMAs tend to emphasize profitable species, and some of their actions -- such as fencing to contain wildlife and planting buffelgrass, an invasive species -- undermine conservation. With so many UMAs scattered around, there's also little or no opportunity for landscape-scale conservation.
(4) Rancho Los Fresnos is 10,000 acres of grasslands in the Upper San Pedro River watershed, bought by The Nature Conservancy in 2005 and handed off to Naturalia, a group based in Mexico City. It's important habitat for grassland birds, and Naturalia hopes to transplant endangered prairie dogs to it. A local group -- Biodiversidad y Desarrollo Armónico (or BIDA) -- is also involved in conserving this ranch.