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Know the West

Mexico launches a green offensive


Sitting on folding chairs borrowed from a local Chamber of Commerce, the gathering March 22 at the U.S.-Mexican border in Lukeville, Ariz., looked like a Jewish Orthodox bar mitzvah: American members sat on the U.S. side of the fence; Mexican members sat on the other.

They did this, says Reynaldo Cantu, a member of this group called the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, to dramatize a host of difficulties caused by tightened border security.

On the agenda were the difficulties of Mexicans crossing the border lawfully, rights of indigenous people whose tribes are divided by the border, entry problems experienced by the Flying Samaritans, a group of Tucson, Ariz., doctors and dentists who volunteer in Mexico, and the passage last year of a law that exempts from the Endangered Species Act border patrol and drug interdiction activities.

"The border is almost a third country," Cantu says. "Instead of Washington bureaucrats, it should be border residents making a lot of these decisions."

Some of these issues, the group hopes, will be taken up April 11 in Mexico City, when President Bill Clinton and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo are expected to announce better border cooperation.

But before the chief executives face the television cameras, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and his Mexican counterpart, Julia Carabias, will be thrashing out the details of a diplomatic initiative presented by the Mexican government to the United States in February.

The initiative focuses on deserts along the border, and it would provide for closer coordination of resource management at places like Big Bend National Park in Texas, which is contiguous to two reserves in Mexico, and in areas of the Sonoran Desert, which straddles the border between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. Several years ago, the state of Sonora asked UNESCO to designate the black volcanic desert of El Pinacate and part of the Gulf of California as biosphere reserves. This program, developed in the 1960s, was designed to protect core wilderness areas surrounded by buffer zones of controlled economic activity.

Mexico's diplomatic initiative would not overrule any U.S. ational laws or management policies, but it would strengthen efforts to form regional committees of land managers from both sides of the border. Howard Ness, director of U.S.-Mexico affairs for the National Park Service, says the initiative reveals that in some ways Mexico is more advanced in its approach to environmental protection than the U.S.

"The Mexicans gave us an opportunity to look at this diplomatic note before it was presented," Ness says. "It's very rare that there's so much trust."

The initiative also marks another change in post-NAFTA U.S.-Mexico relations, Ness adds. No longer is all the attention being paid to pollution issues, such as the water and air problems caused by maquiladoras, the thousands of factories along the international line. "We're finally getting land management issues into the equation," Ness says.

As always, it's a little late. Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan counted the rural population along a stretch of the border west of Tucson and found a 20-fold increase in rural communities since 1970. "The trees aren't growing any faster than they did then and that's still the fuel source for three-quarters of the households," reports Nabhan.

Nabhan has been the most aggressive proponent of a proposal to gain international biosphere reserve status for the entire 6 million-acre Sonoran desert wilderness area that includes Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Tohono O'odham reservation, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and El Pinacate.

The Clinton administration is carefully distancing itself from Nabhan's proposal, or anything that might remotely resemble black helicopters. Biosphere reserves and world heritage sites have been loaded topics since last year, when UNESCO representatives came to Yellowstone and called it a "park in peril" That gave ammunition to an environmental effort to stop a proposed gold mine just outside the park, but increased hostility to the United Nations in the process. Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, for example, introduced a bill requiring congressional approval for international environmental protection agreements.

"Young and the rest of them aren't dumb; they know that the international arena is where much of the action is going to be in the 21st century," says David Fuller, a consultant in Tucson who has worked on border issues.

Both Ness and Susan Lieberman, who deals with U.S.-Mexico issues for Interior Secretary Babbitt, stressed that any agreement worked out in Mexico City would have nothing to do with UNESCO or helicopters - unless they were the usual U.S. Blackhawk models out to nab illegal immigrants or drug smugglers.

Susan Zakin writes for Sports Afield and other publications from her home in Tucson, Arizona.