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How conservation works south of the border


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.

(5) Valer and Josiah Austin -- an Arizona couple with roots in New York city, Maryland and Texas -- have been doing personal conservation efforts along the border for more than 30 years. They began by buying the 13,000-acre El Coronado Ranch, a degraded gem in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona, in 1981. Over time, they established a foundation called Cuenca los Ojos to reach across the border and take over management of five ranches in Sonora and Chihuahua, with the primary goals of restoring biodiversity and improving water management in the desert. The foundation, with some grants from agencies and other support, now manages more than 100,000 acres in the border region, and its ranches help form habitat connectivity with other large conservation ranches in nearby Arizona and New Mexico that are run by the Austins and the Malpai Borderland Group.

The Austins led a campaign to build more than 30,000 small rock dams -- called trincheras and gabions -- on the ranches' hillsides and along washes. Thus, they slow runoff from the infrequent rainstorms and help restore native grasses, wetlands and stream flows. They also work with researchers and agencies in both countries to restore and preserve rare native fish, along with habitat for a cornucopia of other wildlife including ocelots, coatimundi and ringtail cats. They say that anyone can do this kind of restoration on a fairly small scale: "I'm an old lady with no training, and if I can make a difference, anybody can do it -- anybody with good will can go out and do something," says Valer Austin, now in her 70s. " (For audio and video, here is a separate podcast and a video.) Valer Austin discussed her efforts with writer Tony Davis:

Q. How did your restoration work get started?

A. It was an accident. My husband grew up on a farm in Maryland and had a natural feel for this kind of work, but I grew up in New York City. I never thought about rain or erosion or that sort of thing. Most of my education in the environment has been in observation of the land and the way nature works. When we came to El Coronado, the ranch was really quite degraded. There wasn't a lot of grass. I remember looking around and saying, "What do to the cattle eat? Do they eat rocks?" One day we noticed that a road was washing out. We put in loose rock structures along the road and after awhile, dirt accumulated and we noticed that below the road it was always wet and grass was starting to come in. That was the first one. ... (Years later) we learned this is an ancient practice. At Casas Grandes (communities dating back a thousand years that are now archaeological sites in Chihuahua), people had rock dams and planted corn behind them, where it would be damper. ... We decided to do it on a large scale.

Q. How had the land gotten so degraded?

A. Around the turn of the 20th century, for mining copper and silver, people cut down trees to get wood to shore up the tunnels and maybe for the process of smelting. The tree cover went and the grasses came in. Then they put in more cattle and sheep, and eventually the grasses dried up, and when the rain came, it created gullies (instead of natural wetlands).

Q. How did you get into Mexico?

A. Wendell Minckley -- a fish biologist at Arizona State University -- led us to buy the Ojos Caliente ranch just across the border in the 1990s, because it included a prime stretch of Cajon Bonito, a stream containing eight native fish species. Five or six years later we began managing the neighboring San Bernardino Ranch in Sonora, where most of the wetlands had dried up and the gullies were 35 feet deep. Minckley (who died in 2001) trained us to analyze how we can improve things. We started building true gabions, with the wire baskets (supporting handmade rock walls), to raise up the streambed, so water would flow up over the sides and recreate a cienega (desert wetland). Now there's vegetation in the streambed, and that vegetation slows the water down more ... so nature starts healing itself. We've been working with the San Bernardino for 12 years and the cienega has grown from 4 percent to 20 percent of its original size. It's a sponge that feeds the Rio Yaqui system. That's in one of the driest regions in North America in one of the driest times.

Q. Have you kept cattle on your ranches or taken them off?

A. Some of our ranches have cattle, some don't. I do believe there are some places it is better not to have cattle. Sometimes it's just too dry. In some cases, grasses respond well to grazing every other year. Every grass has its different personality, so you manage your ranch according to the personality of the grasses.

Q. What's important about this region?

A. With the Sierra Madres (in Mexico) joining with the Rockies, and the Chihuahuan Desert joining with the Sonoran Desert, you have an extraordinary diversity of species. ... We realized that restoring the wetlands would have a huge impact on the future. Environmental conditions are going to change with global warming. If this work can be replicated in other dry regions, we have a hope.

(6) The more than 50,000-acre Northern Jaguar Reserve is another joint venture of Mexican and U.S. groups, run by Naturalia and the Tucson-based Northern Jaguar Project. They've created the reserve by buying four ranches since 2003. It includes deep canyons and a good stretch of Río Aros -- habitat for fish and turtles, neotropical river otters, the southernmost nesting bald eagles in North America, and, of course, jaguars. Remote cameras have documented that up to 12 jaguars live in the reserve -- the northernmost breeding population -- and it's a likely source of the jaguars that occasionally wander into Arizona. Because ranchers have been known to kill jaguars to protect their cattle, the Northern Jaguar Project has also installed cameras on nearby ranches, and provided those ranchers with an incentive: Every time a camera photographs a jaguar on a ranch, the group pays the rancher 5,000 pesos. Photos documenting cougars, ocelots and bobcats on the ranches earn smaller payments. Also, with the help of Raul Valdez, an ecology professor at New Mexico State University, in 2003, 11 ranchers near the reserve banded together to form an UMA that sells trophy deer hunts; the earnings -- more than $20,000 per year -- more than compensate for cattle lost to predators. Thus the ranchers have an incentive to maintain deer herds, and the pressure for killing predators has eased, Valdez reports. Defenders of Wildlife's Tucson office is also involved; as part of a broader jaguar ecological study, Defenders is collaborating with Mexican biologist Carlos López González on a project in which scat-sniffing dogs will course the Sonoran landscape starting as soon as this summer, searching for jaguars and jaguar corridors.

(7) Huge herds of bison once roamed the northern half of Mexico, but today there are only a few hundred left, and they're considered an endangered species. A few Mexican ranchers still maintain wild herds and sell bison hunts. And Cindy Tolle, a conservation-minded rancher who operates on both sides of the border, has been a leader in restoring bison to Mexico. In 2004, Tolle moved several dozen from her South Dakota ranch to her nonprofit Tutuaca Mountain School, a 17,000-acre spread in Chihuahua, which lies within the 901,000-acre Tutuaca National Protected Area, created by the Mexican government in 1937 to protect the Yaqui River headwaters. That bison herd has grown to nearly 60 animals. Then, in 2009, Tolle helped broker a deal between Mexican and U.S. agencies to move another 23 bison from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota to El Uno Ecological Reserve (#7 on the map), a 46,000-acre ranch in Chihuahua run by The Nature Conservancy's Mexican staff. That herd has grown to about 30 bison. The hope is that both herds will grow large enough that bison can be transplanted to other areas in Mexico. The El Uno ranch is within the 1.3-million acre Janos Biosphere Reserve, the Mexican government's first big effort to preserve grasslands (which have evolved with bison grazing). The Janos Biosphere Reserve also has the world's largest colony of black-tailed prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, and Mexico's largest population of golden eagles.

(8) The famous Copper Canyon region (Barranca del Cobre) -- Mexico's combination of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite -- includes stretches of six rivers, the country's two highest waterfalls and a small national park (the 14,000-acre Cascada de Basaseachic). The Tarahumara Tribe earned its international reputation for cross-country ultramarathon running in these remote undeveloped canyons. Much of the region is not formally protected, though, and Tarahumara activists' resistance to logging old-growth forests has drawn worldwide attention. Efforts to develop a major resort complex are under way, including a combination gondola and bungee jump, an airport, luxury hotels and a golf course.

(9) Will the Mexican gray wolf ever not be a melancholy story? The last wild naturally occurring wolves in Mexico were trapped during the 1970s, to begin a captive-breeding program. Using some of the captives, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has struggled for 14 years to re-establish the subspecies in Arizona and New Mexico. Meanwhile, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has pushed to re-establish the wolf in his country, and in October 2011, Mexico's CONANP released five captive-bred animals in the Sierra San Luis in northeastern Sonora. But ranchers on both sides of the border opposed the release in Mexico, and within a few weeks, four of the wolves were found dead -- killed by a poison that's used on rodents and other pests. Mexican officials reportedly plan more wolf releases, but specifics have not been made public.


More info on conservation groups and conservation areas in Northwest Mexico

Mexican and U.S. groups working in the region

ProNatura Noroeste: A branch of Mexico's oldest conservation group based in San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora. It concentrates on purchasing conservation easements, and over the last 20 years, has bought 76 easements covering about 212,500 acres in six Mexican states, including Sonora and Baja California and parts of Chihuahua. Essentially, the easements are contracts with individual landowners or rural communes called ejidos, in which the group pays $20 to $80 per acre to landowners to prevent their land or water rights from being used for subdivisions, timber-cutting, grazing or other extractive activities.

Naturalia: From its headquarters in Mexico City, the group has worked with more than 30 other conservation groups, universities, and other research institutions in the Northern Jaguar Reserve in Sonora (see the separate explanation of the jaguar reserve). Also, Naturalia has worked with The Nature Conservancy's Mexican staff to establish a grasslands preserve, Rancho Los Fresnos, in Sonora, where it plans to someday transplant endangered prairie dogs. (See the separate description of Rancho Los Fresnos, #4 above).

Terra Peninsular: Based in Ensenada, a coastal city in Northern Baja California, the group seeks to protect Baja's coastal and mountain areas through land purchases, conservation easements and working with government agencies and landowners. It has established a 4,450-acre conservation easement at Rancho Rodeo del Rey, within an ejido in the Sierra de Juárez, about 50 miles south of the U.S. border, and is nearly halfway to establishing a 20,000-acre coastal sage scrub preserve in El Rosario, a city about 250 miles south of the border. It's also working with the Mexican government to try to establish a 150,000-acre, marine-terrestrial biosphere reserve in San Quintin Bay, about 200 miles south of the border, and hopes to upgrade protection of an existing federal reserve in the Sierra de Juárez.

CEDO, El Centro Intercultural de Estudios de Desiertos y Océanos, or Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans: Based in Puerto Peñasco, or Rocky Point, Sonora, the Center works in nine small coastal Gulf of California communities to help fishermen find more sustainable fishing locations and explore other ways of catching shrimp besides gill nets that injure and kill vaquitas, an endangered species of porpoise. CEDO helps fishermen conduct environmental impact studies of their activities, as required by Mexican law.

WiLDCOAST: Based in San Diego, WiLDCOAST protected 24 miles and 23,000 acres of Baja California coastline in the Valle de los Cirios Area of Protected Flora and Fauna, about 300 miles south of the U.S. border, through land purchases and acquisition of conservation easements. The group has fought numerous major industrial and tourism developments proposed along the Baja coast, including a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal and a high-rise condominium project. It has also fought to clean up pollution in the Tijuana River in the border area, persuading the U.S. government to spend tens of millions of dollars for sewage treatment plant upgrades and to work with university researchers to study the health risks of exposure to contaminated ocean water at the border.

Nature and Culture International, and Conservacionistas de Flora y Fauna de Alamos, A.C., or Conservationists for Flora and Fauna of Alamos: The first group is an international NGO founded by a San Diego-area developer, and the second is a small, grassroots nonprofit in Alamos in the Sierra Madre. They've combined to raise money to buy 23,000 acres of rare tropical deciduous forest in the Alamos area, which is home to trees such as the Amapa, the Palo Santo and the Burseras, as well as habitat for jaguars, military macaws, river otters and margays.

Sky Island Alliance: Besides its work at Rancho El Aribabi, the Tucson-based group has been conducting wildlife surveys with remote cameras at six other properties in the border region for different lengths of time since 2007. Since 2009, Sky Island has conducted about 10 scientific expeditions on 25 properties in remote Sonoran mountain ranges in a project called the Madrean Archipelago Biodiversity Assessment, in partnership with numerous landowners, university researchers, government agencies, students and conservation groups from both countries. It is also working with private landowners and ejidos on two large, collaborative restoration projects in northern Mexico that involve riparian areas, wetlands and drainages. It is also working directly with the landowners of about 25 properties in Sonora on various other conservation projects. It has also led numerous workshops in field biology techniques, reptile and amphibian population assessments, remote camera tracking and habitat restoration.

Sonoran Institute: Based in Tucson, the group is working with ranchers and communities along the Upper Santa Cruz River in northern Mexico, seeking to restore the river and its tributaries by placing loose rock dams to slow the flow and artificially creating more stream meanders. It's also working in the Colorado River Delta, with other rural communities and groups and agencies, trying to restore 160,000 acres of wetlands. (#2 on the map and in the text near the beginning of this sidebar).

The Nature Conservancy: Operating for 25 years in northern Mexico, the group has often partnered with Mexican conservation groups. It purchased one ranch/preserve, Los Fresnos in the Upper San Pedro River Basin in northeastern Sonora, that it handed off to Naturalia. It tried the same process with a second ranch, El Uno Ecological Reserve, in the Janos Valley grasslands of northwest Chihuahua: The conservancy bought El Uno and deeded it to ProNatura, but ProNatura didn't have enough staff and funding to manage that reserve, so the conservancy regained ownership of it in 2007 and manages it today. The conservancy also worked with the Mexican agency CONANP, Mexico's equivalent of the National Park Service, to encourage the creation of a protected area in Chihuahua's Janos Biosphere Reserve, and is working with other groups to create one reserve and upgrade the protection status of two others in Baja California. It has also worked with conservation groups to upgrade their capacity to buy land for Mexican conservation areas, and to buy development rights on key parcels, and works with federal agencies to improve their ability to manage their preserves. The group also has worked with Chihuahuan Desert ranchers in northern Mexico to help them develop better management practices and find new ways to make a living on their land.

Defenders of Wildlife: The group's Tucson branch office has sought to promote jaguar and Mexican wolf conservation in northern Mexico. Its Southwest representative, Craig Miller, is a founder and board member of the Northern Jaguar Project. Defenders successfully fought in court for a jaguar recovery plan for both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. As part of a broader jaguar ecological study, Defenders is collaborating with Mexican biologist Carlos Lopez González on a project in which scat-sniffing dogs will course the Sonoran landscape -- starting as soon as this summer -- to look for jaguars and identify jaguar corridors. It has also produced a rancher-wolf conflict-prevention guide for Sonoran ranchers as a release of Mexican wolves there unfolds, and it is working with Naturalia to create a wolf-coexistence program with Sonoran ranchers.

World Wildlife Fund: A branch office in La Paz, on the Gulf of California, trains fishermen to use different kinds of nets rather than the traditional gill nets that often trap rare vaquitas. Scientists for the group also analyze the blood and behavior of endangered gray whales and sharks in the gulf as a way of monitoring their health. In Chihuahua and in the Big Bend National Park area, along the Texas border, the group is working with the Mexican government to try to get more water released from dams on Mexico's Rio Bravo and Rio Conchos, tributaries of the Rio Grande, to better support the Rio Grande's fish and wildlife habitat.


Federal conservation areas in these 3 Mexican states

Baja California

Parque Nacional Constitución de 1857, a national park honoring Mexico's 1857 Constitution, lies in the Sierra de Juárez mountain range, about 60 miles from Ensenada in northern Baja. Rising to 6,560 feet above sea level, the 12,350-acre park contains two natural lakes, numerous coniferous tree species and a huge array of wildlife ranging from bald and golden eagles to bighorn sheep and mule deer.

Sierra de San Pedro Mártir Parque Nacional, a national park totaling about 170,000 acres in Baja's interior, lies a little more than 100 miles south of the U.S. border. The area was first explored by Europeans in 1701, by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino. Known for its pine trees and granite rock formations, the park is part of a mountain range running across the middle section of northwest Baja California. It is also home to Picacho del Diablo, or the Devil's Peak, Baja's highest peak, at 10,160 feet above sea level.

Parque Nacional Archipiélago de San Lorenzo, a 124,000-acre national park, is an archipelago of islands in the Gulf of California off the eastern coast of Baja, that includes many sea cliffs.

Reserva de la Biosfera Bahía de los Ángeles, a biosphere reserve for the Bay of Los Angeles, is more than 958,000 acres along Baja's Gulf of California coast about 280 miles south of the border. It includes beaches, cliffs, coastal wetlands and bays, and the marine area surrounding Isla Angel de la Guarda, and supports a complex food chain of cold-water corals, pelagic fish such as sardines and anchovies, migratory halibut and yellowtail, endangered whale sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, fin and killer whales and huge seabird colonies.

Valle de los Cirios, a national protected area for flora and fauna (Area de Protección de Flora y Fauna), includes one of the few remaining wild shorelines on the Pacific Coast in North America, and a lot more -- a total of more than 6 million acres spanning the midsection of the Baja Peninsula. It starts about 200 miles south of the U.S. border and stretches 160 miles farther south to the Baja California-Baja California Sur border, and is known for undisturbed bays, sandy beaches, wetlands, rocky reefs and headlands.

Isla Guadalupe biosphere reserve is 160 miles off Baja's Pacific Coast, about 240 miles south of the border. The 98-square-mile, 22-mile-long volcanic rock island draws the world's largest seasonal population of great white sharks and is also a refuge for sea lions and seals. It also has a large endemic plant population.

Islas del Golfo de California, a national protected area of flora and fauna, includes 244 scattered islands in the Gulf of California, stretching nearly 870 miles from the Colorado River Delta on the north to the Islas Marias biosphere reserve in the state of Nayarit on the south. One of the World Wildlife Fund's 200 globally most important ecoregions, it has Sonoran Desert vegetation on its north end, and tropical and subtropical deciduous and mangrove forest on the south end.

Isla San Pedro Mártir, a biosphere reserve in the Gulf of California, is a 75,000-acre island featuring coral forests, eight marine bird species, sperm whales, and one of the largest sea lion reproductive colonies in the Gulf of California.


Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar, about 1.76 million acres, features an expanse of sand dunes that are up to more than 600 feet tall, and nine extinct volcanic craters up to more than a mile wide, 400 cinder ash cones, petrified lava flows and pockets of lush desert vegetation. U.S. astronauts trained in the Pinacate in the late 1960s to prepare for landings on the moon.

Alto Golfo de California y Delta del Río Colorado, a biosphere reserve in the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta, has nearly 2 million acres of largely remnant wetlands and brackish water marshes that provide habitat for migratory birds, both land and water species.

Ajos-Bavispe, a national forest and wildlife refuge totaling 456,382 acres, in the Sierra Madre, was established more than 70 years ago to preserve eight "Sky Island" mountaintops -- high-elevation, high-biodiversity communities separated by deserts and grassland valleys.

Sierra de Álamos-Río Cuchujaqui Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna is 330,000 acres of private land, designated a protected area in 1996 because it has southern Sonora's tropical deciduous forest. It lies east of the town of Alamos and includes forested peaks of the Sierra de Alamos and the 23,000-acre Rancho Ecológico Monte Mojino, which was bought by a San Diego-based group called Nature and Culture International and is managed by a local nonprofit, Conservacionistas de Flora y Fauna de Alamos, AC. The Rancho Ecológico provides a higher level of protection -- no cattle grazing -- than the rest of the privately owned property.


Tutuaca National Protected Area for Flora and Fauna, established in 1937 to protect the headwaters of the Río Yaqui, received little management for conservation goals until the 1990s, and then was upgraded to the "protected area" status in 2001. It's nearly a million acres of mountains and desert sprawling south of the New Mexico border, habitat for rare species whose presence has been documented since the 1990s, including thick-billed parrots and several species of endangered fish. Several conservation organizations, including ProNatura, Monterrey Tech university and CONAFOR (Mexico's National Forestry Commission) have worked with local ejidos to adjust their logging to be lighter on the land and to establish a formal reserve for the parrots.

Médanos de Samalayuca, or the Samalayuca Dunes, totals 156,126 acres and features a large sand dune field, near the U.S. border. It was classified as a natural protected area because it hosts 248 plant and 154 animal species, many of which exist nowhere else. The movie "Dune" was shot here in 1984.

Paquimé or Casa Grandes (Grand Houses) is one of the region's largest and most significant archeological sites and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It contains artifacts from the Paquimé civilization, which settled in Northern Mexico between A.D. 900 and 1340. There's a museum and paths through the ruins of ballcourts and pueblo-style mud-walled condos with T-shaped doorways.

Cañón de Santa Elena is a large Protected Area for Flora and Fauna, totaling about 685,000 acres, just across the border from Big Bend National Park. It features greater biodiversity than its U.S. counterpart, with a larger expanse of high mountains and bigger populations of wildlife, including the Mexican black bear.

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A Mexican rancher struggles to shift from cattle to conservation