March 24, 2013
For nearly a 100 years conservationists in the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion of Mexico and the United States have worked to protect large areas of desert habitat in West Texas, Southern New Mexico and Northern Mexico. To help ensure that large areas of habitat remain both protected and connected by wildlife corridors, it is important that stakeholders in the region come together to develop and implement landscape conservation cooperative strategic plans, smart conservation education programs, conservation leadership training and outreach campaigns focused on conserving the desert’s biodiversity and ecosystem services.
This project focuses on helping people better understand a broad overview of some of the conservation issues in the Northern Chihuahuan Desert. The discussion includes samples of conservation achievements and some of the unresolved and ongoing land protection issues. The report also discusses challenges that need to be addresses including communication obstacles that often get in the way of progress.
In compiling this report I relied heavily on personal experiences over the past 35 years working on conservation issues in the Northern Chihuahuan Desert in compiling this report. During that time I lived and worked in several protected areas in the Chihuahuan Desert including Big Bend National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area. Currently I work as the Education Curator at the El Paso Zoo in El Paso, Texas where I serve on a number of local and regional desert conservation committees and boards focused on awareness and helping people to take conservation actions in their daily lives.
The Chihuahuan Desert is a hotspot for conservation and is considered to be one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. Efforts to protect this eco-region go back to the early part of the last century when in 1912 President William Howard Taft signed an Presidential Executive Order creating the Jornada Range Reserve in southern New Mexico. Thirteen years later in 1923 the National Park Service began what would be a 43 year effort to protect other large tracts of Chihuahuan Desert. Carlsbad Cave National Monument was established by President Calvin Coolidge on October 25, 1923. Ten years later White Sands National Monument was established in 1933 and Guadalupe Mountains National Park was established on September 30, 1972.
On February 16, 1935 Texas Senator Morris Sheppard wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggesting a park of international scope in the Big Bend area. Although the giant international park did not make it off the planning table, Big Bend National Park in Texas was established on June 12, 1944. Today, there is a new hope that we might still some day see the now 77 year old dream of a giant US Mexico international protected area with the reopening of the Boquillas Crossing in Big Bend National Park. The crossing was closed after 911 and its reopening is considered to be an important step in moving the effort forward. In 2011 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Mexican Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada announced a plan that identifies the next steps for the continued coordination between the two countries in the protection and preservation of the transnational Big Bend/Rio Bravo region – North America’s largest and most diverse desert ecosystem.
Both the State of Texas and New Mexico have also helped to protect areas of the Chihuahuan Desert along with other federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and conservation organizations like the Nature Conservancy.
Today not all is well in the Chihuahuan Desert as urban sprawl and other developments continue to threaten the ecoregion. After having lived in national parks for nearly 25 years before moving to El Paso in 2000, I have witnessed up close and first hand not only the amazing biodiversity of the desert and its complex ecosystem, but also the increased destruction of desert habitat as cities like El Paso work on plans to become green sustainable communities, but are still largely influenced by developers. The El Paso Times reported in 2011 how developers circumvented the political process by undermining elected officials when they communicated with TX-Dot officials on the Trans Mountain Road/Northwest Master Plan project before the El Paso City Council was given the opportunity to comment. Many believe that the project threatens Franklin Mountains State Park, the nation’s largest urban park. An El Paso Sierra Club group sued TX-Dot and the Federal Highway Administration alleging that they did not follow their own environmental rules in fast-tracking the expansion of Trans Mountain Road. In the lawsuit the Sierra Club asked that a full environmental impact statement be done before construction started. The suit stated that a full impact study was not done by TxDOT, and that public input was not taken into consideration. A judge in Austin denied the request and on October 23, 2012 the Sierra Club recommended dismissal of El Paso Group’s lawsuit against TxDot and the Federal Highway Administration.
To varying degrees humans have already altered nearly half of the earth’s land surface. If current land development trends continue this number could easily reach 70% in the next thirty years. Scientists around the world are concerned about the many complex ecosystem services and natural cycles that will be affected including purification of air and water, decomposition of wastes, recycling of nutrients, pollination of crops and the regulation of climate.
Natural areas provide vast arrays of ecosystem services benefiting people including clean air, drinking water and recreational activities. These lands also sequester significant amounts of carbon, thereby reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases. Many species of wildlife depend on these wildlands for survival.
We all know that what drives our attitudes and actions has a lot to do with our values. The fact that a growing number of people have lost their connections with nature and have experienced the negative effects of nature deficit disorder, is clearly discussed in Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods. These negative effects contribute to child-hood obesity, poor attention spans, the ability to concentrate and as we get older –our values.
Nature deficit disorder is also affecting people who are now in leadership positions, both elected and unelected. Many do not have the passion, the knowledge or the skills to adequately address environmental issues. Take for example the value of ecological services that are lost when natural lands are developed. Recently when asked if ecological services were considered when evaluating the economic and ecological impact of a new large urban development plan in the Chihuahuan Desert, both the planners under contract and government officials responsible for the final plans told me that they were not aware of ecological services and the many associated economic benefits associated with those services.
An obvious big problem impeding conservation efforts is funding. We need to become smarter in how we fund efforts not only in getting the support of Congress, but also in how we interact with and engage the public on a daily basis. For example, the Internet provides proven methods in helping to generate revenue and it can help in generating funds for conservation. We need more money to support environmental education and resource protection. For lack of funding some parks are being closed and staff positions eliminated. And yet when you go to many park websites you cannot purchase a park pass with your credit card, a revenue source that could help to generate needed funds and help to gain more public support. The story is familiar everywhere, few government agencies are up to speed with Internet commerce and money that the public could provide via Internet transactions is not available to support conservation efforts.
There is also the challenge of improving communications between the general public and the government agencies responsible for conservation of our public lands. It is easy to delete an email or not return a phone call these days. When citizens contact government officials offering solutions and assistance with conservation efforts, officials need to go above and beyond in helping accommodate communications in addition to creating opportunities to help them get involved. I can tell you from personal experience that there are people working for conservation agencies who are entrusted with positions of conservation management and leadership, who are not making these kinds of communications a priority. Oftentimes information is not provided without having to make Freedom of Information Act requests and one government official recently told me that park managers don’t always like the public providing input. Unfortunately I fear that we have many people working in conservation management positions that lack the wisdom and passion needed to adequately defend and support our country’s conservation mission.
To help ensure that large areas of habitat remain both protected and connected by wildlife corridors, it is important that stakeholders in the region come together to develop and implement landscape cooperative strategic plans, smart conservation education programs, conservation leadership training opportunities and what I like to call “no protected area is an island” outreach campaigns focused on conserving the desert’s biodiversity and ecosystem services.
President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative helps to develop a 21st Century conservation and recreation agenda. It takes as its premise how lasting conservation solutions should rise from the American people – that the protection of our natural heritage is a non-partisan objective shared by all Americans.
The America’s Great Outdoor program encourages communities to come together and help them realize that “no protected area is an island” and that we need to work strategically in developing Landscape Conservation Cooperatives. The idea sounds great, but the last time I checked funds were not being budgeted to adequately support the new initiative. And where plans have been proposed to protect large areas of habitat still in private ownership such as the Vista Del Aguila National Wildlife Refuge proposed for El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson Counties in West Texas, limited staff and competing priorities throughout the refuge system are preventing further work on the project.
What can we do if our government does not have the adequate resources it needs to move forward? In El Paso, with the help of the National Park Service, we are bringing stakeholders together to work on a plan for an El Paso County Landscape Conservation Cooperative Program that will also hopefully include the Organ Mountains in New Mexico.
What we need in this country and in the world today is a renewed commitment to protecting our environment. We need to work harder in finding ways to support programs like landscape conservation cooperatives. We need to challenge conservation organizations and people from all walks of life to help raise the conservation bar and to work together in implementing more effective and smart conservation education programs. Finally we need to encourage friends and colleagues with leadership skills and a conservation ethic to run for public office.
In closing I echo the words of Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great” “With threats to our environment increasing dramatically every day, doing good work is no longer acceptable. We need to be doing great work. Greatness is not the result of circumstance, but of diligent work. We must embrace the discipline of greatness by adopting a culture of discipline, one that worries about the details.”