Tuesday, July 8, 2014

El Paso conservation groups launch new campaign to save desert wildlife habitat

Conservation groups in El Paso say that preserving wildlife habitat on both sides of the Franklin Mountains will benefit El Paso in several ways: preservation will help us sustain the scarce resource of water - an effort which includes all El Pasoans not just those living closer to the mountains; continued enjoyment of hiking and biking trails already in existence and utilized by the public; improvement of our quality of life especially as El Paso seeks to reach its goal of decreasing obesity and diabetes; protecting wildlife and making sure that they have adequate habitat and range in order to survive; and, ensuring that millions of dollars annually will come into El Paso through ecotourism as more and more people enjoy mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking and other recreational activities in our mountains and the surrounding region. More 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Issues, Challenges, and Successes in Protecting the Northern Chihuahuan Desert

Issues, Challenges, and Successes in Protecting the Northern Chihuahuan Desert

   Maderas del Carmen Protected Area, Coahuila, Mexico

by Rick LoBello
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.”

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Four Important Reasons Why We Need Natural Open Space
By Rick LoBello

January 13, 2011. Last year on April 6th I presented to the El Paso City Council a PowerPoint on how Natural Open Space benefits our community. Helping people understand why we need to protect our environment is an important part of my job at the El Paso Zoo. What follows is an updated summary of my presentation on natural open space.

1. Natural Open Space helps people enjoy the benefits of the natural world. Here in El Paso we have lots of natural open space on the high mountain ridges of the Franklin Mountains, but little natural open space in the lower elevations immediately surrounding the mountain range where most people prefer to hike and walk. Lower elevation natural open space is also critical to many species of plants and animals that live only in lower elevation habitats or need both lower and higher elevations areas.

Protecting natural open space is not only a problem in El Paso, but around the world. 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.

2. The availability of natural open space helps to prevent nature deficit disorder by giving people more opportunities to explore the natural world, especially children. Nature deficit disorder is a growing trend in this country where the average American child spends 44 hours a week with electronic media. Effects of Nature Deficit Disorder include: Childhood obesity, attention disorders and depression and long term ability to cope with stress and adversity.

3. Natural Open space is important to the water cycle, nature’s ability to produce oxygen and capture CO2 and other ecological services such as pollination and the services provided by millions of different species of microbes. A single tablespoon of healthy soil might contain over a billion beneficial soil microbes!!! How many microbes live in one acre of natural open space in El Paso is anyone’s guess. The number is too big for most of us to fathom. Microbes provide amazingly complex ecological services. These services include reprocessing materials into available forms (i.e., mineralization) and into microbial cells and humus. Soil bacteria microbes fix atmospheric nitrogen and help plants to grow in areas where nitrogen is scarce. Other minerals like sulfur and phosphorus require microbial transformation in the soil that surrounds the roots to make them more available to plants. They also improve aeration by loosening dense and compacted soils.

Most importantly microbes decompose organic waste materials such as leaves and manure into organic humus. Our desert needs this humus to store both moisture and nutrients in the soil. Without healthy soils most plant species could not survive and the entire desert ecosystem as we know it would likely collapse. Microbes are also important to balancing soil acidity and alkalinity, creating the carbon dioxide plants need, as well as producing vitamins, toxins, and hormones that both feed and protect the plant system.

Most people looking out across the desert landscape are not aware of the role microbes play in the desert and or in their everyday lives. Trying to imagine all that microbes do for us in maintaining the ecosystem is like trying to imagine all the stars and galaxies in the night sky.

4. Natural Open space provides habitat for thousands of species of animals and plants native to our Chihuahuan Desert and a part of our natural heritage. Protecting Natural Open Space and a wide variety of habitats at all elevations requires strategic planning designed to protect these habitats and wildlife corridors important to species needing to move from one elevation to the next in search of food and water. Animals also need natural open space for protection from the powerful rays of the sun, wind and rain. To adequately raise their young natural open space is needed to protect many animal species from human disturbance and natural predators.

At this time strategic plans for the continued development in El Paso and the surrounding area focus almost solely on the needs of humans and not on the natural environment. “Smart growth” elements in planning may appear in part to be green, but do not address the habitat needs of most species of native wildlife including a careful analysis of wildlife corridors needed to maintain sustainable populations of larger animals like mule deer, javelina, coyotes, foxes and bobcats.

We need natural open space because we are connected to the natural world in countless ways. Every time we allow another acre of natural open space to be transformed by development activities including urban sprawl, wider roads and mining, we weaken the ecosystem and its services, all critical to our own survival.

Largest urban park in the US threatened by urban sprawl
by Rick LoBello

December 5, 2010. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department protects the heart of the Franklin Mountains range as part of the country’s largest urban park, Franklin Mountains State Park. One of the greatest challenges in protecting the park and its biodiversity is the ongoing destruction of the desert by urban sprawl developments in the surrounding lowland desert habitat. Over the past 100 years nearly the entire foothills natural landscape has been destroyed by developments from the historic Rio Grande and the downtown area for nearly 10 miles north towards New Mexico on both the east and west sides of the range.
The Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition has a grassroots effort underway to protect Public Service Board administered public lands as natural open space along the west side of the range along Trans Mountain Road and the Fort Bliss Castner Range in northeast El Paso. On October 6, 2010 the El Paso City Council voted to direct city staff to rezone 900 acres included in the Northwest Master Plan near the boundary of Franklin Mountains State Park so that they cannot be developed.

The El Paso Water Utilities Public Service Board, of which the Mayor of El Paso is a member, passed a resolution stating they would pursue all available remedies of law in response to the City Councils action because of their concern that rezoning the land could kill a $80 million highway project in the same area which along with housing developments will end up destroying the last remaining wild and scenic corridor in this part of the Franklin Mountains. The PSB believes that there is no cause for concern highlighting how they have been proactive in protecting the mountains including the transfer of “nearly 8,000 acres to expand the Franklin Mountains State Park.” They also state that there is no mountainside development in the Northwest Master Plan; it’s all on the hillside lower elevation areas and that they are” leaving open space as a buffer between development and the state park.”  The issue was addressed again by City Planning Commission on November 18 when they voted unanimously not to recommend rezoning the Scenic Transmountain Corridor as Natural Open Space.

Many people in El Paso believe that if current efforts to protect the lower elevations of the Franklin Mountains fail the City of El Paso will be hard pressed to live up to an important goal in its Sustainability Plan adopted on September 15, 2009 to “achieve international recognition for successful preservation of our Chihuahuan desert heritage for all time” and many species that depend on these lowland areas will be displaced or die when their habitat is destroyed.

Most biologists familiar with the Chihuahuan Desert understand the importance of protecting all elevations of the eco-region, not just the rugged mountain slopes and peaks. In El Paso many believe that as long as you protect the mountain vistas and have a park like Franklin Mountains State Park protecting 37 square miles of the higher elevations, protection of lower elevations is not a concern. This misconception if far from the truth since many desert species of animals and plants survive only in lower elevations while others with large home ranges need habitat at more than one elevation. For example, in the City of El Paso burrowing owls appear to be declining in numbers because of all the new housing developments being constructed across the city. These owls require low elevation areas where they can nest underground in abandoned burrows dug by mammals or if soil conditions allow in burrows they dig themselves.

In northeast El Paso the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition is partnering with the Frontera Land Alliance to protect the Castner Range at Fort Bliss. To help call attention to the importance of protecting this area from proposed developments the Coalition since 2007 has been sponsoring an annual Poppies Celebration in March on the grounds of the El Paso Museum of Archaeology in the heart of the Castner Range. The area is well known as one of the best spots to enjoy the Mexican poppies that bloom in this area.

Last year Congressman Silvestre Reyes secured funding from the Appropriations Bills in the amount of $300,000 to fund a Castner Range Conservation Conveyance Study aimed at preserving Castner Range for conservation purposes. This study will facilitate a conservation conveyance which is a first step for transferring responsibility of 11 square mile Castner Range to the State of Texas. This project will help preserve open space in the El Paso area and supports efforts to expand the Franklin Mountains State Park.
Achieving successful preservation of the Chihuahuan Desert within city limits and the surrounding region with the help of researchers and conservation educators will require the commitment of a wide range of stakeholders including City and County land management authorities, Texas and New Mexico state governments, private landowners and the surrounding community.

There are many reasons why protecting El Paso's Trans Mountain Scenic Corridor is so important to protecting Franklin Mountains State Park. Here are ten of them.

1. The lowland desert areas surrounding Franklin Mountains State Park provide habitat for many species of animals and plants. To survive in this part of the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion many species require these lower elevations for food and protection. Other species require habitat at both low and high elevations.

2. As urban sprawl creeps closer to the boundaries of the park the area's nesting birds will be threatened by domestic cats that many people in El Paso allow to roam freely in their neighborhoods.

3. The new TX-Dot road project and related developments along the three mile corridor on the west side of Trans Mountain Road will destroy the last wild scenic view in this part of the city important to the quality of life for thousands of El Pasoans currently enjoying the area.

4. The loss of the last wild scenic view in West El Paso will hurt the city's ability to expand ecotourism important to the entire region.

5. Campers visiting the Tom Mays section of Franklin Mountains State Park plus those who will someday be able to camp out on backcountry trails will be affected by both light and noise pollution associated with developments included in the Northwest Master Plan.

6. Threatened Texas horned lizards living in the lowland areas of the Franklin Mountains will lose critical habitat which could eventually lead to extinction of the species in this part of Texas.

7. Golden eagles and other raptors in the Franklin Mountains will lose important lowland hunting and nesting areas.

8. Mule deer will not have as many lowland areas to use as part of their overall range important to seasonal food production and protection from extreme temperatures during winter snow storms.

9. Javelina or collared peccaries appear to be expanding their range in this area and developments associated with the Northwest Master Plan will hurt their chances of finding the habitat they need to successfully establish themselves in this part of El Paso.

10. The potential for any future efforts to restore extirpated species like desert bighorn and Mexican wolves to this part of the Franklin Mountains will be impaired by urban sprawl developments.