See the different components that comprise the Chihuahuan Desert Borderlands Conservation Area.
By Clay Carrington
In the harshest part of North America, conservation is happening on an unrivaled scale. The Chihuahuan Desert Borderlands span millions of acres in northern Mexico and Texas. Now, one of the largest gaps in the ambitious conservation plan for the region has at last been filled.
In summer of 2009, Mexican president Felipe Calderón issued a decree creating the 826,000-acre Ocampo Flora and Fauna Protected Area in the northernmost part of the state of Coahuila. Larger than the state of Rhode Island, this new protected area connects two existing federal conservation projects, the Maderas del Cármen and the Cañon de Santa Elena Flora and Fauna protected areas and, in the process, creates a nearly contiguous conservation area stretching across 2 million acres.
That incredible work in Mexico is buffered by four public and private conservation projects in the United States: The Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve, Big Bend Ranch State Park, Big Bend National Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area. The result is a massive, 3.3 million-acre binational conservation area interrupted only by the winding path of the Rio Grande that provides massive migration corridors for far-ranging species like black bear, mountain lion and desert bighorn sheep.
The creation of the new Ocampo protected area—an endeavor nearly six years in the making—is a testament to the notion that conservation is a marathon, not a sprint. It also illustrates the critical need for collaboration when working across entire landscapes—especially when those landscapes divide nations.
This arid landscape spanning the Northern Mexico and the American Southwest is broken here and there by lagoons and oak forests, but all around are the unmistakable signs of the desert. More than 400 species of cactuses—the highest species diversity on Earth—are found here, and tarantulas, vinegaroons and rattlesnakes roam the sandy terrain.
The region is sparsely populated by humans—no more than 1,500 people live within its 1,300 square miles. Nearly 90 percent of the residents are ejidatarios, or communal landowners descended from beneficiaries of the land reforms following the Mexican Revolution. The remaining 10 percent are rancheros, private landowners carving a living out of the desert.
In 2004, the Conservancy was invited by CONANP, the Mexican park service, to collaborate in creating a new Category VI protected area covering this remote but beautiful region. Before the Mexican government will issue a protected-area decree, a landscape must first be nominated by an outside source for consideration. In the case of Ocampo, the Conservancy turned to a local conservation organization, Consejo Ecológico de Participación Ciudadana de la Región Carbonífera, or CEPACI, for help in taking this first, all-important step.
Together, the Conservancy and CEPACI drafted a justification study urging the creation of the protected area, and CEPACI used its local expertise to ensure the study found its way through the proper government channels.
According to Hernando Cabral Perdomo of The Nature Conservancy’s Mexico Program, the process hinged entirely on the willingness of Ocampo residents to have their lands designated a protected area.
“The science indicated the region was worth protecting, but the designation could profoundly impact the lives of residents. We spent years traveling throughout the region, meeting with ejidos and building consensus for the creation of the protected area,” Cabral says. “Without that support, it’s doubtful this could ever have happened.”
The creation of the protected area is just the first step for conserving the important natural heritage of the Ocampo region. The Conservancy and CEPACI are currently working together to draft a Conservation Area Plan, which will outline the immediate and long-term goals for the protected area and provide a rough roadmap for how to best achieve them.
Already, small, pilot conservation programs are underway in the region. Projects funded by the Conservancy and the Shield-Ayres and Dixon Water foundations in Texas are helping ejidatarios conserve their rarest and most precious resources—water and firewood. The first promotes the use of drip irrigation gardens that enable families to sustainably grow their own produce, while the second replaces antiquated woodstoves with more efficient, modern stoves to reduce dependence on the region’s scare firewood.
A similar initiative is helping Ocampo residents harvest candelilla in a sustainable manner. Endemic to the Chihuahuan desert ecosystem, candelilla, or ‘little candle,’ is a plant that has been harvested for centuries but is now under threat of depletion. The plant is rendered down to create wax, which is sold for use in cosmetics and fruit packaging, making it one of the few economically viable products produced in the region and an integral part of the social fabric of life in Ocampo.
In addition, with assistance from partners Profauana and CONANP, a project is already underway to help rancheros combat erosion by building gabions—retaining structures made of rock and wire—to slow runoff from intermittent rainfall, which protects arroyos and other important desert features that drain into the Rio Grande. At the same time, the Conservancy, CEPACI and the park service are working with landowners in the region interested in securing conservation easements on their land.
The benefits of these and future conservation programs are enumerable, not just for the people of Ocampo but for Americans and Mexicans within the larger Borderlands region, as well.
The interconnectedness of the natural features of the Chihuahuan Desert are not lost on Rod Sanders, a Texas rancher and Conservancy trustee whose financial support will enable continued conservation work in the region.
“From an ecological standpoint, the geographic and political division between the United States and Mexico is completely irrelevant,” Sanders said. “It’s a line on a map that means nothing to the plants and animals of the region. The natural resources and habitat within the borderlands comprise one landscape and the decisions made on one side of the river have a profound effect on the other.”
The Ocampo protected area is a giant leap forward in the process to protect the rich diversity of life found in the iconic Chihuahuan Desert Borderlands. For the people who call the region home, the new designation won’t profoundly affect day-to-day life. Their proud heritage, their rich culture, their resourcefulness—it will all remain unchanged.
So, too, will their land.
Clay Carrington is a writer for The Nature Conservancy
(October 2009)January 14, 2011