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Environment: Massive resort plan threatens Baja biodiversity hotspot

“The bottom line is that the scale of the proposed development, more than 20,000 hotel rooms, is completely disconnected from the ecology of this desert region”

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The last resort? Photo by Ralph Lee Hopkins.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A proposed 20,000-room resort development in Baja California Sur threatens a high value conservation area that’s important for hundreds of plants and animals, including 42 birds recognized as endangered species under Mexican law.

Government officials are slated to make a decision on the Cabo Dorado development proposal next month, and the scientists who recently surveyed the area said there’s no way the project should be built in anywhere near its present configuration.

“Until recently, the biological value of the lands adjacent to the coral reef of Cabo Pulmo had remained a mystery,” said University of California, Riverside’s Benjamin Wilder, referring to the Cabo Pulmo reef, which has rebounded from over-fishing in recent years.

“We now know that these desert lands mirror the tropical waters in importance. This desert-sea ecosystem is a regional biodiversity hotspot … The bottom line is that the scale of the proposed development, more than 20,000 hotel rooms, is completely disconnected from the ecology of this desert region,” Wilder added. “Any development in the area must account for and sustain the areas natural wealth as well as the local communities of Cabo Pulmo and the nearby town of La Ribera.”

The area’s biodiversity is outlined in a report by scientists at UC Riverside including Wilder, who said the development would result in the extinction of some endemic species. The data was compiled during a week-long bioblitz that documented 392 plants, 44 mammals, 29 reptiles, and 95 birds. The focal point of biodiversity is Punta Arena, the proposed core development zone for Cabo Dorado.

“We propose an extension of the boundaries of the Cabo Pulmo National Park to incorporate the lands and waters of Punta Arena to protect irreplaceable forms of life and the coral reef ecosystem of the region. Several specific conservation recommendations and future research and long-term monitoring actions are presented that will help conserve this biodiversity hotspot,” the scientists wrote in the report.

“Forty-two plants and animals on the Mexican endangered species list would lose critical habitat, two recently described plant species only known from Punta Arena would be lost entirely, and development of the sand dunes of Punta Arena would imperil the most diverse coral reef in the Gulf of California,” Wilder said.

The 22 scientists from the U.S. and Mexico who compiled the report have been characterized as an all-star science team, including many of thee top experts on the plants, birds, mammals, and reptiles of Baja California.

“We need to take a careful look at such large scale development projects. Far too many times along the coasts of Mexico we have seen the destruction of areas of great biological importance and subsequent abandonment,” said UCR ecology professor Exequiel Ezcurra, “By incorporating the natural wealth of the region into development initiatives we can collectively pursue a vision of a prosperous future for our communities that matches the grandeur of the regional landscape,” said Ezcurra, who is also the director of UC MEXUS.

Working with environmentalists, residents of the area previously were able to reverse some of the damage to the Cabo Pulmo reef by shifting the local economy to focus on ecotourism. They also lobbied for designation of a national park, finally awared in 1995. Since then, total biomass in the marine preserve has increased by 460 percent. By some measures, that makes Cabo Pulmo the  robust marine reserve in the world.

The research leaders emphasized that development plans for the area consider the inherent limitations of resources, especially fresh water, in a desert setting; the unique habitats found at Punta Arena and the coral reefs of Cabo Pulmo; and, perhaps most important, the local community of Cabo Pulmo.

“We were surprised to see that these desert lands mirrored the biological diversity of the adjacent coral sea,” Wilder said. “Specifically we were not expecting to find such a concentration of rare and endemic taxa in the single region of Punta Arena. This unique biodiversity results from regional geologic forces that were previously un-investigated.

The research team has proposals pending to better understand the linkage between the desert-sea interface of this coastal area. Their aim is to further establish the value of the biological richness of Cabo Pulmo and Punta Arena.

The final report, which based on the scientific results recommends an extension of the Cabo Pulmo National Park to include Punta Arena, was delivered at a public hearing to SEMARNAT, the Mexican federal environmental department. SEMARNAT is expected to make a decision on the future of the Cabo Dorado project by June 15, 2014.

 

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2 Responses

  1. Really good article. I am attempting to plan a group dive trip to Cabo Pulmo this Fall. Not sure if you are divers, but let me know if you want to be on the e-mail list. You could see this area first hand.

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