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Mexican Park’s Future Threatened

September 7, 1998

DESIERTO DE LOS LEONES NATIONAL PARK, Mexico (AP) _ With its centuries-old trees, lush vegetation and rich wildlife, Mexico’s oldest national park is a soothing contrast to the noise and pollution of the nearby capital.

Just a 45-minute drive from downtown Mexico City, the park is a popular escape from concrete high-rises and traffic jams, a place where city dwellers can hike among pines, cedars and oaks and catch a glimpse of deer, rabbits, raccoons and squirrels.

But a series of fires damaged about a third of the park’s 3,780 acres this spring, and park officials are worried about its future. The park has long been plagued by a lack of government support, and help promised for reforestation after the fires has yet to arrive.

``The park was totally abandoned by previous administrations, and even now we have no budget,″ said the park’s director, Gustavo Loa Carbajal.

More than 12,600 fires raged through Mexican forests this spring, blackening about 1 million acres of wildlands and creating a smoky haze that blanketed much of the country and parts of the United States.

Hard hit along with the Desierto de los Leones was the Chimalapas biological reserve in southern Mexico, among the most important tropical rain forests in the Americas.

U.S. officials blamed the fires on severe drought caused by El Nino and on the centuries-old Mexican practice of using fires to clear land.

Desierto de los Leones was ceded as a park by the Spanish monarchy in 1797 and has since been administered by the Mexico City government. It became Mexico’s first national park following a 1917 decree by President Venustiano Carranza.

The park is also home to one of Mexico’s oldest historic buildings _ a convent built after Spanish Viceroy Don Juan de Mendoza y Luna laid the first stone in 1606.

Recovery efforts at the park present not only financial, but major logistical challenges. Most of the burned areas are atop steep hills that recent rainfall have turned to slippery slopes.

``These are the worst forest fires I have ever seen,″ said Francisco Merida Islas, a horse wrangler who has worked in the park for 14 years renting his horses to weekend visitors and acting as a guide.

When the blazes struck, Merida mounted his small brown horse and joined other locals on horseback carrying buckets of water to firemen handicapped by the rocky, unpaved roads leading into the park.

Since then, thousands of volunteers from Mexico City have pitched in to help with reforestation, joining soldiers, Boy and Girl scouts and others planting pine seedlings to replace burned trees.

``Most people don’t realize how important the park is for Mexico,″ said Lizette Herrera, an 18-year-old Girl Scout who spent two weekends helping plant new trees.

``We must help keep the park from being destroyed by forest fires,″ she said as her fellow scouts, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, used shovels, machetes and pitchforks to prepare the ground for planting.

Park officials say they are used to operating on a shoestring, but have never been faced with a major reforestation effort.

Loa said a park of this size should have at least 350 employees, but has only 120 workers, including 50 park rangers.

``Our motto is: `If we’re given the resources, we’ll get it done, and if not, we’ll get it done, too’,″ Loa said.

Francisco Gonzalez, the park’s director for cultural events, said: ``Having a budget would help us a great deal. Our offices have been without telephones for the last three years.″

By late August, the federal government’s National Resources Commission had shipped $350,000 worth of seedlings to Desierto de Leones, but Loa said Aug. 29 that it would not be enough to reforest the areas that were burned.

He also said recent torrential rains had caused considerable erosion, which could make the reforestation effort more difficult.

If the trees are not planted by September, they will not survive, said Muncio Castillo Rodriguez, a maintenance supervisor who has worked at the park since 1943.

But, ``If things are done right, those new trees could last hundreds of years,″ he said.

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