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Outrage Over Bid To Put Robot Dinosaurs in Mexican Caverns

July 30, 1995

LAS GRUTAS DE CACAHUAMILPA, Mexico (AP) _ The specter of robot dinosaurs roaring at shrieking tourists deep in a mile-long string of caverns touched off a Tyrannosaurus-size debate over Mexico’s national parks.

Outraged criticism from environmentalists and questions about a similar, but derailed venture by Canadian developer Barry Sendel may drive the plan to extinction.

Sendel’s proposal to turn the Grottos of Cacahuamilpa park into a high-tech playland has become a symbol of the debate over government plans to let concessionaires operate national parks nationwide.

Critics accuse authorities of moving too rapidly to sell park concessions. The cash-strapped government says independent operators would have deeper pockets and better protect the parks.

In April, the government granted Sendel a concession to run Grottos of Cacahuamilpa for 50 years in return for sprucing up the tumbledown attraction about 65 miles south of the capital.

Things quickly went off track when Sendel began to offer details of his vision: caverns filled with snarling mechanical dinosaurs, shrieking visitors, billowing fake fog and bubbling artificial lava.

Environmentalists charged that would ruin the majestic formations in the cathedral-size caverns carved out by an underground river 80 million years ago.

On July 13, the National Ecology Institute announced that the project had failed an environmental impact review. Officials said a separate process was under way to decide the fate of the concession, but added that failing the review constituted grounds for annulling the agreement.

Sendel, who did not return numerous calls from The Associated Press seeking comment, has pledged to invest millions of dollars in the park and promised he would not harm what he calls ``The Caves of Time.″

The environmental lobby known as The Group of 100 contends authorities did not adequately check out the proposal or Sendel’s credentials before granting him the concession.

``I know Mexico is going through an economic crisis, but that doesn’t mean you have to sell the family jewels to anyone who comes along,″ said Homero Aridjis, a novelist and environmentalist who heads the group.

The caverns were opened in 1920 and were declared a national park in 1936.

About 250,000 people visited last year, attracted by rock formations that rise 70 feet and more. One looks like Pinocchio, another like King Kong. Others include a grinning devil, a frothing champagne bottle and kings and queens of chess.

``Oh, a dinosaur park here! That would be a tragedy,″ said Bernice Hecker, a tourist from Seattle. ``These are the most dramatic and magnificent caverns I’ve ever seen.″

Her 12-year-old son, Nick, disagreed.

``Wow!″ he said. ``I’d like to see Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus, Triceratops! I’d like to see them moving. Maybe they could put them on a track and get them to walk and scare the daylights out of people.″

His mom sighed, ``He wants Jurassic Park.″

Fernando Luna, an employee of The Caves of Time, said the project ``would help teach future generations about the environment″ while upgrading the aging hotel and adding a gondola ride, museum and planetarium.

Aridjis is unimpressed. ``This project is an aberration,″ he said.

The critics also point to problems that arose when Sendel tried to do a similar project in Montreal.

Marvin Rotrand, a Montreal city council member, said the city annulled a 20-year lease last year that had granted a Sendel company known as Dinasaurium Productions Inc. the rights to build that attraction.

He said the city was not given adequate proof Dinasaurium could produce $5.1 million in stipulated financing and the company failed to finish initial renovations of a former World’s Fair pavilion by the May 15, 1994, deadline.

``The Dinasaurium is dead,″ Rotrand said in telephone interview. ``The city canceled the project when Mr. Sendel couldn’t meet the deadlines. We asked a lot of questions and didn’t get answers. It was clear from the outset that the financing was far from solid.″

The National Ecology Institute acknowledges it did not check Sendel’s background, but insists it never approved the dinosaur project outlined in his prospectus.

``Anyone who wants to participate in the caves must let them remain in their natural state,″ said institute spokesman Victor Meza Rodriguez.

Many visitors hope so.

``These caverns took millions of years to create,″ said a Mexican visitor, Concepcion Rivera. ``There were never dinosaurs in here so why detract from the natural beauty?″