West Texas Woodlands Make Conservation 'Hot' List
Feb. 2A rugged and mountainous terrain stretching from southern Mexico into the southwestern United States, and including some of West Texas' highest peaks, will officially be named today as one of the most biologically diverse and most severely threatened places on the planet.
From its desert floors and deep canyons to the forested summits of its sky-island mountaintops, the Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands, as it is called, is one of nine new "hotspots" that will be added to a global list of 34 by Conservation International during a ceremony at the Houston Museum of Natural Science tonight. Courtesy of Conservation International A pinyon pine forest grows in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, a part of the Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands.
To be classified a hotspot, an area must contain at least 1,500 plant species existing nowhere else and at least 70 percent of its original habitat must have already disappeared.
Conservationists say focusing attention on these areas, which together are the size of India, is the best strategy for saving the Earth's plant and animal species.
The Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands has 3,975 flowering plant species found only within its boundaries. One-third of the world's pine and oak species also grow there. Yet, no more than 20 percent of its original vegetation remains.
"If we succeed in conserving every other piece of land outside the hotspots, and we fail in the hotspots, we lose 50 percent of the plants and 42 percent of the animals and fish found on the planet," said Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, an advocacy group that will unveil its new coffee-table book Hotspots Revisited in Houston tonight, an update on an earlier edition called simply Hotspots.
Both were sponsored by CEMEX, the Mexico-based cement manufacturer, for about $800,000 each.
Mittermeier refers to the hotspots detailed in the book as "environmental emergency rooms."
But it wasn't until recently that there was enough data on the Madrean Pine-Oaks Woodland for Mittermeier's organization to classify it as an emergency. Only 10,422 square miles, or 6 percent of the hotspot's land area, is under some form of protection, and roughly 2 percent is highly protected, according to Conservation International.
"Much more can be done to protect land on both sides of the border," he said.
The hope of the entities already working in the region is that the recognition of the area as one important to global diversity will result in more efforts to save what's left.
"All of us here in... the region have realized for years and years how important and diverse this place is, not only from a biological perspective, but from a cultural and geologic perspective," said Matt Skroch, programs director for the Sky Islands Alliance in Tucson, Ariz. This designation "will lend assistance in bringing funds here to work with private landowners in the name of conservation."
The 178,095-square-mile area lies mostly in Mexico and includes numerous mountain ranges, including 40 sky islands forested mountaintops isolated from one another by steep valleys and desert floors in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Northern Mexico.
Thanks to temperature and humidity gradients and extreme variations in the amount of rainfall, the landscape is home to a huge variety of species, many of them endemic, or found nowhere else.
"Because these elevated mountain islands are buried in desert areas, some characteristics are shared, but other characteristics are unique to the specific mountain range," said John Karges, a conservation biologist for The Nature Conservancy of Texas. "Compared to the rest of Texas, it's an area of incredible diversity."
Some of the more interesting animals and plants include: the volcano rabbit, one of the smallest rabbits in the world, which burrows in a grass frequently torched to make room for livestock; and the world's largest pine tree, which drops cones 25-inches long. It is also where monarch butterflies gather in hordes to overwinter.
The activities threatening its diversity differ depending on the side of the border. In Mexico, logging of pine and oak trees and prescribed burning to create grasslands for livestock are the biggest threats.
On the U.S. side, the growing number of people flocking to the Southwest, and the ensuing development, is splicing corridors animals use to travel between the mountaintop forests.
Environmentalists have discussed the value of preserving the Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands since the early 1900s. In 1937, Aldo Leopold, one of the country's foremost conservationists, called the area "the cream of creation."
Today, a variety of nonprofit groups, states and federal agencies and CEMEX have set aside portions of the area for conservation. On the Texas side of the border, in addition to Big Bend National Park, there is the state-owned Big Bend Ranch State Park and the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area. The Nature Conservancy of Texas, through conservation easements and ownership, controls 100,000 acres in the Davis Mountains, a portion of the hotspot located 100 miles north of Big Bend.
On the Mexican side of the border, CEMEX, the world's third largest cement manufacturer, has acquired 200,000 acres of Madres del Carmen since 1992, an area where it is reintroducing bighorn sheep, elk and Carmen white-tailed deer into the wild.
Armando Garcia, the company's vice president for development, said the hotspot label could help inspire other companies to help conserve Mexico's nature, since it is something the government struggles to afford.
"If other companies will imitate what we are doing, we will have a huge effort in terms of conservation," Garcia said. "It's not an amount of money that a successful company cannot spare."
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© 2005, Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.