An idea for succulent plant education in Mexico

Versión en español

This page is motivated by many years of travel in Mexico to explore aspects of the natural history of the country. Most exploration was focused on the succulent plants for which Mexico is very well known. It has the greatest diversity of cacti of any country and also has the largest diversity of Agaves, Yucca, and many Crassulaceae. Much of this is tied to the topographic diversity and associated climatic variations that have led to the evolution of many limited-distribution plants.

The botanical community in Mexico is relatively well-developed at universities and in some branches of the Mexican government. Probably most Mexican households have succulent plants among their gardens or on their apartment balconies. Yet, from our observation, there is not a widespread understanding of cacti and other succulents, their environments, and many nature conservation issues. We might be wrong, but we will describe on this page why we think this is the situation. We then suggest a strategy for reaching a relatively large number of people quickly about these subjects.

The problem with environmental education in many countries is that it is restricted to schools, universities or government organizations. Much of the adult public doesn’t participate in activities that build an appreciation of nature. And the objective of meeting global goals of having a certain percentage of a country’s land area “in protected status” are often met by having large parks that are in remote or inaccessible parts of the country. Or sometimes they can be very nearby population centers but remain undeveloped and virtually inaccessible. While protecting large tracts of land in national parks or biosphere reserves is one essential aspect of protecting global biodiversity it does little to motivate people to develop an interest in nature. How to bring large numbers of people to appreciate nature is a major problem for all countries – especially those that are increasingly urbanized.

I gave a talk a few years ago in Bolivia on what I thought were some major environmental issues facing society. I was invited, I suspect, to talk about climate change since I was/am a climate researcher. But that is not what I talked about. My talk is here. Be sure to read the comments associated with the slides. Although I gave the talk in Spanish, the informational text is mostly in English. I hope the readers can follow it. In my talk I also mentioned the need for more ecotourism activities – aimed not at foreign tourists by national travelers. Without it, it will not be possible to protect nature in any country – especially developing ones.

The idea that I describe below was drafted up many years ago for a possible article in the Journal of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America. However, it never was completed and I was unsure if it would ever be feasible to publish it in that Society’s journal. The growth of Facebook pages such as that for Cactáceas de México en Hábitat have motivated me to try again to present this idea. The intent will be to distribute the idea through social media – with the hope that someone in Mexico may advance the concept.

The “idea”

The idea here is to establish – along major Mexican Highways – a network of small protected areas that display key aspects of the Mexican flora. These places would be small, ideally fenced or clearly demarcated, and with facilities to encourage travelers to stop. These facilities would include clean restrooms, a place to eat, and possibly camping or other places for an overnight stay. The most important facilities would be the education center and the associated nature trails winding through the natural terrain. Well-maintained trails across the landscape would be the key to attracting visitors.

The proposed areas would be small, but not so small that they would risk being surrounded by undesirable development in a few years as commonly has occurred at sites on the periphery of major towns. Security would be important, both for the visiting public and for the plants, so the distance from the highways would be short – but still far enough away to have low traffic noise. Access would need to be daylight-only (except for guests staying there), and some personnel would need to live on-sight for additional passive security against possible plant poaching.

Why small preserves instead of larger ones? Mexico already has many large “protected areas”. However, most of these preserves are large in area but poor in “infrastructure”. There are few well-established trails with informational plaques, few visitor centers with natural history material, and few guidebooks specific to the reserves. Often, there are only limited websites describing the natural aspects of the reserves. And perhaps most serious of all is that these reserves or parks are often in remote locations far from where the traveling public passes. This is the situation with “protected” areas in many countries. As a result, visitation is low. And nature education doesn’t reach most people.

Google Earth image of one of the more important rainforest environments in southeastern Mexico – the Sierra de los Tuxtlas. Some roads are shown (yellow) and the boundary of the Biosphere Reserve is in green. But note that most of the biosphere reserve is dedicated to cattle pasture or agriculture. The remaining forest tracts are generally difficult to access. Such large, inaccessible forest tracts like this, though important for conservation, have little value for education or ecotourism.

Most Mexican landscapes, even in desert areas, show evidence of cattle grazing (e.g. animal trails, dung and associated flies). This is true in many protected parks as well (see sign below). Our suggestion is that any small-area nature preserves have a zero tolerance for cattle, goats or any other human activities. This may not be easily achieved in Mexico, given the collective nature of land ownership in much of the country.

Part of a plaque describing a biosphere reserve in the Sierra de la Laguna in the Cape region of Baja California. The only access is via hiking trails. Note that it is obligatory to pay for access to the area. Where and how is not mentioned. How many people will visit this reserve each year under these conditions?
Another part of the plaque shown above indicates the allowed and prohibited activities. The bracelet shows you’ve paid for entrance presumably. What is strange about these regulations? It is prohibited to cut wood (reasonable for a protected area) but grazing of cattle is allowed! Cattle can do more damage than any of the other activities, depending on its intensity.

Although obtaining the land for the educational reserves might be complicated, the land required would be very small compared with most Mexican National Parks or other reserves. No more than several square km would be needed for each reserve and this could be even less. The point of the reserves would not be to protect endangered species or habitats but rather to educate the public. If only a small percentage of the travelers along the highway were to stop and become interested in protecting the succulents and their habitats then this would be a major educational/environmental impact.

If enough reserves could be connected along key highways (e.g. Highway 57) they might become a touristic attraction in themselves, with each reserve providing different trails and environments highlighting the flora of northern Mexico. Of course, in addition to the flora, some of the more common birds, reptiles and other features of the reserves would be highlighted. Environmental issues and threats would be one component to the reserves. Especially important is the protection of geodiversity and landscapes that cannot recover in less than hundreds of years if they are disturbed. See the image below for an example.

Banded vegetation in northern Mexico. The scene is about 30 km across. These bands, if disturbed, will take centuries to reestablish themselves. Such features need long-term protection. Currently very few people appreciate such features (anywhere on Earth). Parks should exist to protect such features.

Disturbed landscape in Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas. The obvious banded vegetation was apparently planted prior to the park becoming established in 1946. Image on the left is from 1991, the one on the right is from 2017. The banded pattern has only slightly decreased in the 28 years between the images. The scene is approximately 3 km across.

Our motivation for suggesting educational reserves came from the difficulty many years ago in finding suitable places to explore the flora while traveling in northern Mexico. It was difficult to pull-off on many Mexican highways and where it was possible these pull-offs were commonly used as bathrooms by the traveling public, since such facilities were infrequent between towns. This situation remains today. And, since the roads are engineered for economic development rather than scenic driving, rest stops and scenic stops are rare. The autopistas are especially bad for this, since they are fenced and exits are rare. As a result, one can drive the entire network of Mexican Highways without developing a close appreciation of the flora of the country – especially those species that are small (e.g. Mammillaria, Turbinocarpus, Astrophytum etc) and cannot be seen or appreciated at highway speeds. Most travelers do not stop in the countryside (again, unless for a bathroom break). In part, this is because they don’t know what is there.

I have put together a small kmz file for Google Earth (download the file, then open in Google Earth) showing some possible locations for nature trails and stops along the Main Highway 57 and on the road to Zacatecas from Saltillo. Most sites are near the roads leading to microwave stations. These are not the best sites – they are close to the highways and would not be idea for camping and would be subject to some road noise. Better sites would be at least 5 km from the highways, but would require longer detours for the traveling public and access roads that might require routine maintenance. Readers of this page will certainly have better suggestions for possible sites. The idea here is to simply start the discussion. The goal is to develop a network of ecotouristic reserves that educate the public and provide alternatives to the mass-tourism that Mexico is known for (at least internationally).

Cactophiles and conservation-oriented individuals, those that know about the poaching of rare succulents, may be wary of this proposal. Plant theft is hard to control, and if people are shown what is out there it will be easier for them to find such plants and dig them up. The main answer to this concern is that the benefit of educating the public will exceed the possible loss of plants. In any case, habitat loss from agriculture, ranching and urban development will far exceed plant poaching losses. Despite this, our suggestion is that such reserves and nature trails do not pass near locations of rare succulents. (They may be present on the reserves but such plants might only be visited only with a reserve guide and only to specialists or educators.) The goal of the reserves would be to highlight the more common plants of each region and to generate a deeper interest in the subject of natural history (and environmental conservation). Even the more common species are usually poorly appreciated by the public (in any country).

I have put together some images from various trips to show some of the “issues” associated with plant exploration along Mexican roads. I have put text below each image so that the content is clearer.

The main road leading into Metztitlán, Hidalgo.  There are excellent road-cuts with succulents but they are difficult to access.  No places to park and safely look at the plants.  There are many opportunities for education here – if there was the road infrastructure to allow people to stop.
Photographing the plants can be dangerous if vehicles come by.
Parked on the side of Highway 57. Usually there are no safe parking spots for most interesting cacti habitats.
Highway 57 looking towards Cerro El Potosi.  This hill (where photo was taken) had many spectacular cacti but they are essentially inaccessible to the average tourist.
An autopista north of Mexico City.  The “sterilized” side of the highway makes for safer highways (easier to see cattle and deer) but you cannot see the natural landscapes.  Of course, it wouldn’t matter much since there are few places to even stop safely along such highways.
The noise level along busy autopistas discourages longer stops.
This is the canyon of Highway 58 that travels west from Linares and eventually reaches Highway 57.  We considered it the most spectacular canyon in Mexico for many years.  However, there were almost no places to safely stop along the entire stretch of road. Apparently the scenery had little consideration in the road construction.
A sign of possible side-road opportunities in Mexico is a microwave relay station on a hilltop.  In the past these used to be accessible via a rough dirt road.  Now many have locked gates at the main highway.
The paved road leading to the microwave station near Huizache Junction.  Perhaps a parking lot and nature center could be established at the base of the hill and trails could run up the hill to the towers(?)
The road to the Huizache microwave station is good enough for standard vehicles.
A view of part of Huazache Junction from the microwave hill.  All of the hills around the junction are filled with interesting cacti – if only one can access them!  But from the highway these hills “look uninteresting” to the average traveler.
A flowering Turbinocarpus at Huizache.
Small cacti (Lophophora and Turbinocarpus) in cracks in limestone near Huizache Junction.  Such cacti might be pointed out in guided tours on the proposed nature trails.  Or they might not, depending on the tour participants.
The focus of most nature trails would be on common cacti and other plants such as this Neolloydia conoidea.
Turbinocarpus near Huizache Junction.  The average non-cactophile will not even see these plants.  Should they be told about them?  How dangerous is education?
Limestone hills like this here are best for constructing nature trails since much of the trail might involve clearing only some of the vegetation in places and putting rock cairns as trail markers.
A day in Huasteca Canyon near Monterrey for the average person means something like this.  Not hiking on a nature trail.  Changing attitudes is a global problem.
It is true that in summer the cool water is nice!  But there was no nature-oriented information in evidence here (there may have been elsewhere near Monterrey).
Mangroves north of La Paz, Baja California.  A road to a popular beach and the ferry terminal skirts these mangroves but there were no trails, boardwalks or even signs explaining the unique attributes of such mangrove “swamps”.
The tropical deciduous / dry forest during the dry season south of La Paz.  There were no trails anywhere along the road between La Paz and Los Cabos for the visitor to explore these environments.
There is money for some park trails and facilities in Mexico.  Here a good trail with some bridges leads to a lookout at Cascadas de Basaseachi.  Of course, views can’t be stolen – unlike cacti. This park is relatively remote.
An information plaque at the Cienegas de Cuatrocienegas.  Most of the text describes how to behave – little information is given about the uniqueness of the environment.  Item 5 is interesting – solicit authorization to carry out activities – a large part of this protected area is property of the communities.  What does this say about real protection? What if the communities want a balneario next year?
Another plaque at Cuatrocienegas…
The administration building of the Jardin Botanico Helia Bravo – located in arguably the best cactus environment in Mexico – southwest of Tehuacan.  There are a series of trails winding through the natural landscape – a natural botanic garden.  Guided tours are needed (or were a handful of years ago).
Gift shop at the botanic garden.  These are common in most natural parks worldwide – but there was very little about the nature of the botanic garden or the succulent flora of the region.  What do tourists want to shop for?  What should they want to shop for?
A plaque along one of the trails at the Helia Bravo botanic garden.  This explains the dry environment of the region as a rain-shadow desert (explanation is approximately correct).
Outside Tehuacan, on the road to Santiago Chazumba.  Not all interesting plants are in the Helia Bravo Botanical Garden.  In particular, Mitrocereus and a handful of other species are found not in the botanic garden but elsewhere along the road.  How to see them?  Stop wherever you can find to park on the roadside and walk/hike cross-country over the hills.  No trails – other than those made by cows.
Omnipresent across Mexican landscapes are these – evidence of human-associated grazing animals.
Cattle are prominent around Metztitlan.  Metztitlan is the second primer cactus environment in southern Mexico, after the region southwest of Tehuacan.  Amazingly, many of the cacti are different from those around Tehuacan.
Another view of the steep Metztitlan limestone cliffs/road-cuts being colonized by succulents.  Stenocereus, Myrtillocactus, Mammillaria, Astrophytum, Agave and Hechtia are some of the succulents.  There are others.
Succulent “garden” on a steep slope as seen from the road, entering the town of Metztitlan, Hidalgo.  This is looking up a cliff – that was impossible for us to climb.  Such a cliff might benefit from a steep trail following the cliff-face so that succulents could be more closely approached.
Steep hillside outside of Metztitlan with large Echinocactus ingens.  Building a nature trail on such a hillside would be difficult and would probably lead to much erosion.
This is not what the educational reserves should be showing the public – rare species that could be easily over-collected.  Ariocarpus scaphirostris.

back to concise talk list