WILD RE­TURN

At botan­i­cal gar­den in cen­tral Mex­ico, nat­u­ral species blos­som again af­ter over­graz­ing

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - TRAVEL - By Kim Cur­tis

SAN MIGUEL DE AL­LENDE, Mex­ico — Imagine a botan­i­cal gar­den, and acres of care­fully de­signed, highly man­i­cured, del­i­cately pruned “zoos for plants” may come to mind. But at El Charco del In­ge­nio, a botan­i­cal gar­den and nat­u­ral pro­tected area in cen­tral Mex­ico, the sprawl­ing scrub­land has been al­lowed to re­turn to its un­en­cum­bered, wilder roots.

The ap­prox­i­mately 160acre prop­erty, ac­quired from sev­eral dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies, had been over­grazed for hun­dreds of years, ac­cord­ing to Mario Ar­turo Her­nan­dez Pena, the park’s di­rec­tor.

“Thirty years ago, peo­ple said the only thing that grows here is stones,” Her­nan­dez said. But by lim­it­ing ac­cess, pro­tect­ing the soil from runoff, prun­ing trees and con­trol­ling unwanted species, the land has blos­somed, he said.

In 1991, when El Charco first opened, vol­un­teers and staff had iden­ti­fied about 183 species of plants and about 130 species of birds. Those num­bers ex­ploded to about 600 and 186 in 2007 and 2014, re­spec­tively.

“We’re just help­ing na­ture,” he said.

El Charco is eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble from touristy down­town San Miguel de Al­lende. It’s a few min­utes by car or a longer, up­hill jaunt by foot. The park hosts about 50,000 vis­i­tors each year. About 70 per­cent are Mex­i­cans and, of those, about 35 per­cent are stu­dents, which is ex­actly how Her­nan­dez and the board of di­rec­tors like it.

“It’s an ed­u­ca­tional en­vi­ron­ment, not a park where you can have a pic­nic,” ex­plained Naomi Zer­riffi, the only non-Mex­i­can on the seven-mem­ber board of di­rec­tors.

Even so, the high tourist sea­son of Novem­ber through Fe­bru­ary is the park’s busiest time of year, Her­nan­dez said.

“We’re work­ing with the Univer­sity of Gua­na­ju­ato on a study of the ca­pac­ity of in­take. We’re dis­cussing how much is too much,” he said. “We can pack this place with peo­ple ... but then its nat­u­ral struc­ture, which we guard as a trea­sure, would be highly af­fected.”

In ad­di­tion to its bio­di­ver­sity, El Charco is cul­tur­ally and his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant. Its name com­bines two Span­ish words, “el charco,” or “pud­dle,” and “in­ge­nio,” or “mill.” They re­fer to the an­cient flow of water in the canyon, which orig­i­nated in a nat­u­ral spring, long since dried up, and the remains of an an­cient mill or wa­ter­wheel, likely used to grind grain, which shows up on a map of San Miguel from 1580.

To­day’s vis­i­tors also can see the remains of an 18th-cen­tury bridge, the ru­ins of a 19th-cen­tury ha­cienda and a still-in­tact dam built in 1902. There are work­shops and classes, guided tours in Span­ish and English, bird-watch­ing ex­cur­sions, a sweat lodge and full­moon cer­e­monies, as well as an an­nual spring equinox con­cert and sum­mer fes­ti­val in July.

El Charco, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, re­ceives no gov­ern­ment fund­ing, and the bulk of its an­nual bud­get is drawn from mem­ber­ships and fees, Her­nan­dez said. About 20 per­cent comes from pri­vate dona­tions. In ad­di­tion to Her­nan­dez and the board of di­rec­tors, the park is run by a team of 24 full-time staff, in­clud­ing an en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer and two bi­ol­o­gists, and 10 vol­un­teer tour guides.

An­drew Good­ell, a vol­un­teer and en­gi­neer­ing ge­ol­o­gist, said groups of stu­dents, rang­ing from prekinder­garten to post­doc­toral, have toured the park.

“I want to give them an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for na­ture and their her­itage,” he said. “I want to show them what the land has looked like in the past, what the names of things are and what they’ve been used for.”

Her­nan­dez’s in­ten­tions are even broader.

“We can have a much larger im­pact if we fo­cus not just on en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion but on cul­tural change,” he said. “We can just have tourists run­ning through here and tak­ing off, but if peo­ple leave here think­ing about their ac­tions and their im­pacts, that’s real.”

MIGUEL VIQUEZ/AP PHOTO 2016

The canada, or canyon, in El Charco del In­ge­nio pro­tected area. The num­ber of species of plants and birds there has sky­rock­eted in re­cent years.

KIM CUR­TIS/AP PHO­TOS

El Charco del In­ge­nio Di­rec­tor Mario Ar­turo Her­nan­dez Pena leads a tour of the botan­i­cal gar­den, which opened in 1991.

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