There are two major conservation areas in the Sierra Gorda region: one in Querétaro and one in the state of Guanajuato.
Biosphere reserve in Querétaro
Map of the Sierra Gorda region in Querétaro
The Sierra Gorda Biosphere in Querétaro was established by decree on May 19, 1997 because of its exceptional variety of species and ecosystems. The reserve extends for about 400,000 hectares over the states of Querétaro and San Luis Potosí . It covers about 32% of the state of Querétaro and is roughly the size of Rhode Island . When it was declared, the reserve had 683 communities with about 100,000 inhabitants. However, since then, the population has nearly dropped to about half. In Querétaro, the biosphere reserve encompasses the municipalities of Jalpan de Serra, Landa de Matamoros, Arroyo Seco, Pinal de Amoles (88% of its territory) and Peñamiller (69.7% of its territory) . The biosphere was declared as a result of grassroots efforts, the only one to be established this way in Mexico. The original declaration encompasses 383.567 hectares. In 2001, it was added to the International Networks of Man and Biosphere of UNESCO as the thirteenth Mexican reserve on the list, occupying first place in regards to ecodiversity. It is also recognized as a Área de Importancia para la Conservación de las Aves (Area of Importance for the Conservation of Birds) by the Consejo Internacional para la Preservación de las Aves Mexicanas.
The reserve begins in the dry semi desert areas in the center of Querétaro and as one moves north and higher into the mountain peaks of Pinal de Amoles at around 3,100 metres (10,200 ft), the scenery changes to temperate forest of conifers. Altitude lowers north into Jalpan and the climate is warmer and wetter before moving into the rolling hills of the La Huasteca in San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo. The ecosystems of the reserve are found at altitudes between 350 and 3,100 meters above sea level, with rugged mountains, canyons, lush valley and “sótanos” or pit caves carved out from the limestone of the
Huasteca Karst . Humidity is primarily from the Gulf of Mexico, which makes the northeast of the region green, but the southwest, blocked from the moisture by the high mountains, is dominated by arid scrub brush. This combination of varying altitude and moisture patterns creates the regions primary biological characteristic, which is a large number of ecosystems in a relatively small area. It has 15 vegetative types, including old growth
moist montane forests covered in bromeliads and orchids, high elevation pine-oak forests, a great diversity of cactus, wild oregano and lowland tropical forests . The biosphere is the seventh largest federally protected natural area and has the greatest biodiversity of all of them, including those which encompass marine areas, as it is home to 10 of Mexico's 11 ecosystems.
The diversity of the area can also be seen in the number of plant and animals species found in the reserve. There are 2,308 species of plants, . with about thirty five percent of the area covered by forested areas of oaks, junipers and pines. There are 130 mammal, 71 reptile and 23 amphibian species, including six feline species, the black bear (Ursus americanus) the spider monkey (
). There are 360 species of birds, more than 30 percent of the bird species in the country including green parrots (ara militaris) . Migrating monarch butterflies pause here on their southern route, and butterfly species in general total more than all that are in the U.S. and Canada combined. Many of these species are endangered, and many have not yet been studied.
The biosphere reserve in Querétaro is managed by Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas of Semarnat . The management system is a combination of federal authorities working with the participation of local communities. The land is generally not owned by the government. Thirty percent of the reserve is communally owned land with the rest privately owned, with the government issuing regulations. Cooperation between federal authorities and local communities has not always gone smoothly, with local residents complaining that the government has issues decrees without consulting them. The CESG and the biosphere project have attracted international support from sponsors such as the Schwab Foundation, Shell, Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard, Grupo Bimbo and nongovernmental organizations such as Ashoka, conservation foundations and U.N. agencies. The Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda was one of 94 winners of the Energy Globe competition among 700 entrants. It received 10,000 Euros to help fund its projects. Conservation of the area has also attracted the attention of people such as director James Cameron, who sponsored a reforestation project on 120 hectares. This is in addition to various other reforestation projects that have been ongoing since the 1990s. These projects even include an overall forest management plan designed to produce enough wood for local woodcutters to earn a living.
Biosphere reserve in Guanajuato
Much of the Sierra Gorda region which extends into the state of Guanajuato was declared a biosphere reserve in 2007 to preserve its biodiversity as well. In this state, protected area covers 236,882 hectares with is the entire municipality of Xichú, 70% of Victoria, 65% of Atarjea, about a quarter of San Luis de la Paz and a small portion of Santa Catarina. The reserve here is divided into a nucleus, which is in the municipalities of Victoria, Ajarjea and Xichú, and a periphery. Only eco tourism, research activities, traditional economic activities and low impact development is allowed in the nucleus.
This section of the Sierra Gorda is home to eighty four species of plants from trees to cacti, 182 species of birds and 42 species of mammals. The rugged terrain means that there are a wide number and variety of microclimates although average temperatures vary only between 16 and 19 °C. It lowest point is a canyon called Paso de Hormigas in Xichú at 650 meters above sea level with a very warm climate suitable for tropical fruit. The highest point is
Pinal de Zamorano at 3,300 meters, followed by El Picacho de Pueblo Nuevo, El Zorillo and El Cuervo all above 2,700 meters. The largest changes are seen in arid versus wetter zones, which can often be relatively nearby, with foliage changing from rainforest to pine forest to desert landscapes.
The area is the poorest in Guanajuato, with over 200 communities which have a population of less than 150. This area is the most rugged in the state where most of the natural areas and small villages are remain intact due to their inaccessibility. Culturally, the Sierra Gorda region is the far western part of La Huasteca, which extends over parts of the states of Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo and Veracruz.
The most important conservation problem is that the area is the second most populated natural protected area in Mexico, with severe problems with poverty. This creates a need to balance conservation efforts with local subsistence needs. One important aspect of this is to manage forest resources so that local woodcutters can make a living while controlling how much is cut. However, mass migration out of the region has almost halved the population of the Querétaro biosphere to about 50,000 people since it was declared. This has taken pressure off of local natural resources, as agriculture, livestock production and logging lessen. Many of the people who have left are in the United States and send money back home. This money has spurred the building of larger homes and the proliferation of pick up trucks, many with U.S. license plates. It has also allowed for the change to gas over firewood for cooking, but garbage has become a problem. However, overall the depopulation has been positive for the recuperation of the biosphere.
Despite the lessened pressure, economic activities still take a toll on the area. Illegal logging is still a very serious problem, as the area has attracted loggers from outside. The problem is most serious in Landa de Matamoros, Pinal de Amoles and Jalpan de Serra . Aside from commercial loggers, areas are also cleared by local farmers looking for more space for animals and crops. This has led to springs and river drying up and eroding of topsoil. While strict environmental protection laws exist, enforcement is lacking. Local authorities have requested the creation of environmental police to guard the forest areas. However, much of the enforcement is done by the local community itself.
Lastly, there have been problems with droughts and pest infestations. These include the
roundheaded pine beetle, European mistletoe and caterpillars. Some residents see the event as divine will but others place global warming. It is not know how much of the oaks, junipers and pines that make up most of the forested areas have been compromised but there are visible yellow patches seen in the otherwise green forest. The pests have been able to infest more because trees are weak due to drought conditions.
Efforts to help the local community preserve the area and make a living primarily consist of payouts to landowners who conserve and eco-tourism. Recently, the federal government along with the United Nations, began a program to pay private land owners for "environmental services" of between 18 and 27 US dollars for each hectare they conserve each year. However, this only covers about 215 landowners and 21.500 hectares, 5.6% of the total reserve. The second is the promotion of tourism based on the area's natural resources. One organization dedicated to this is Sierra Gorda Ecotours.
Sierra Gorda de Hidalgo
The Sierra Gorda in Hidalgo has not been declared a biosphere reserve, but it still contains a large number of important ecosystems. It is mountainous with a wide variety of ecosystems like other parts of the Sierra Gorda, but this area has a greater percentage of the volcanic rock when entered the area late in its geological history. The terrain is very rocky and difficult to travel. The most important elevation in the Hidalgo area is the
Cerro Cangandhó which has an altitude of 2,820 masl, located in the Sierra Alta de Hidalgo, The area is marked by the Moctezuma and Tula Rivers. The first contains a canyon which is 480 meters deep. The border between Hidalgo and Querétaro is marked by where the Moctezuma and Tula Rivers meet. This area is also home to one of the largest hydroelectric dams in Mexico.
The Sierra Gorda of Hidalgo roughly divides into an arid south and a north filled with forests. In both areas, days are significantly warmer than the nights. The north contains forests of pine, ocote, oaks, junipers and other trees. The south is more arid and much of it is scrub brush. This part of the Sierra Gorda, especially the south, is dominated by the Otomis, rather than the
Huasteca or Chichimeca. The most important city is Zimapán. Agriculture is limited to corn grown during the rainy season but yields are poor due to the lack of flat lands and fertile soil. Agriculture also increases erosion. More important to the economy is mining, with minerals such as lead, zinc, magnesium, silver and stone such as marble and opals.(higalgogob)