Natural beauty vs. economic needs

SUN JOURNAL

Mexico: The debate over a proposed resort in Baja California pits concerns about wetlands and wildlife against the needs of a precarious farming economy.

January 20, 2000|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN QUINTIN, Mexico -- Braced against the sea like a protective forearm, the dune-covered peninsula corrals a bay teeming with natural wonders.

In one direction, a wayward whale looses a spout of mist. In another, clouds of Pacific black brant geese streak above the surface. The shiny heads of sea lions pop above shallows electric blue in the noon sun.

There's an innovative underwater farm with hundreds of thousands of oysters strung along submerged racks.

But San Quintin Bay and the sheltering, seven-mile peninsula are ensnared in a battle over a proposal for a huge tourist resort: eight hotels, condominiums and other residences, three golf courses, a 350-slip marina and shopping centers.

The debate is considered by many the most important wetlands issue in Baja California because of the spot's unspoiled beauty, known mostly to outdoors enthusiasts. A crucial decision on whether the project can proceed expected within 90 days.

$700 million plan

The resort, which would cost more than $700 million and is proposed by a group of investors from Mexico City and the United States, has sharply divided the rural population of the San Quintin Valley, a dusty expanse of tomato farms and packing plants 185 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Tourism accommodations in the region of 40,000 have been limited mainly to waterfront lodges for hunters, sportfishermen and other hardy travelers.

Conservationists say that building on the peninsula would destroy a haven for migrating Pacific waterfowl and imperil the only oyster-exporting bay in Mexico clean enough to meet U.S. food standards. Developers vow to safeguard wildlife through environmentally sound upkeep and by introducing sewage treatment.

The fight goes beyond golf and geese. At its heart are far-reaching anxieties over the economic future of the San Quintin Valley as a whole. An increasing population and worries about farming -- from diminishing water and falling profits to violence on one ranch over unpaid wages -- have prompted doubts over how long San Quintin can survive on crops alone.

"The question is, what will there be to sustain the people?" said Manuel Sanchez Torres, a sociologist who teaches at a local agricultural college.

Sanchez and other local leaders are impressed by the resort promoters' promises to inject millions of dollars into the region's economy and create more than 20,000 jobs in a region where unemployment estimates run as high as 30 percent.

Ecologists counter that San Quintin Bay's best economic prospects lie in its purity, as a destination for modest nature tourism and as a proving ground for organic methods of raising oysters and clams.

The opponents worry that the remote area, a four-hour drive over winding roads from San Diego, would be overwhelmed by the crowds needed to make a project such as the resort profitable. Developers say they would need to have a commuter airport built to get people there easily.

The debate has been joined by environmentalists on both sides of the border and around the world. Mexican officials in the middle say the issue seems to be irreconcilable.

It is an "enormous controversy," said Hugo Abel Castro Bojorquez, who heads Mexico's environmental agency in Baja California. "On one end are people who say San Quintin needs economic development, and this will help social welfare for the whole area by creating jobs and drawing investment," he said. "On the other end are people who say that if this project comes, the area it will be built on is of extremely high fragility."

The opposing things have one thing in common: The need to boost San Quintin's fortune has both looking west, past ramshackle houses and washboard roads to the volcano-lined bay ruled by sea lions and water birds.

Environmentalists say horseshoe-shaped San Quintin Bay is unique. A vast lagoon, it remains largely undeveloped a century after a failed effort by English settlers to grow and mill wheat. The spot is home to more than 100 species of birds, including several, such as the light-footed clapper rail, that are deemed endangered in the United States.

Of concern to wildlife experts are the Pacific black brant from Russia and Alaska that wintered in California until virgin habitat there gave way to coastal development and dredging. San Quintin Bay, rich in eel grass, is one of three Baja waterways to which 150,000 geese flock in winter to prepare for the return flight and breeding.

Ecologists count at least 10 kinds of plants, fish, lizards and rodents unique to the area.

Resort foes fear pollution from sewage, fertilizers and boats. Others worry that the disappearance of eel grass and the presence of people would jeopardize the geese, which are not endangered but are watched as a bellwether for other species.

"The birds are either going to starve or move to another location," said David Ward, a research biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

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