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PUBLIC LANDS: U.S., Canada, Mexico sign wilderness agreement
April Reese, E&E reporter
MERIDA, Mexico -- High-ranking U.S., Canadian and Mexican officials signed an agreement here Saturday to collaborate on protecting wilderness across North America.
The memorandum of understanding, signed during the WILD9 international wilderness congress, is the first continental wilderness agreement.
"This agreement will make it easier to exchange successful experiences and facilitate monitoring and the training of human resources, as well as financing projects that will protect and recover wilderness areas," Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa said Friday in his welcome to the congress, which meets every three to four years.
The agreement, a year and a half in the making, will allow land managers on opposite sides of the border to more easily work together on management challenges and opportunities, regardless of jurisdiction, officials said. For example, federal land managers will no longer be restricted in their collaboration with state or provincial managers across the border.
Mexico's participation in the MOU is part of a multipronged effort to step up wilderness protection at home, said Ernesto Enkerlin-Hoeflich, who heads the Commission for Natural Protected Areas for United Mexican States, a government agency.
The Calderón administration has been pushing for a wilderness law, similar to the one adopted by the United States in 1964, and the new measure has wide support among federal lawmakers in Mexico, he said. Currently, the only wilderness area in Mexico is the El Carmen Wilderness, created by CEMEX Corp. It borders Big Bend National Park in Texas.
"We are coming late, but I'm sure we're going to pick up fast," Enkerlin-Hoeflich said.
Protecting wilderness is especially important now, given the crucial role that intact forests, grasslands and other ecosystems play in sequestering heat-trapping carbon dioxide, noted Sally Collins, director of the U.S. Agriculture Department's new Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets.
Collins' office promotes the nonextractive benefits of natural systems, such as providing clean water, preventing erosion and helping to regulate the Earth's climate. Collins signed the document in place of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who could not attend the WILD9 meeting.
For its part, the National Park Service plans to bring long-languishing wilderness proposals "off the shelf" and encourage Congress to adopt new wilderness measures, added Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service.
Sam Hamilton, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages several wildlife refuges along the U.S.-Mexico border, said enhancing cooperation across national boundaries hopefully will ensure greater connectivity between protected areas.
"Wilderness forms the essential core of protected areas, but wilderness alone will not suffice," Hamilton said. "These areas must be connected."
Hamilton and his co-signers acknowledged that the border fence recently erected along long segments of the U.S.-Mexico border is a hindrance to that connectivity and will pose challenges to achieving the goals of the new agreement. Enkerlin-Hoeflich spoke of Mexico's "deep concern" about what he called "the wall" and expressed hope that the wilderness MOU will focus further attention on the need to create cross-boundary passageways for wildlife.
"We have to make the best of what we've got," Hamilton said.
Click here to read the MOU.