NEVADO DE TOLUCA, Mexico -- Nearly eight decades ago, President Lazaro Cardenas waxed eloquent when he created the Nevado de Toluca National Park, hailing Mexico’s fourth highest volcano as a “true living museum of flora and fauna.”
The iconic national park lasted 77 years. Then, last month, President Enrique Pena Nieto decreed it out of existence. Nevado de Toluca is now considered a “protected area.”
Conservation officials say they had little choice. Logging and other degradation within the 208-square-mile park had become so severe that the national park designation made no sense.
Some environmental activists are livid about the change of status.
“This is an abdication by the Mexican state of maintaining the kinds of national parks that civilized countries of the world enjoy,” said Gabriel Quadri de la Torre, an environmentalist and presidential candidate in the 2012 elections. “This is a defeat. . . . It’s terrible.”
Unlike national parks in many other countries, much of Mexico’s protected lands and wildlife refuges are in private or communal hands and people live in them. They plant crops, raise cattle, farm trout and occasionally hew trees for lumber.
Several factors make Nevado de Toluca stand out, not least of which is its towering 15,289-foot elevation, higher than any peak in the continental United States and frequently snow-covered. The dormant volcano has two lakes in its crater, considered the highest lakes in the Western Hemisphere. Alpine meadows cover its upper reaches, which are often shrouded in mist.
Coyotes, ring-tailed cats, badgers, rabbits and ferrets are among the 44 mammal species found in the pine, oyamel fir and oak forests at lower elevations.
In the late 1990s, politicians from the surrounding state of Mexico, one of 31 states in the nation, worked with a Canadian developer to float a plan for a resort with 19 ski slopes, and a 27-hole golf course. The resort would have been a two-hour drive from metropolitan Mexico City. The plan was shot down.
Some critics of the downgrading of Nevado de Toluca’s status suspect that politicians still harbor development plans. Luis Fueyo MacDonald, the head of the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, denies that, saying the management plan for Nevado de Toluca prohibits the construction of tourist developments, ski trails, golf courses, rustic homes or cabins, hotels or other projects.
While it may seem contradictory, Fueyo said the downgrading of the volcano increased the odds that authorities could work with the farmers who live on its flanks to protect its natural wonders. He said no politician seemed ready to enforce the blunt bans called for in laws governing national parks.
In some ways, blame for the situation goes back to Cardenas, the nationalist president who ruled Mexico from 1934 to 1940. Cardenas never formally set boundaries for the national park, saying only that it should encompass all areas higher than 3,000 meters above sea level – 9,842 feet.
Moreover, Cardenas grandfathered in 24 rural communities within the boundaries of the park, Fueyo said, and never resolved conflicting laws regarding their right to earn a living despite prohibitions on such activities in a national park.
Today, 10,255 people live in the 61 agricultural settlements within the boundaries of Nevado de Toluca, he said, “with full agricultural rights.”
Some 30 square miles – nearly 15 percent of the former park – have been cleared and turned into fields of corn, beans, potatoes and oats, according to a report by field workers for the national commission. Communal farmers have opened up at least seven quarries to remove sand.
Fueyo said a complete ban on logging in the park ended up only encouraging illegal logging, and alienating those living there.
“This is a decision by the president of the republic . . . to help us halt the process of deterioration that has occurred over decades,” he said.
Before Nevado de Toluca’s change of status with the Oct. 1 decree, Mexico had 67 national parks. It also has at least as many biosphere reserves, sanctuaries, protected areas and monuments. Many are cared for poorly, with no rangers or federal employees.
“There are a lot of areas that are decreed to be protected areas, but the money is never allotted to conserve them and no management plan is ever drawn up,” said Samantha Namnum, a lawyer at the nonprofit Mexican Environmental Law Center.
Namnum said she thought regulations prohibiting development on the volcano’s flanks were sufficient even under the downgraded status.
But in the villages within the former park, suspicions are high.
“We figure that something is coming behind this change, and it may be someone with a lot of money,” said Oscar de la Cruz, an oat and potato farmer in Loma Alta, an ejido, or communal farm, within the boundaries of the former park.
At the visitor’s entrance to Nevado de Toluca, Gabriel Gonzalez charged each car the equivalent of about $1.50 for entry. A member of another ejido, San Juan de las Huertas, Gonzalez said he thought the change was part of a moneymaking scheme.
“They want to build restaurants, hotels and a lot more. Who knows how much they’ll be making off this?” Gonzalez said.
A high-altitude runner, Delfino Bastida, who was jogging near the crater not far from Friar’s Peak, the highest point of Nevado de Toluca, said he wished that an aggressive reforestation plan would occur.
“People cut down the trees, and no one seems to know where the timber goes,” Bastida said.
One of Mexico’s most widely known environmentalists, the poet and novelist Homero Aridjis, said in a telephone interview that he suspected the change came to pave the way for development.
“This is economic swag for the politicians of the day,” Aridjis said. “This demonstrates the rapacious attitude of people. The ant-like depredation of the ejido members will be replaced with corporate depredation.”
But Aridjis said he expected that those behind the downgrading of Nevado de Toluca would get their comeuppance in a fitting tribute to the customs of pre-Hispanic peoples who considered the volcano sacred.
“When they die, they will fall in the crater,” he said. “This will be their mythical vengeance.”