The definition of our geographic region as the 1200-mile vertical stretch from Point Conception in Southern California to the southern tip of the peninsula of Baja California has significant importance for the San Diego Natural History Museum as we approach the 21st century. We find ourselves faced with challenges as a territory of immense biodiversity with numerous fragile, endemic, and endangered species; as an area experiencing phenomenal population explosion and growing environmental pressures; and as a cross-border, multicultural region.
Our region—the second longest peninsula in the world—is unique. That uniqueness is attributable to our geologic history—the moving geological tectonic plates that result in earthquakes and fault lines and mountains, rivers and watersheds, beaches and deserts. No wider than 60 miles, the peninsula surrounds the Sea of Cortés and its many islands. The varied geology, abrupt terrain and multiform landscapes are responsible for the biological diversity, which in turn is reflected in the rich cultural diversity we see today. The complex interaction between a fragile nature and growing human land-use has resulted in the environmental challenges that we face today and will confront tomorrow.
Few places show the incredible environmental heterogeneity of our natural region. The regional climate ranges from Mediterranean-type winter rains in the north, to monsoon-type summer rains in the south. Dramatic vegetation gradients, generated by mountain slopes, range from coastal scrub to chaparral to temperate forests to dry desert in the northern portion of the region. A rare form of tropical deciduous forest occupies the lowlands of the Cape Region, in the southern part of the peninsula. Temperate ecosystems with pine and oak, which have evolved in extreme isolation and are composed mostly of rare and endemic species, appear in the sky-island mountains.
The isolation in which the region has evolved has generated an inordinately rich biological complexity and an extremely high number of plant and animal species found here and nowhere else. Not only does our region sustain one of the topmost levels of biodiversity in all of North America, it is also one of the most sensitive and challenged areas of the continent, with the largest number of threatened or endangered species.
Recent economic growth and development in our region have been redesigned away from the defense industry and toward the biotechnology and high-technology industries. The maquiladora industries in Tijuana, the high-input crops in the agricultural valleys, and the booming tourism industry are all powerful driving forces of economic and demographic growth. Economic development proceeds at an accelerated rate compared to the rest of Mexico and the U.S.
The relative success of the regional economy has brought a large demographic increase to the region, mostly derived from immigration. Currently the most populated area along the border, the San Diego/Tijuana region has an ethnically diverse population of about four million, with anticipated growth of 49% by 2015. Driven by the attendant rapid increase in demand for resources, the region is confronting a series of environmental threats, primarily uncontrolled urban sprawl along the Mexico-U.S. border; exhaustion of underground aquifers; replacement of native vegetation by weedy exotic species; increased recreation and tourism in the fragile deserts and islands; degradation of estuaries and coastal lagoons; and unsustainable commercial fishing.
Both the Mexican and the U.S. governments, and the conservationist non-governmental organizations, have developed actions to protect the rich and increasingly endangered ecosystems of our region. The peninsula now harbors 11 natural protected areas on the Mexican side. In the U.S., a comprehensive series of reserves and wildlife refuges protects ecosystems from the Pacific coast to the mountains, and to the Anza-Borrego desert.
Efforts have been also developed to promote the sustainable use of natural resources. The governors of the four Mexican States surrounding the Sea of Cortés have signed an agreement to pursue a joint program for the sustainable use of the gulf waters. San Diego County is currently implementing the Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP), seeking a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. Developed jointly by real estate interests, environmentalists, governmental agencies, and elected officials, the MSCP aims to preserve habitat rather than focus upon individual endangered species. Involvement by the city, county and local jurisdictions is yielding appropriation of funds for land acquisition and management to set aside regional parks. The discussions around MSCP have brought to our region an increased awareness of the importance to take urgent action to protect the environment.
As we enter this new century, our residents must prepare to meet the challenges critical to the future of our region, such as population growth, limitation of resources, habitat preservation, and pollution of air and water, to name but a few. The region is one large continuum, with shared watersheds, species, and natural resources that do not recognize a boundary line. These realities of our region have great importance for our Museum, as one of the largest natural history museums near the international border. To foster discussion and initiate collaborative action it is critical for the Natural History Museum to work now to promote true cooperative work between Mexican and U.S. research and conservation groups, as the protection of these unique environments in our region is of the utmost importance for the survival and well being of all of us, for generations to come.