I volunteered at Mexico’s National Park Service, CONANP, in the State of Hidalgo.
My work focused on a park located within a stunning evergreen forest in a mountainous region, famous for rock climbing and for being one of the oldest parks in the country. The park is located at high elevations between 7,500 feet and 10,000 feet and is home to endemic salamanders along with coyotes, gray fox, garter snakes, and ring tailed cats.
I happily split my time inside the park’s office and along the park’s many amazing trails.
On my first day back in November 2012, I had only this vague job description: My primary role is of building local capacity: 1) to strengthen existing conservation efforts; and 2) to support the park’s biodiversity.
For the first three months or so, I focused my efforts on getting to know the park, the employees, their work focus and priorities. My counterparts and I worked on turning my job description into something a bit more specific, based on my experience and their needs. Pretty cool to develop your job, right? Pretty challenging to do it in a second language with only intermediate level proficiency!
Our first idea started with a with a tree study, where I would document size, species, and health in reference to a spreading bark beetle plague. Next, I would use the data to write a Forest Management Plan. My own ideas were to use the data to measure the forest’s carbon sequestration capacity, and to complete an ecosystems services valuation study. However, the bosses’ bosses never ended up approving funding for this project.
Instead, I decided to get to know the park by exploring its poorly maintained trails with a GPS. It did not take long for me to fall in love with the rich biodiversity and incredible views. What a great way to connect people with nature! And so my project was born: what started as a simple trail map project to promote their use later morphed into something much bigger.
In July 2013 I applied for a grant from USAID with the goal of improving eco-tourism infrastructure throughout the park.
The centerpiece of the project was the creation of a new trail that connected the Visitor Center with a campsite. We employed an incredible trail crew of three women and two men who lived in a nearby impoverished community.
Here are some photos along the new trail:
Unfortunately, I was medically evacuated from Mexico due to a severe injury. While I was recovering, I managed the project from a distance, cheering and supporting the team remotely. Trail construction was near-complete when, in April 2014 I was medically separated from Peace Corps. The national park staff were able to complete the project with the support of a nearby fellow volunteer, while my role shifted from Project Manager to Consultant.
In June 2014, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held to inaugurate the nature trail, complete with interpretative signage, bridges, and trash & recycling bins.
The park staff, recently certified by the Mexican Government as Interpretative Tour Guides, are now offering tours. They are also promoting visits on their new Facebook page and in their new brochures, both of which feature my photography.
I could not be more impressed and proud that my idea, developed and refined with the help of my counterparts, has become a sustainable resource for thousands of school groups and tourists to enjoy.