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National Park Goes Local

By Tom Burnett

Cuenca is a city with a resumé. It is designated a World Heritage Site. Ecuadorans consider it their most beautiful city. Though hard for international visitors to fathom, it is the only city in Ecuador to treat its sewage before discharging it into the ocean or nearest river. But perhaps its most distinguishing claim is that it “owns” a national park insofar as it exercises considerable autonomy in financial controls, marketing, management, and enforcement. Even more strange, the city’s water and sewer department manages the park.

Cajas National Park, rich in scenery, biodiversity, and recreational opportunities, glitters above Cuenca, some 20 miles to the west. Stony peaks ascend to an altitude of 13,800 feet. It presents raw environmental beauty, yet is home to an extractive industry: water. Cajas’ mandate is multiple-use— preserving the area for its water potential, shepherding the unique flora and fauna, and providing delights for tourists. Like the tin roofs and rain barrels used by resourceful people around the world, ways to collect and channel water from roofs to inhabitants below are the gifts of Cajas.

Cuenca, the water-user and the city with a sewage treatment plant, was an easy choice when the Ministry of Environment was forced by a 1997 law to decentralize management of protected areas. The law specified that management of Ecuador’s 22 protected areas should fall to local municipalities. It seemed Ecuador was having trouble caring for its natural riches. The Ministry lacked funds, it was inefficient, and found itself distant from citizen participation and local support. Ministry orders went unheeded. Cuenca was chosen to pilot the hand-over.

Cajas, a little-known National Recreation Area, became Cajas National Park in 1996. Tourists and travelers discovered the park when a road was completed over the Andean divide to Guayaquil. As managed by the Ministry of the Environment, operations were sketchy. For example, about the only evidence that a park existed at all was that there were a couple of rangers in a hut arbitrarily collecting fees.

Cuenca gets 40 percent of its water from the city’s drainage, so Cuenca’s water, sewer, and telephone department (ETAPA) appealed to the ministry to take the management role. They were “fed up” with the central government’s careless stewardship of the area’s water and natural treasures. The transition took two years. The department changed everything, creating a legal framework with rules, building control cabins at the entrances, training rangers and guides, erecting a visitor’s center, publishing maps and tourist materials, keeping records, and setting up research projects.

One of Cajas’ cheerleaders is Carlos Lara. A dedicated family man, he guided our group of 13. Before the duties of marriage and fatherhood overtook him, Carlos burrowed about the trails and peaks of Cajas for years, earning him excellent qualifications for guiding botanically curious tourists like us. Stopping our bus at Lake Toreadora, Carlos led out, naming flowers and explaining the gorged water-holding capacity of “cushion plants.” The cushion plant mass was 12 inches deep, bouncier than Berber carpet, suffused with water, but not releasing it under our step. This would be a standard lesson for school children from the city, so they would know the source of their water and the reasons for keeping the mountains clean.

Percy Nuñez, the Peruvian botanist of prodigious knowledge, dropped to his knees and hailed us to a crevasse as wide as a Panama hat. Water coursed in it noisily. On the crevasse wall, Percy pointed out “Merlin’s Grass,” not a grass at all but a member of a primitive genus, Isoetes, with a pedigree stretching 400 million years.

Carlos asked several times, “Do you like Cajas?” Who could not like Cajas? Its mangled ridges, twisted trees, ground-hugging flowers adapting to the high, cool altitude, and severity of climate were unexpected. Carlos hoped we would appreciate in a few hours what decades of closeness had infused in him. He knows Cajas like Goodall knows the misty forests of Tanzania.

Carlos holds a perspective that encompasses more years and more onthe- ground observations than anyone. Smitten since age ten, he began visiting the lakes and peaks of Cajas with his father. On our bus ride, Carlos told us how the city of Cuenca had been given management of the park, briefly explaining the unusual devolution. He added, “This has been good for the park—very good.” Later he told me, “As a tour guide, I travel all over Ecuador. I would say that Cajas is at least ten times better than other national parks, because of local management.” He gently urges us to stay on graveled paths. Because this is a “local national park,” he takes a proprietary interest in it and its upkeep.

Peer review works to preserve the park’s value. People in Cuenca’s tourism and water businesses all know each other and the rangers, guides, scientists, and engineers all keep an eye on ETAPA. Social sanctions are immediate and surgical.

In the United States, on the other hand, when a problem needs rectifying in national parks, sometimes the only way to get after it is to make a publicity spectacle and bring pressure to bear on Congress. This process can be lengthy. Response times are shorter with local management. A truck spilled petroleum in Cajas. Within two weeks, new regulations were in effect, barring petroleum hauling. A fish farm was found to be polluting one of Cajas’ 235 lakes. It was promptly shut down. In contrast, enemies of snowmobiles have been working for ten years to control their use in Yellowstone and the battle is still not over. The merits of snowmobile regulations aside, the alacrity with which local authorities can act, compared to national bureaucracies, is beyond dispute.

Local management, however, has not always been easy. For example, Cajas’ managers have had a difficult time controlling grazing incursions. Asked if there were any dams in Cajas, Augustín Rengel of ETAPA said, “no,” but that “it is possible that in the future it may be necessary to construct several dams.” Asked if there are many conflicts between ETAPA and environmentalists, he said there were a few, one being precisely the possibility of dam construction. Such a dilemma will test the limits of the federal bequest and the ingenuity of local parties as they strive to both protect and provide. Asked what he thought would happen at the end of the ten-year decentralization trial, Augustín replied, “I hope that the initial period will be renewed forever,” exactly the sentiment of our fervent guide, Carlos Lara.

In 1982, Richard Stroup and John Baden proposed turning over the management of 80 million acres of wilderness areas in the United States to a “Wilderness Endowment Board comprised of private naturalists rather than public bureaucrats.” In 1984, Randy Simmons, while working at the Department of the Interior, proposed granting the wilderness area at Aravaipa, Arizona, to Defenders of Wildlife. The proposals promised better stewardship through superior incentives and streamlined administration. Some of the principles underlying their proposals are found in Ecuador’s local solution. But the concept fared poorly in Washington, D.C. Neither the Wilderness Endowment Board nor the Aravaipa hand-over made it far against the entrenched interests of public management.

Imagine the National Park Service handing Yellowstone to the city of Cody, Wyoming, or Yosemite to Modesto, California. That is what Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment did when it assigned control and management of Cajas National Park to the city of Cuenca. It is a bold change for a country whose constitution breathes not a word about U.S.-style federalism and insists on central control over everything from law enforcement to the price of bottled propane. Ecuador’s experiment with local control leads the world. And Cuenca adds one more accomplishment to its already impressive resumé: the city with its own national park.


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