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AFTERWORD At Home in El Cielo BY JOHN UMPHRESS The El Cielo Cloud Forest a stunning mix of tropical and temperate climes 240 miles south of the Texas border and about eighty miles from the coast lies in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas Moist Gulf winds blocked by a range of mountains rising abruptly from the coastal plain, drop as much as seven feet of rain a year on a rugged area several hundred miles square Small groves of mangoes and oranges flour ish on farms at the base of the Sierra Tamlave and as elevations rise steeply to 7000 feet tangle4 trop ical woods give way to a more temperate environment of oak pine sweetgum, and magnolias that dom inate a lush forest Tall canopies of oak and pine provide an airy, fecund home for a thick matting of ferns bromeliads mosses orchid,; and an occasional maguey. e were drawn to El Cielo by its reputation for extravagant beauty within a day’s drive of Texas, and we found not one drama, but two. One is of the land. Spanish and Mexican logging companies came to these rugged mountains in the 1950s, to remove the oak, pine, mora, maple, sweetgum, mesquitillo, and most everything else. When they finished in the seventies, they left behind only a few pockets of virgin forest. In the eighties, the United Nations and the Mexican government collaborated to designate the 56,000acre El Cielo Reserve, a biosphere that takes its name from a small farm that had shielded a sixty-acre patch from logging. A second growth has now covered the mountains with a variety of micro-environments that depend on moisture and elevation and include North America’s northernmost tropical cloud forest. Within this second-growth paradise live 250 species of birds, thirty varieties of orchids, and a mix of temperate and tropical wildlife, including jaguars, lions, bears, squirrel, and jaguarundi. The second drama being played out in El Cielo is intertwined with the first and involves the people struggling to hold on to their homes in the mountains. Before the logging companies arrived, almost no one lived here. But poor families from distant Mexican states followed the logging boom and built towns and villages, complete with sawmills, restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters, high in the mountains. When the companies left, most of the people left as well. But not all. Dozens of families stayed behind in the tem perate highland, hoping to find new ways of making a living. There is some arable land, and pasture for limited agriculture. There are forest products, such as blackberries and palmita frond. And when that’s not enough, families send their men to work in the United States or their women to work in the maquilas at the border. None of the work here yields much in security or comfort. Families survive, but no one prospers. So some of the men and women living in the region are trying to develop a new source of income outsiders like us. They are creating their own economic and environmental niche where they hope to earn a dignified living and still make El Cielo their home. They will have a chance if more like us do come, and if the local people not outside officials or businessmen manage the reserve. Those are two big ifs. eaching the re serve is a chal enge. We drove all day from Laredo to the end of the paved road in the village of G6mez Farias, some eight miles off the main highway. Our destination was a lodge in the village of Alta Cimas, three thousand feet up and several miles further into the Sierra. At Farias we had to make a decision. We could hire a local truck to take us up the steep, nine-mile, rock-paved road carved into the mountain side. We could walk an even steeper five-mile trail. Or we could press on in our Toyota Corolla. Our consultants at La Cabana Restaurant thought we could make it. Trucks and VW combi-vans, they said, have no problems, but cars work best if they are short, light, and have rea sonable clearance. We drove a nerve-wracking ninety minutes, climbing carefully from rock to rock and moving too slowly to run off the edge. Despite four inches of rain the night before, the road wasn’t too muddy or slippery and all we had to do was steer with surgical precision around ruts and outcrops, taking care not to crack the oil pan when bouncing off a protruding rock. When we finally arrived, the day was late and misty. Alta Cimas is a scattering of small, trim compounds, strung along a rutted road in the narrow troughs of several intersecting valleys. We had made reservations by calling Sergio Medellin in Ciudad Victoria, seventy miles away. At Altas Cimas we found the lodge at the upper end 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 13, 1998