Baja Marinas Project OKd

Times Staff Writers

Mexican officials have approved a controversial project to develop a necklace of marinas around Baja California over the objections of environmentalists who say it will endanger the breeding grounds of sea turtles, migrating whales and other wildlife.

The Escalera Nautica, or Nautical Ladder, will consist of 27 marinas ringing Baja California and is designed to attract armadas of pleasure boaters from the Pacific Coast of North America. The initial development is projected to cost $127 million but could increase if planned airports, hotels and golf course resorts materialize.

Planning for the project is being handled by FONATUR, the same government tourism agency that created tourist meccas in Cancun, Los Cabos and Ixtapa. The project is part of a plan to develop the 1,000-mile-long Baja peninsula, most of which is barren, roadless and unpopulated desert.

The developers want to create a chain of marinas spaced roughly 120 miles apart that boaters could hopscotch among on lengthy trips -- spending money along the way. FONATUR estimates that at least 50,000 boats will visit annually, attracting 1 million tourists and creating 250,000 jobs by 2014.

U.S.-based yachters have scoffed at such optimistic projections. They note that the rough Pacific waters off Baja weed out all but the hardiest sailors.

The yachters say those who make the trip fall into two groups: frugal retirees who prefer natural anchorages to expensive marinas, and wealthy yacht owners, who pay crews to sail the long passage to the tip of Baja. The owners then fly to Cabo San Lucas to meet them.

The project will include a road or "land bridge" midway down Baja, on which many boats could be towed between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California without making the long passage around the peninsula.

Environmentalists' concerns focus on Baja's Scammon's Lagoon and San Ignacio Lagoon on the Pacific Coast where California gray whales give birth. Bahia de los Angeles on Baja's east coast provides the feeding grounds for sea turtles, marine mammals and whale sharks.

Fishing groups in the Mexican state of Sinaloa oppose the project, saying yachters will take over their coastal workplaces.

Homero Aridjis, a Mexico City environmentalist and poet, said he fears that the Gulf of California on the east side of the peninsula could be overrun by boats and unbridled development. The late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once referred to it as the world's largest aquarium.

At a news conference in Mexico City on Thursday, Mexico's environmental secretary Alberto Cardenas Jimenez said development would follow strict guidelines to make sure that "we continue conserving and protecting our rich natural resources."

FONATUR director John McCarthy said Escalera Nautica is the "most important tourism project of this administration and possibly the most important of our history because of its regional character."

While acknowledging that Baja has tremendous tourism potential, Aridjis questioned the ability of the government to follow its own rules. "It could open the door to chaotic development beyond the control of a government that can't even control the sale of gum," he said.

A study released this year by EDAW, an international consulting firm based in San Francisco, concluded that Mexican tourist officials had exaggerated demand by up to 600%.

The study, commissioned by the Los Altos, Calif.-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation, recommended that any tourist investment should focus on improving facilities at ports in Ensenada, Los Cabos, San Carlos, La Paz and Mazatlan.

"The most important thing is that that project doesn't make any sense economically," said Serge Dedina, the San Diego-based co-director of Wildcoast, an international conservation group.

Kraul reported from Mexico City and Weiss from Los Angeles.

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