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PORT PROJECT AIMS TO BOOST TOURISM

Some people look at the Gulf of California and see a rare retreat for marine life and the occasional fishing boat or pleasure vessel. But when Mexican President Vicente Fox and his tourism advisers look at the same desert-fringed patch of salt water between Baja California and mainland Mexico, they see room for 76,400 yachts a year.

That's nearly 10 times the estimated current traffic. Such an influx of upscale visitors, officials say, could be a boon for tourism and could mean a boost in jobs and quality of life for Baja, Sonora and Sinaloa residents who have endured decades of bad roads and ragtag government services.

But environmental groups are worried that the same influx could undermine the rare ecology and stark natural beauty that make the peninsula unique. (They worry less about mainland Mexico, where the project calls mostly for upgrades of existing facilities, rather than new coastal construction.) They have asked for more details, but so far those remain in short supply.

The Escalera Nautica ("nautical route" is the Mexican government's translation) plan is to build a network of 22 ports in the next decade that form a route around Baja California's perimeter and along the mainland rim of the Gulf of California (better known in Mexico as the Sea of Cortez), stretching as far south as Mazatlan.

With ports spaced about 138 miles apart, the network is intended to act as a sort of secular seafarers' version of the California mission system, easing exploration (and enhancing relaxation) for boaters.

They will add docking, fueling, provisioning and radio communication facilities and in some cases restaurants and lodging.

Tourism officials also hope for an increase in land-based visitors once those tourists realize that related road improvements will mean easier access to tourist attractions.

FONATUR, the Mexican government's main tourism development agency, began meeting with state officials last year and announced Fox's backing for the project in February. (Similar plans were proposed in 1976 and the mid-'90s but were never executed.)

The first key piece of the project is the creation of a transpeninsular "dry canal" or land bridge about halfway down the peninsula to give boaters a 70-mile shortcut between the Gulf of California and the Pacific. The path now includes miles of rough rural road and is impractical for boat transport.

Once completed, the path is intended to accommodate transport of boats as long as 55 feet.

"We want to start building in July," said Juan Tintos Funcke, tourism secretary for the state of Baja California. If federal officials approve a request for $16.5-million, the road could be done by March, Tintos said.

Under the plan, semitrailer trucks will shuttle vessels between the sea and the Pacific Ocean, using new or expanded facilities (including marina slips) at Santa Rosalillita on the Pacific side and the Bahia de los Angeles on the Gulf of California side. Currently, most boaters must sail all the way down the 820-mile-long peninsula, then loop around Cabo San Lucas to reach the Gulf of California. Between Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas, there are virtually no marine services.

A shortcut with a port network is "a great idea," said Pat Rains, coauthor of the Mexico Boating Guide. "A lot of people have wished that this could happen."

But Rains also noted that Mexican officials have raised, then shelved, other versions of this concept.

The plan counts heavily on private investors, Tintos said, and requires cooperation among federal officials, four Mexican states and more than a dozen municipalities.

He said many site selections are still tentative, depending on environmental review, and acknowledged that the goal of 76,400 boats a year is optimistic. And Tintos noted that the initial projection of $222-million in FONATUR funding in the next five years is only an estimate.

Apart from the new and expanded port facilities, plans call for construction or expansion of 20 airports and airfields. Tintos said his state has spent about $2.5-million, and the federal department of communications and transportation has laid out about $7-million for early work on the Santa Rosalillita-Bahia de los Angeles road and related projects.

The potential effects on the sparsely populated peninsula have raised sharp questioning from environmentalists.

"Everywhere we go, Escalera Nautica is now the subject. But as far as I can see, they are not very well coordinated," said Patricia Martinez Rios, administrative director of Pro Esteros, an Ensenada, Mexico, wetlands protection group. "This is what concerns us _ that they will start building and destroying without listening to the experts."

But Martinez Rios said: "We are aware of the necessity of development for many communities. I think this is the best opportunity so far to really do correct planning, to really understand what sustainable development means. But we don't want to give any opinion before we know enough."

Five of the new project's 22 proposed ports are already full-service facilities: Ensenada, Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, Guaymas-San Carlos and Mazatlan. Seven others would be expanded: San Carlos (the one in Baja California), San Felipe, Loreto, Mulege, Santa Rosalia, Puerto Penasco and Topolobampo.

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