Saving Rancho del Cielo

Along the rugged eastern escarpment of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains where tropical and temperate ecosystems converge, a wild magical forest becomes submerged in the clouds for most of the year. The ecological richness of this site is internationally recognized as one of Earth’s great biodiversity hotspots. The rare and unique biological assemblage that resides there is unlike any other place in the Americas and for good reason it is known as El Cielo (The Heaven).

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In the 1960s, word of this remarkable mountain forest reached some 280 miles north to the small U.S. border town of Brownsville, Texas. Intrigued by the prospect of this exotic and mysterious place, faculty from Texas Southmost College (TSC) mounted a small expedition to explore the region. Little did they know, this earliest of expeditions would be the catalyst that led to the establishment of a world class biological research station known as Rancho del Cielo. Subsequently, as a direct result of these efforts, the entire region became a protected UNESCO World Heritage site acquiring the designation of the El Cielo Biosphere Preserve.

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The Rancho del Cielo Biology Field Station is tucked away deep in the heart of the El Cielo biosphere preserve, some 3,600 feet above sea level.  Field trips to Rancho del Cielo have provided life-changing experiences to countless students of all ages, university faculty, researchers, naturalists, bird watchers, and many more. Numerous specialized and endemic species of flora and fauna new to science have been identified there and many more await discovery. This region is a biological treasure trove providing untold opportunity for research, education, and unparalleled interactions with and enrichment in the natural world.

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During the five decades of Rancho del Cielo biological research station’s growth, an organic collaboration evolved between TSC and the non-profit Gorgas Science Foundation (GSF). The field station’s infrastructures established from a donated property was largely built by privately raised funds and volunteer labor. GSF took on the leadership role of managing the property, developing, growing and maintaining the facilities. A supportive academic program evolved through TSC that later expanded to upper division and graduate programs in partnership with University of Texas at Brownsville. 

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Regional turmoil in northern Mexico, peaking between 2008 and 2015, led to U.S. Department of State travel bans to the country. This effectively prevented collaborative entities to use the field station thereby ending the stream of resources essential to keep Rancho del Cielo viable. Since then, the field station has remained in a state of “hibernation,” with an onsite care-taker tending to and maintaining the structures and resources. Over the past 5 years, reports of violent crime have steadily declined within the interior of the State of Tamaulipas as the Mexican government has stepped up security in the region. As a result, the prospect of re-opening the research station and identifying future collaborators for research and education is becoming increasingly realistic.

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The Status Quo

The good news: In the absence of revenue streams for over a decade GSF has incurred the considerable debt of $320,000 to keep the research station in a state of inertia to prevent it from decaying beyond repair.  However, an anonymous benefactor has come forward and offered to match each dollar raised by this GoFundMe campaign to extinguish the $320,000 debt accrued.  This recent turn of events has positioned GSF to capitalize on the opportunity to revitalize the Rancho del Cielo research breathing new life into an otherwise impossible hole to climb out of.  

The bad news: Regardless of this obligation we desperately need financial assistance to bring the research station to operational conditions during the upcoming 3 years while we pursue venues of funding and support and this requires more than just the $160,000 to retire the debt. 

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Futur
e Sustainability

Fortunately, facilities and infrastructure are all in place, requiring a relatively modest investment to update after nearly a decade and a half of hibernation. After that initial reinvestment, a moderate annual budget will permit sustainable operation of Rancho del Cielo. Financially, the research station will be supported by several revenue streams:

•  Income fees from researchers and Universities using the facilities
•  Registration fees for Continuing Education opportunities
•  Grants
•  Fundraising

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How will funds raised be used? 


•  Address deferred maintenance issues: roofing, wooden structural elements, plumbing, etc...
•  Complete the transition (begun 15 years ago) from propane to solar power for lighting, refrigeration, and water heating.
•  Pay staff wages until programmatic cash flow is reestablished during a transition phase of 3 years.
•  Retire the debt accrued during the time the station was closed through matching funds provided by an anonymous benefactor.

What plans are in place to seek out institutions and organizations willing to partner?

Traditionally, the research station collaborated with a broad range of academic partners from across the United States and Mexico. The University of Tamaulipas and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in particular host faculty who have already expressed interest in using the research station to conduct research at El Cielo. 

Globally, strong working relationships with University of Texas, Cornell and Smithsonian as well as non-profits such as Atree in India, ProBiosfera in Mexico, and Audubon in the United States will provide the appropriate venues to market the research station to naturalists, educators, donors and philanthropist world-wide. 

Partnering institutions and organizations provide powerful platforms for grant applications; however, for these partnerships to become active Rancho del Cielo must be up-and-running.

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Budget

Raised funds will cover essential expenses for a 3 year period after which our goal is that the research station will be completely self-funded through the aforementioned sources:
 
                                                          Year 1        Year 2       Year 3        Total
Salaries                                        58,000      38,000      28,000     124,000
Conversion to Solar             20,000      10,000      5,000        35,000
Deferred Maintenance      15,000      10,000      5,000        30,000
Debt Retirement                   70,000       50,000     40,000    160,000

Project Totals                          163,000    108,000   78,000    349,000
 
Budget Narrative 

No money raised through this effort will be used to cover any administrative overhead.

Salaries

Although the station was built by volunteers and still counts on unpaid assistance to this day, two essential employees are on payroll: 

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Field Naturalist:  The role of field naturalist has been and continues to be filled by Mr. Jean Louis Lacaille Muzquiz from Cd. Mante, Tamaulipas. An engineer by trade, he opted for the deep forests of El Cielo over an office as his workspace a long time ago. His expertise in orchids and cave fauna has brought him to prominence among the international academic community as he has authored articles in scientific journals as well as in the popular "Mexico Desconocido". He has known El Cielo since he was a boy, developed a strong level of trust among local community members and is well known for his outreach efforts.

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Research Station Coordinator
: This includes one principal resource person who has been on staff for well over 20 years; Mr. Lorenzo Corona from El Encino, Tamaulipas. Mr. Corona was raised in the mountains and is a well-known member of the local community. Familiar to all local residents, he intimately knows all the trails and infrastructure. During the rainy season in particular, Mr. Corona supervises additional part-time employees sometimes needed to help maintain trails, roads, and infrastructures.

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Conversion to Solar Power

Currently, research station lighting and refrigeration are powered exclusively by propane, which is costly and involves periodic hauling of cumbersome, large tanks up and down the treacherous mountain roads. We wish to complete the conversion by installing seven modular stand-alone solar-powered systems, for each of the research station’s buildings. The systems planned for the classroom and mess hall will consist of 48-volt stepped-up to 110 volts. Dorm buildings requiring only lighting and portals for charging small devices will be kept at 12 volts or stepped-up as needed.

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Defe
rred Maintenance


With 120 inches of rain per year, wooden structural elements, including roofs, have suffered during the years the station remained unused and maintained by one staff member alone. The intricate system of water impoundment and complex valve and distribution network require constant maintenance. Water is collected from building roofs and stored in cisterns during the 6-month rainy season and then rationed out over the six-month dry season. The high humidity during the rainy season takes a high toll on bedding and other inventory. 

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Debt Retirement

After more than a decade without an income stream GSF spent its financial reserves and then borrowed $320,000 to preserve the research station in a state of stasis. A benefactor that asked to remain anonymous has come forward and pledged to match funds secured from this GoFundMe campaign towards extinction of the debt on the condition it will be reopened again for the purpose of conservation and education. For this reason, this fund-raising effort is of capital importance to save Rancho del Cielo.

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Donations

 See top
  • Dani and Hani P&L 
    • $1,000 
    • 5 hrs
  • Soraya and Karl Delgado-Berg 
    • $200 
    • 8 hrs
  • Alma Solis 
    • $1,000 
    • 15 hrs
  • Guillermo Aguilar 
    • $500 
    • 16 hrs
  • larry lof 
    • $4,000 
    • 1 d
See all

Organizer

Seth Patterson 
Organizer
Brownsville, TX
Gorgas Science Foundation Inc 
Registered nonprofit
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