"They fenced off the area and started knocking down walls. It was very strange," recalls Castillo, who put himself between the dozers and the grounds of el Centro Intercultural de Estudios de Desiertos y Oceanos, or the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans, a research station marked by its bleached whale skeleton and nestled among the houses and condos of Las Conchas, a cluster of homes popular with American turistas and expatriates.
As the dozers backed off, lawyers got into the skirmish, and today, nearly one year later, there's an agreement in place to both preserve CEDO and allow the Clifton-Meridian Development Co. to build condos on the side and in front of the station, says Rick Boyer, the organization's co-director.
"The settlement is a compromise that we can live with and they can live with, and it's going to let us start putting our energies in a more positive direction," Boyer says. "It's going to guarantee CEDO's future."
Boyer's wife, CEDO executive director Peggy Turk Boyer, has been with the research station ever since it opened its doors back in the early 1980s as an offshoot of a planned shrimp-farming operation. The shrimp farm never happened, but the Boyers set up a hardy organization that has been surveying the ecology of the northern Gulf of California for more than a quarter-century. About 20 years ago, they spun off the outfit as a separate nonprofit with chapters on both sides of the border.
The Boyers and their staff have hosted thousands of ecology students, rescued beached dolphins, studied fisheries around the northern gulf, sponsored anti-littering campaigns and done much more in the community of Puerto Peñasco, aka Rocky Point, a once-sleepy fishing village that is transforming into a tourist destination, complete with towering condo developments.
The issue of CEDO's land ownership always remained a little murky--and it got more mucked up when developer Patrick Clifton started working on a condo development that bumped up against CEDO's buildings.
The land dispute is now resolved, but there's a catch: CEDO needs to raise a quarter-million dollars by the end of the year to cover the cost of the settlement, the legal bills and other associated expenses, says Boyer.
"These funds are going to make it possible for us to secure our future legally in a way that we have never been able to in the past," Boyer says. "That's a great thing for us. We'll be able to move on with a broader master plan."
Through the legal battle, CEDO's staff has remained committed to its other projects, says Boyer.
"We have a tremendous group of smart, dedicated, hard-working young people who have kept everything moving ahead," he says. "Even the day the bulldozers arrived, they were leading campers down to the beach."
Castillo, who moved from Puebla a few years ago to take a job as CEDO's sub-director, says one major campaign revolves around protecting Penasco's wetlands--estuaries which are the cradle of life for many gulf species. Castillo says that developers have floated proposals to build marinas in all six of the estuaries around Peñasco.
Castillo says CEDO is also hard at work with ongoing surveys of fisheries in the northern gulf. He warns that the fisheries are "declining severely," because the government doesn't do much to stop illegal fishing.
"There's no enforcement," he says.
Boyer says there's still hope that over-fishing and mega-development won't cause permanent damage to the Gulf of California.
"The gulf is still healthy enough that if we act now to take care of it, it's going to survive and bounce back," Boyer says. "But nothing is guaranteed, and if we don't act, there may be some long-term damage we're not going to recover from."