Texas conservationists want to keep ‘wilderness’ in Big Bend National Park

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The desert landscape of Big Bend National Park. Photo by Brandon Jakobeit

Ask fans of Big Bend National Park what their favorite qualities of the rugged expanse of West Texas are, and you’ll get a common answer: untouched desert mountain scenery.

People travel from Texas and around the world to Big Bend to escape the trappings of city life and disconnect in the pristine Chihuahuan Desert. Now a group of park supporters are working to prevent further development of the pristine landscape by resurrecting a proposal to protect about two-thirds of the national park under federal wilderness law.

The law, which was created in 1964, protects federal lands “where the land and its community of life are unimpeded by man.” It prohibits all development, including roads and buildings, and the use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment and mechanical transport. The only disturbances allowed in the area would be hiking trails and primitive campsites.

“It’s to protect the goose that lays the golden egg,” says Raymond Skiles, who retired as Big Bend National Park’s wildlife biologist in 2018. Skiles is a member of Keep Big Bend Wildthe advocacy group that promotes wilderness designation.

“Yes, we need roads and supportive public services for people to come, but they don’t come for these things,” he says. “They come for the wild and rugged landscapes, the diversity of plants and animals, and the unspoiled vistas. It is extremely precious to those who cherish it.

Big Bend NP

A hiker pauses on the Pinnacles Trail at Big Bend National Park. Photo by Brandon Jakobeit

The wilderness designation would apply to about 583,000 acres, or about two-thirds of Big Bend National Park. The designation would not prohibit building and infrastructure improvements in existing developed areas of the park, such as Chisos Basin and Panther Junction, which are not part of the wilderness designation. Nor would it close existing roads or limit access to the Rio Grande.

“It does not reduce any facilities or routes; they are recognized as important,” says Skiles. “But beyond those where there is currently no development, let’s keep it that way and recognize that we have a good mix of accessibility, development and undeveloped wilderness.”

The US Department of the Interior, which operates the National Park Service, first proposed Big Bend for designation in 1978 as part of a larger Wilderness package. Ultimately, Big Bend was not included in the bill passed by Congress that year, although Guadalupe Mountains National Park was.

Big Bend National Park has managed the land under the proposal as a roadless wilderness since 1978, notes Bob Krumenaker, superintendent of Big Bend National Park and a supporter of the wilderness designation. Since Congress has not acted on Big Bend’s wilderness proposal, it is National Park Service policy to protect the undeveloped state of the land until Congress decides.

“These areas are already underdeveloped and already managed by our internal politics,” Krumenaker says. “But politics can change, and laws don’t tend to change.”

Neither Krumenaker nor Skiles were at the park when the Wilderness Proposal for Big Bend failed in 1978, but they say a number of factors were at play. At the time, the Wilderness Act was relatively new and had may -raised suspicion among community members who had worked for decades to build basic amenities in Big Bend. The proposal also coincided with the designation of a section of the Rio Grande in the Big Bend area as a Wild and Scenic River, which limits waterfront development.

“It was very controversial, and I think there were too many tough federal land management issues, and there wasn’t the guts to push [wilderness] through,” says Krumenaker. “After that, the park service lost interest or momentum, and I’m not aware of any major effort to move it forward since that initial effort.”

There does not appear to be vocal opposition to the wilderness designation, although proponents recognize that whenever federal environmental regulations are proposed, controversy is possible. Supporters include the Big Bend Conservancy, the Big Bend Chamber of Commerce and Texan by Nature, the conservation group founded by Laura Bush.

The Keep Big Bend Wild website attempts to allay concerns about issues such as whether a wilderness designation would impact border security, citing the park’s positive working relationship with the U.S. Border Patrol; and local economic development, citing the likelihood of more travelers being drawn to West Texas.

The group’s campaign comes as Big Bend National Park is busier than ever, putting a strain on existing facilities. The park welcomed 580,000 visitors in 2021, a 25% jump from the previous attendance record of 2019, according to Krumenaker. Meanwhile, the park plans to spend up to $75 million over the next two years to rehabilitate park infrastructure.

“There are no plans to build anything more in terms of infrastructure,” he says. “The park service is suffering from a real deferred maintenance challenge, so the focus is on maintaining what we have.”

Krumenaker works with Keep Big Bend Wild to raise awareness of the concept of wilderness, which would ultimately require congressional approval. A call to the office of Congressman Tony Gonzales, who represents the district, including Big Bend, was not immediately returned.

“If this is seen as a political issue, something that only environmentalists want, it’s not going anywhere,” Krumenaker said. “But you know Texans love Big Bend National Park, and if it’s seen as something Texans want, then that shouldn’t be a problem. If we can bring them up to speed and let them know that this is an opportunity for our generation to realize the legacy of our ancestors, they will support us.

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