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Is an International U.S.-Mexico Park At Big Bend Moving Closer to Reality?

Case Grande in Big Bend NP.

Big Bend's Casa Grande (elevation 7,325 feet) illustrates the beauty of the area. NPS photo.

The idea of an international park along the U.S.-Mexican border around Big Bend National Park has been kicking around since at least the 1930s; a story in the Traveler back in April summarized the history of the project. A statement released after the recent North American Leaders Summit has revived the hopes of supporters of the concept, but is that optimism justified?

The renewed excitement was generated by a press release issued earlier this week under the title, "U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Mexican Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Juan Elvira Decide to Strengthen Conservation Cooperation in Big Bend Area of the U.S. - Mexico Border."

It includes some interesting language, but you may need an interpreter—and I'm not talking about the fact that the statement was made by officials who speak both English and Spanish—to help you decide what the announcement really means.

Here's the official text. I'll let you determine whether it signals any significant changes on the horizon for the folks on both sides of the Rio Grande:

In conjunction with the North American Leaders Summit held in Guadalajara, Mexico, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Mexican Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Juan Elvira announced today their commitment to strengthen conservation along the U.S. - Mexico border.

The Secretary and the Minister will develop a plan to enhance coordination in the Big Bend and El Carmen area of the border and report to Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Felipe Calderón of Mexico in six months.

The proposed plan will take advantage of national parks and protected areas already designated in the Big Bend and El Carmen region, without prejudice to each country’s existing legislation, border security, and rights.

“Building upon our shared history of ecosystem and species conservation, the plan will develop a model of bi-national cooperation for the conservation and enjoyment of shared ecosystems for current and future generations,” said Secretary Salazar. With more than 268 river miles and 3 million acres of contiguous parks and protected areas on both sides of the border benefitting under this proposal, 14 percent of the entire U.S.-Mexico border will enjoy strengthened conservation coordination.

The joint announcement marks the renewal of a bilateral process to develop one of the most significant conservation initiatives considered by Mexico and the United States at the border, while also taking into account border security.

Sixty-five years ago, the Presidents of the United States and Mexico exchanged letters on the creation of the Big Bend National Park in the United States, wherein they envisioned the conservation of the shared ecosystems on both sides of the Rio Grande in the Big Bend region of Texas in the United States and Chihuahua and Coahuila in Mexico.

Mexico later established Cañon de Santa Elena and Maderas del Carmen protected areas in Chihuahua and Coahuila. Over the years, park rangers, scientists, volunteers, landowners and local communities on both sides of the border have diligently conserved the spectacular landscapes, wilderness, and habitats in both countries, in one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world.

The June 2009 designation of Ocampo Protected Area by President Calderón completed a critical piece of this vision, forming a contiguous set of protected areas across from Big Bend National Park in the United States. Additional United States protected areas adjacent to Big Bend National Park include: Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, all in Texas.

“The U.S.-Mexico bilateral process is expected to highlight the biodiversity of the region, to consolidate environmental cooperation between the two countries, and could eventually constitute a symbol of the new era of the relation between Mexico and the United States with respect to bilateral cooperation in the conservation area” commented Mexican Minister Elvira.

He added that “the Secretaries of the Interior and of the Environment and Natural Resources recognize in this mandate the vision of the Governments and trust that a proposal can be developed soon for further consideration by the Presidents.”

Renewed attention to the outstanding natural, cultural and scenic resources on both sides of the border in this area is certainly a positive development, and the statement includes a specific timetable—six months—for development of a proposal of some kind.

We'll see what that means in 2010.


“Building upon our shared history of ecosystem and species conservation, the plan will develop a model of bi-national cooperation for the conservation and enjoyment of shared ecosystems for current and future generations,” said Secretary Salazar.

A key word to me in that sentence is "enjoyment". Currently, it is impossible for the people of Mexico and the US to easily enjoy the other country's portion of the region because there is no longer a border crossing within Big Bend NP. The nearest crossing is at Presidio, TX., some distance of about 40 miles from the park, as I recall. The residents of Mexico across the Rio Grande from Big Bend would greatly benefit from tourists stopping over to "enjoy" their part of this incredible wilderness. One of my lasting memories of my most recent visit to Big Bend was a spot on a hiking trail near a canyon (I won't identify the canyon in order to protect the Mexican "criminal") where someone from Mexico was crossing the river and leaving home made trinkets on the side of the trail with a basket for tourists to leave money on an honor system. I was pleased to purchase a few wire scorpions and leave some money behind. I was more pleased to see about $30 that had accumulated without someone from our side pocketing the money for themselves.

I for one would love to see wilderness areas, parks, conservation areas...whatever you want to call them established without regard for the international border. R. Stefancik excellent story of the trinkets sold out of a basket on the honor system shows what is possible with the vast majority of us humans regardless of location of birth.

However, another factor sometimes dominates our reality perpetrated by a very small human faction. While visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument along the US/Mexico border we came across the Kris Eggle Visitors Center. We were curious about who Kris Eggle was and how the visitor center came to be named for him and was enlightened by a sign and tribute outside the center. The story is a sad one as well as maddening...Kris was killed in the line of duty, performing as a NPS law enforcement ranger by thugs of a drug cartel.

I only add this to the discussion as a concern to be a reality that must be faced in that region of the country at this point in time. A sad reality for us all...on both sides of the border.

The elevation of Casa Grande in Beg Bend National Park is much more than 5400 ft. The Chisos Basin Campgroung is at least 5200ft.

Antonio -

Good catch! You're right; according to a "Big Bend Fact Sheet" on the park website, the correct elevation for Casa Grande is 7,325 feet.
I was guilty of copying a caption from the DOI press release without verifying the info. I'll correct the caption on this story.

Thanks for the correction.

You are welcome. I have been to the top of Casa Grande and enjoyed it as much as I enjoy reading The National Parks Traveler!! Keep up the good work.

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