March 15, 2023 717 PM
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — Last week, Congressman Tony Gonzales filed a bill that would allow for a 6,100-acre westward expansion of the boundary of Big Bend National Park.
The additional land straddles Terlingua Creek. The Big Bend Conservancy — a nonprofit authorized to fundraise on behalf of the park — will finalize a deal to purchase 3,815 acres within the new proposed boundary from the Fulcher family in late April. It will then donate the land to the national park, but first an act of congress is required in order to legally expand the boundaries of a national park.
Big Bend Conservancy Executive Director and CEO Loren Riemer and Board President Chris Holmes said the organization was working closely with Congressman Gonzales’ office and were grateful for his support in seeing the bill signed into law.
“Congressman Gonzales has done a site visit at Big Bend National Park to actually see the property and was very committed, as we are, to ensuring that this land is conserved and becomes part of Big Bend National Park,” said Riemer.
“After this multi-year process, we’re really excited to see [the bill] introduced,” she added.
The goal to grow the park’s massive 800,000 plus acres expanse has been a years-long process, with then-Congressman Will Hurd authoring a similar Big Bend expansion bill in 2020 that never passed.
In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, Congressman Gonzales said he was hopeful the bill would make it pass the finish line this go around. He said the new bill had already been sent to the House committee on national resources and he’d spoken to the committee chairperson, Bruce Westerman, to make him aware of the legislation.
“You can’t do it alone. Having the support of the conservancy — that’s important. Having the support of the county judge, local leaders — that’s very helpful,” said Gonzales.
Gonzales said that while getting a bill signed into law can be a brutal, tedious process, he and his team were drawing from lessons learned passing the Blackwell School bill to ensure the Big Bend National park bill was a success. This week, he was visiting the Big Bend region and helping spread the word that the bill had finally been filed.
“We’ve literally been working on this bill for two years,” said Gonzales. “We’ve essentially tried to shake every issue out ahead of time, that way it is as smooth sailing as possible not only in the House, but also in the Senate.”
Congressman Gonzales said a senate companion bill still needed to be filed, and bill co-sponsors may or may not be necessary. While it is possible that the bill might be later rolled into a larger, omnibus public lands bill, Gonzales said it would be preferable for the bill to stand alone for a “cleaner,” easier process.
The congressman said he was ultimately supportive of the bill and would work hard employing various strategies as needed to see it passed this session. “Big Bend is beautiful, but it’s not big enough. I think this is a great way to make Big Bend a little bigger,” said Gonzales. “We know what kind of gem it is. We know what kind of economic driver it is for the region.”
Riemer said the nearly 4,000 acres the conservancy will purchase, after a successful $780,000 fundraising campaign, contains critical watershed and paleontological zones as well as historic homesteads worthy of preservation. The level of public accessibility of the potential new parkland is to be determined, but as it stands the area is remote and difficult to reach, said Riemer.
“This incredible riparian habitat is so important for the park’s ongoing conservation efforts,” said Riemer. “So many folks have talked about the importance of cottonwood restoration and [Terlingua Creek] as one of the only continuously flowing waterways that directly impacts the park.”
The Big Bend Conservancy’s acquisition of the Fulcher property marks phase one of an ongoing expansion project, which also involves purchasing additional acreage belonging to a handful of other private property owners interested in donating land to the national park.
“We’re excited to engage with those landowners that are interested in the conservation of their land as well,” said Riemer.
The bill makes it clear that the federal government will not acquire any land within the new boundary through eminent domain. (The existing Big Bend National Park contains a privately-owned ranch in the North Rosillos area.)
The conservancy is in ongoing discussions with owners of around four different land parcels totaling around 300 acres, two of which are adjacent to the Fulcher property and existing parkland, according to Holmes.
While the idea has been circulated that the Big Bend Conservancy’s goal with the new land acquisition is to create a buffer between the growing tourism area of Terlingua-Study Butte and the national park, Riemer and Holmes said their primary goal remains the conservation of the Terlingua Creek watershed. Furthermore, the land being acquired is further South than where a lot of the growth in the area is occurring, said Holmes.
“If we were designing a buffer, I think we would have put it in a different spot,” he said.