Revived ‘wilderness’ designation efforts for Big Bend National Park continue with public meetings

The Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. Keep Big Bend Wild, a nonprofit organization, is currently working to further protect the park with wilderness designation legislation. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — Keep Big Bend Wild, a nonprofit consisting of conservationists and retired park employees, is reviving a decades-old advocacy campaign for the passage of a congressional wilderness designation act the group argues is integral in protecting Big Bend National Park from future over-development. 

The potential “Big Bend National Park Wilderness Act” will not formally appear before legislators until at least two years from now, and proponents are currently soliciting feedback from the public about the wilderness designation — an additional federal protection for national parks that would limit development within certain boundaries.

“This is about protecting the things that people tell us time and time again that they love about Big Bend National Park,” explained Superintendent Bob Krumenaker to a group of around 20 individuals at a public meeting in Alpine last week. “The wide open spaces, the dark skies, the wildlife, and so many other natural values of the park.”

Members of Keep Big Bend Wild, the National Park Service, Big Bend Conservancy and more met with the public last week to discuss a potential wilderness designation for Big Bend. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

The official wilderness designation from the federal government — which 50 out of 65 U.S. national parks, including Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains, hold — was originally proposed for Big Bend back in 1978, but was never formally signed into law. The initiative dates back to the 1964 Wilderness Act, which established the wilderness preservation system to ensure public lands were preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. 

Joining Keep Big Bend Wild in the effort, which would see two-thirds of Big Bend National Park’s 800,00-plus acres designated as wilderness, are current park leaders as well as the Big Bend Conservancy, the park’s friends group. All were present for Alpine and Terlingua-based meetings last week, in which draft legislation, preliminary maps and fact sheets were shared with attendees. The solicitation of public feedback is part of the ongoing bill proposal process, and Congressman Tony Gonzales has yet to take a position on the matter.

In Alpine, after brief presentations from supporters, still some attendees found the concept of the wilderness designation slippery — why was it needed in an already protected area? What would it change? And why wouldn’t people be in support?

“Do I get this right that we’re discussing how much of a wilderness a wilderness is?” asked Alpine resident Dallas Baxter. “What I can’t understand is why we’re all not standing up and applauding because there’s going to be this honest to god wilderness area. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want that.” 

Krumenaker explained that with park popularity reaching all time highs, achieving the highest standard for protection of the public lands — and ensuring more rigid oversight of ever-changing park employees — would help preserve what is so special about the park in the first place. 

“We’ve heard from a lot of people [about] killing the golden goose. If there’s too much development, some people believe, then we’re going to lose the night sky, we’re going to lose the quiet, we’re going to lose the wildlife habitat,” said Krumenaker. 

The park has by and large already been managing the proposed wilderness areas as wilderness, with sensitivity to the natural environment and visitor experience, proponents explained. 

Areas currently managed as wilderness within Big Bend National Park. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

This act of Congress would, in essence, limit existing developments to current footprints. Preliminary maps show buffer zones around all existing roads and visitor sites, including the Chisos Basin, leaving room for some adjacent expansion, and necessary road maintenance. 

“The goal would be to keep any future development to the areas that are already developed, so doing infill and [growing] right next to them, as opposed to bisecting the big open spaces with something that does not exist,” said Krumenaker. 

Current visitor facilities and roads will exist in perpetuity, while any additional developments inside of the wilderness area would be limited to mostly trails and campsites. Mechanized equipment is forbidden in wilderness areas, meaning that horses and mules would be permitted modes of transport while cars and mountain bikes would not. There are, however, provisions for vehicles and aircrafts required for any Emergency Medical Services, Border Patrol or wildfire incidents. The Rio Grande River is excluded from the wilderness designation. 

Raymond Skiles, retired park wildlife biologist and wilderness coordinator and member of Keep Big Bend Wild, said public feedback is still informing the maps, buffer zones and more. The group is working from the original wilderness map proposed back in 1978, but is making tweaks such as standardizing buffer zones around roads to 100 feet on either side of the highway, and taking out a measure that would have closed Black Gap Road, a popular, remote, four-wheel driving route.

“Even though the ‘78 map had that happen, we don’t want to get into this business of reducing traditional activities,” said Skiles. 

The potential new wilderness designation would still allow for scientific studies relating to plants, animals and cultural resources activities, such archeological digs, to occur. 

“There’s the old 1882 Cavalry Camp out in Neville Springs, it’s in the wilderness, but if somebody wants to study it, or even if there’s things that need restoration that are properly identified historic structures, all that’s fine,” said Skiles. 

Some citizens have expressed concerns about the movement — namely with regards to potential impacts on the county’s burgeoning tourism. Proponents have heard the fear that the wilderness designation will attract even more tourists to the area — Skiles didn’t deny this was a possibility, but didn’t foresee a significant increase of already-high visitors numbers.

Historically, fears of losing visitors, among other concerns, have stalled the proposed designation. As reported by Marfa Public Radio, state and local officials in the 1970s opposed what they saw as an effort by the federal government to decrease accessibility, thereby discouraging tourism. 

More recently, Starlight Theatre owner and Brewster County Tourism Council Board President Bill Ivey, who was present for meetings on the matter back in the ‘70s, has declined to endorse the plan. In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, Ivey said he was eager to see a more formal proposal on the idea and was still “very leery” of the wilderness designation. He said he ultimately didn’t understand the need to restrict development when current infrastructure was struggling to keep up with demand. 

“I don’t see a need for it. I mean, the bottom line is Big Bend has reached a point that it needs more parking. It’s beyond its capacity already,” said Ivey. 

The question of how to collectively manage growth in the general area, where nearby Terlingua has ballooned with short term rentals, in part to meet the needs of more tourists flocking to the national park, would be an ongoing discussion, said Skiles, but there was an immediate need to ensure the gem of the area, the national park, was safeguarded. 

“We need to recognize these wide open undeveloped spaces for being the true value of Big Bend, the reason people like it, the reason they come here,” said Skiles. “We’re gonna say, by this act, that we treasure and intend to preserve the wide open space.”

Within the park, there are ongoing projects, totaling around $75 million, to improve existing infrastructure, said Krumenaker, including repaving of roads, replacement of underground water pipes, and renovations to the Chisos Mountains Lodge. And the park, like the surrounding communities, has limited resources to support visitors, he said. Water is scarce and the park’s landfill is approaching its capacity. 

Areas currently managed as wilderness within Big Bend National Park, with a focus on the Chisos Basin. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Moving forward, Keep Big Bend Wild intends to refine bill language and maps with public input, and address the concerns of the few critics that have weighed in.

“This is not at all a done deal. All our documents are not in final form in Congress’s hands. We certainly hope to have continued dialogue,” said Skiles. 

Among the Big Bend National Park wilderness designation supporters are the Big Bend Chamber of Commerce, Commissioner Sara Colando, the Alpine City Council and Mayor Catherine Eaves, a number of Native American tribes, river outfitters, and many more. 

Superintendent Krumenaker, who will retire from the role this summer, making way for a new top park administrator, said he has received feedback from visitors that would like to see the park continue to be managed as it is today, who wonder how they can make sure their grandkids have the same unspoiled, natural experience with the Chihuahuan Desert that they did. 

“What I’m saying, based on 41 years of experience in the National Park Service, is that the best way to provide the greatest certainty that our grandkids will have the same type of experience that we have today, without taking away any of the experiences that we do have, would be to see a bill like this passed,” said Krumenaker.

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