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Big Bend cross-border park faces twisting path

Border security hampers plans to combine Big Bend National Park in Texas with protected areas in Mexico


When Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the land deed that created Big Bend National Park, he envisioned uniting the 800,000-acre ecological gem with the equally breathtaking mountainous desert in Mexico. Six decades later, even as drug violence on the border rages, his vision may be closer to reality than ever.

Conversations about uniting Big Bend with the territory in Mexico have been reignited every decade or so since the land deed was signed in 1944, but ultimately have been squashed by politics.

Despite daily death tolls in the dozens in Mexico and tense international politics, the idea now seems to gaining new momentum. Big Bend managers and federal representatives are seeking approval from the Interior, Homeland Security and State departments to unite Big Bend with Mexico's designated protected areas and create the United States' second international park, the first being Waterton-Glacier International Park in Montana and Canada. The project would require a bi-national effort to build visitor facilities and open at least one legal crossing in the park.

"All you hear is how terrible things are" along the border, says Big Bend superintendent Bill Wellman. "I think this could be a real positive thing for both countries that may actually outweigh the problems with border security and lack of crossings. Or it may not, but I think that's why there's even a shot at doing this now."

U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, who is spearheading the effort in Washington, filed a resolution this year and hopes to garner enough federal support to get the project off the ground. After a tour of the national park last month, Rodriguez says, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar seemed interested in the idea.

Along with the chance to conserve some of the area's most precious wildlife, Rodriguez sees the park as an opportunity to heal some of the tension between the United States and Mexico. "The better relationship we have, the better we can secure our nation," Rodriguez says.

But the plan, which is in such a preliminary stage that neither a timeline nor a cost estimate exists, could no doubt be complicated by the glaring challenge of border security. In 2002, the Department of Homeland Security closed the three informal ports of entry in Big Bend, essentially severing park ties between border towns and discontinuing tourist access into Mexico from the park. Just last month, Gov. Rick Perry called again for unmanned drones and National Guard troops to better police the border. Texas has also invested about $200 million to beef up state-led border security operations since 2006.

"If a plan [for an international park] is presented, we would certainly want to review it and be involved in any decision that could potentially impact our state, especially with respect to border security," says Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger.

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Presidio County Judge Jerry Agan, whose county borders Big Bend, doesn't foresee the opening of a new crossing any time soon. Even in this isolated area of the border, violence continues. In Ojinaga, just over the bridge from Presidio — the only legal border crossing in 400 miles between El Paso and Del Rio — a motorist was shot and killed in early March.

"There are incidents all the time, and we don't go across the river anymore," Agan says. "Until they can get rid of the violence over there, I don't see [an international park] happening."

Violence in the Big Bend border region doesn't compare to that of the lower Rio Grande Valley or El Paso, mainly because the area on both sides of the river is so remote and sparsely populated, says Bill Brooks, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Marfa Sector, which covers 510 miles of border. Still, to bolster security within the park itself, the Border Patrol broke ground in late March on eight homes to permanently station agents in Big Bend.

"We think that that area should be better covered," Brooks says. "This is part of the enhanced Border Patrol effort that's been going on for the last several years."

State Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, whose district spans most of the Big Bend region, is still reviewing the tender issue, says staff member Moses Morales. Many residents on the Texas side of the border don't welcome the idea of an international park and fear the land will provide Mexican drug cartels with easy access to border towns, Morales said.

Although talk of an international park is nothing new, Wellman said Big Bend officials have until now been waiting for Mexico to federally protect all the neighboring areas before seriously considering drafting a proposal. The lands would be set aside for conservation and research. The Maderas del Carmen, a portion of the Sierra del Carmen mountain range that extends from the southeast of Big Bend National Park, was protected in 1994; its peaks reach about 1,000 feet higher than Big Bend's Chisos Mountains. The Santa Elena Canyon, to the west of the park, has been protected since 1994 as well. Last year, the Mexican government protected its side of the Rio Grande and the Ocampo Flora and Fauna area directly south of the park. Now, nearly 3 million acres of park land, including areas surrounding Big Bend, in Texas and Mexico are protected.

"Now we have all the areas protected on the U.S. side mirrored on the Mexican side," Wellman says. "That's what I think is really different this time — we've got a much better match."

Along with earning support from Washington, project leaders hope to gain support from the Mexican federal government, which would be responsible for building and maintaining park facilities on its side of the river. The protected areas and collaborative conservation efforts over the last 12 years show that Mexico will cooperate to move the proposal along, project leaders say. Carlos Sifuentes, the director of Mexico's protected areas, said one key challenge is working with private citizens who own most of the land on Mexico's side of the river.

"The concept of protection is different [in Mexico]," he says. "We have to work with the landowners, so that they keep the ownership."

An international park brings with it hopes of reviving the disintegrated economies of Mexican border towns like Boquillas, on the east side of Big Bend, which, prior to 2002, thrived on the tourism Big Bend visitors brought.

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"The only reason why some of those towns exist is for economic reasons," Rodriguez says. "When that's not happening, they are essentially dead, and that can be dangerous because we don't know who is out there."

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Bob Daemmrich/Texas Tribune