Park History: Coronado National Memorial Has Sister Parks in Mexico

Coronado Entrada reenactment. NPS photo.

The national parks on the Mexican border have many outstanding natural and cultural/historical attractions, but their remote location and undeveloped character make them perennially attractive entry and transit areas for international drug smugglers and Mexican nationals entering the United States illegally. The border parks get a lot of bad press.

It’s time we paid more attention to the positive things going on at our border parks. Take, for example, partnership arrangements with parks on the other side of the international border.

Arizona’s Coronado National Memorial offers a prime example. This small (4,750 acres) desert park, which celebrated its 56th anniversary as a National Park System unit on July 9, is situated on the Mexican border about 20 miles south of Sierra Vista. Coronado has established not one, but two hands-across-the-border sister park partnerships. They produce lots of benefits too, and that is something to cheer about.

Coronado National Memorial established its first sister park relationship in October 1996 when it partnered with Ajos-Bavispe National Forest Reserve and Wildlife Refuge in the adjacent Mexican state of Sonora.

Another Arizona national park, Chiricahua National Monument, also signed on for this sister park arrangement. Though not a border park, biologically rich Chiricahua National Monument is an important part of a regional and transnational approach to wildlife management in this part of North America.

This first partnership arrangement that Coronado National Memorial made was broadly framed as an attempt to “strengthen the management of ecosystems across the Arizona-Sonora border for the common goal of enhancing conservation of similar natural and cultural resources.” Since the bioregion encompassing the memorial extends well into Mexico, and since many birds and animals (including the occasional jaguar) cross the international border, it makes good sense to look at the related resource management challenges as something best tackled in a spirit of international cooperation.

To say that Coronado National Memorial is located at a biological crossroads is a major understatement. Being at the juncture or hub of four major biogeographic provinces (the Madrean, Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Southern Rockies/Mogollon), the park is steeped in biodiversity.

Created in 1939, and now one of the 158 protected natural areas administered by Mexico’s Commission of Natural Protected Areas (Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas, or CONANP), the 456,000-acre Ajos-Bavispe National Forest Reserve and Wildlife Refuge preserves eight sky islands, which are biologically diverse high-elevation communities (rugged mountains, in this case) separated by desert or grassland valleys.

Ajos-Bavispe’s chaparral and healthy forests (mixed pine, pine-oak, and oak) are remarkably rich in life, being home to at least 1,234 species of vascular plants, 208 species of birds, 156 species of butterflies, and a wide ranging assortment of animals. Among the rare and threatened species that live in or pass through the park are peregrine falcons, Mexican spotted owls, thick-billed parrots, horned lizards, and jaguars.

In 2003, Coronado established an additional sister park relationship when it inked a partnership agreement with El Chico National Park. Located in the southeastern Mexican state of Hidalgo, El Chico – Mexico’s oldest national park -- is neither a border park nor a desert park. However, the sister park arrangement offers many mutual advantages.

Here is how the National Park Service describes the goals of the sister park partnerships:

• To meet annually at one of the parks on a rotating basis to continue the orientation of new employees and exchange of experiences between personnel in such topics as: the development of conservation strategies, resource management, research, protection, and education. These meetings may include other cooperators and partners as appropriate. More frequent meetings will occur with specific staff members as needed to complete specific projects.
• To provide mutual assistance with planning efforts related to management, development, and operations.
• To expand scientific knowledge of all three areas through cooperative research projects.
• To cross-train staffs in a variety of disciplines, including such topics as: resource protection and investigation skills and operations to promote safety and resource preservation, special status species, fire management, and environmental education. Explore the loan of employees on details to other areas where appropriate for professional development and to provide assistance.
• To develop environmental education and training programs for all areas and local communities wherever possible to promote public awareness, understanding, and participation in conservation and the sustainable use of border resources.
• To be alert for joint opportunities and creative in finding ways to accomplish these. Don’t hesitate to bring in other cooperators. Support and encourage each other.

Even if the Park Service’s reach may exceed its grasp in these initiatives, the sister park program is well worth the undertaking.

Like many lightly-visited national parks, Coronado National Memorial (71,702 visitors in 2007) is one of those places that is well off the beaten path. But it is well-worth going there, especially if you can appreciate the historical significance of the place as well as its scenic/geologic/biologic qualities.

In 1540 the Coronado Expedition, which originated in Mexico and was led by 30-year old explorer/adventurer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, passed through this vicinity. Coronado was bent on finding gold, an easy route to the sea, and new territory worth having.

Entering what is now the southwestern United States, Coronado and his search parties (led by various captains) explored a huge area, becoming the first Europeans to marvel at the Grand Canyon, see vast herds of buffalo, visit Acoma Pueblo (probably America’s oldest continually occupied community), and interact with Indian tribes such as the Zuni, the Hopi, and the nomadic tribes of the Great Plains. The expedition’s vain search for gold, especially the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, took it as far north and east as Salina, Kansas.

You’ll find a Coronado Expedition route map at this site.

Coronado’s expedition found no fabled cities of gold and did nothing that was, at least at the time, deemed particularly praiseworthy. Coronado himself died in obscurity at age 44. Nevertheless, the Coronado Entrada (entry) was an important event that has had a long term effect on the history and culture of the southwestern United States. As an expression of Spanish presence, interests, and intentions, Coronado’s expedition was certainly one of the most important 16th century events in this part of the world.

The Coronado National Memorial doesn’t preserve any cultural artifacts associated with the Coronado expedition. Rather, the memorial site was selected because it offers panoramic views of the U.S.-Mexico border and the San Pedro River Valley, which is the route that Coronado is believed to have taken as he entered what is now the U.S..

By establishing this park on the international border over a half century ago, U.S. officials were making an overt effort to promote bi-national amity and strengthen the cultural and historical bonds that link the United States and Mexico. The sister park partnerships in place today are rooted in this lofty ideal of goodwill and cooperation.