Will President Obama's recent visit to Mexico revive interest in a formal U.S. – Mexico International Park in the Big Bend area of Texas? Supporters of the idea hope so, but the plan, which dates back over seventy years, faces some challenges.
On November 6, 1936, the El Paso Herald Post reported on a "Proposed Giant Park Project."
The proposed Big Bend International Park will be one of the biggest developments ever undertaken by the National Park Service, according to Assistant Director Conrad L. Wirth, who is enroute here with other Washington officials of the National Park Service to attend a two-day conference opening Sunday with representatives of the Mexican government.
The sessions here are expected to result in final determination for presentation to the respective governments. It is probable these boundaries will include about 788,000 acres for the Big Bend National Park of Texas—all in Brewster County—and approximately 400,000 acres for the Mexican National Park in the States of Chihuahua and Coahuila.
The two-parks would be linked by a bridge across the Rio Grande at Boquilla
So, what happened to the idea, and where does it stand today?
The website iloveparks.com includes the full text of the above article, a timeline for the concept of an international park, and other information from supporters of the proposal.
A NPS publication also summarizes the history of the project.
In the fall of 1935, two meetings were held in El Paso, Texas, regarding the international park. Mexican and United States officials appointed a joint commission to investigate the proposal and recommend boundaries. The studies conducted by the commission revealed that the Mexican scenery, wildlife, and vegetation were equal, if not superior to, those on the American side.
While official dialogue regarding an international park continued over the decades, numerous obstacles forestalled the establishment of the protected area in Mexico. In Mexico’s governmental system, elected officials are limited to one six-year term in any office. Since newly elected candidates had little incentive to continue projects left by the previous administration, the establishment of the protected area had to be accomplished within a single term of office. Cultural differences, distrust, private land interests, economics, and more demanding domestic and international issues such as World War II also delayed the establishment of a protected area in Mexico.
But the unique natural beauty of the land south of Big Bend National Park could not be ignored. The mountains south of the Rio Grande contain an even greater diversity of flora and fauna than those north of the border....
On November 7, 1994, President Carlos Salinas de Gotari of the Republic of Mexico issued decrees that established the Maderas del Carmen Protected Area for Flora and Fauna in Coahuila and the Santa Elena Canyon Protected Area for Flora and Fauna in Chihuahua.
Since that time, the two states in Mexico have developed management plans for each area. Each state has hired a director and a few staff members.
Big Bend National Park and the National Park Service U.S.-Mexico Affairs Office have collaborated with Mexican officials to share research and experience in managing a protected area in this ecosystem. Although in their infancy, the Mexican protected areas south of Big Bend have a bright future.
Since the 1990s, the discussion has changed from the concept of an international peace park implying cooperative management under a United States National Park Service model to the concept of “sister parks” or “bi-national parks.” Each area will be administered under its own management plan while also providing many opportunities for joint management of shared ecosystems and resources.
In "Pushing Boundaries," a recent article in National Parks Magazine, Amy Leinbach Marquis provides an excellent summary of contrasting approaches used in Big Bend National Park and on land across the Rio Grande. She points out that Mexico uses a
"dramatically different conservation model. Here, land is owned by those who live on it: wealthy ranchers, poor villagers, and Cemex—an international cement company with a conscience. Although these areas are protected by the federal government, Mexicans have never relied solely on state and federal conservation initiatives to protect the land....
... federal protection in Mexico looks different than it does in the United States. Such designations play out more like conservation easements, where the government doesn't own the land but has some control over what happens on it. Private landowners must agree to restrict development and other activities that could harm the environment."
Although a formal cross-border park has not become a reality, cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico on conservations issues is already occurring on several fronts. According to the NPS,
In 2006, the National Park Service signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Mexico's National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (CONANP). This agreement extends for five years a highly successful cross-border program of technical exchange and cooperation dating back to 1987 (the NPS and Mexico had been working together informally for many decades prior to then). The NPS and CONANP also signed in 2006 a “Joint Declaration of Sister Park Partnerships,” officially designating seven sister area relationships between the two countries.
Under the Sister Park initiative, NPS sites provide their Mexican counterparts with training in a variety of fields, help set up monitoring protocols, develop interpretive materials, and in one case, have provided a sister park with surplus U.S. firefighting equipment. Mexican parks, in return, provide the NPS with much needed assistance in controlling invasive species, fighting wild land fires, monitoring of shared species, and more.
In addition to the diplomatic and political hurdles, any plans for more formal cross-border arrangements must navigate the sometimes troubled waters of post-9/11 security concerns and the on-going debates on immigration and drug smuggling. Some people support a border crossing at La Linda, just outside Big Bend. Others suggest reopening the previous crossing between the park and Boquillas; that rather low-key spot was closed in 2002.
Is the existing arrangement on both sides of the border adequate, or will further changes be made? Leaders of both the U.S. and Mexico have plenty of other issues on their plates at the moment, but stay tuned ...