Updated: Big Bend National Park Draft Wilderness Proposal Draws Attention For Road Corridors

A wilderness proposal is being compiled for Big Bend National Park, but it's not without some controversy. NPS photo of the view from Roy's Peak by Ron Rathke.

Big Bend National Park officials are drawing up a wilderness proposal that could come into play if someone in Congress proposes wilderness legislation for the park. While many have been calling for officially designated wilderness in the park, the current proposal is drawing some concern for the wide buffer zones it would create for roads. Park officials, though, maintain the wide corridors are needed to address such things as archaeological and paleontological sites as well as flash-floods.

“We want to have the ability to move them 'x' number of yards either way as time allows," Chief of Interpretation David Elkowitz said Friday. "Some of those roads are not in good condition where they’re located and not sustainable long term. ... We’d like to be able to move them around a little bit.

"When you consider how many acres there are (in the park), it’s not as wide as you think," he added.

While roughly 500,000 of the park's 801,000 acres have been proposed as wilderness, no official wilderness designation has been made for the park by Congress. The park's latest efforts to draw up a workable wilderness proposal are built upon an effort made back in 1978. While the 1978 approach identified 583,000 acres of potential wilderness, the latest effort has boosted that to 612,541 acres.

Here's how a recent draft of the plan defined the proposed wilderness units:

Unit 1:

The main features of this 33,346-acre unit are Mesa de Anguila, the north side of Santa Elena Canyon, and Terlingua Creek. The unit is bounded on the east by unpaved Maverick Road. Due to on-going boundary and access issues, a non-wilderness buffer is maintained adjacent to the Lajitas resort development. A short non-wilderness road corridor provides required access to private land outside the park boundary approximately five miles from the north end of Maverick Road. A 161-acre Potential Wilderness (powerline) corridor is at the northern extremity of the unit, adjacent to the West (Maverick) Entrance Station.

Unit 2:

This small 3,181-acre unit is located east of Santa Elena Canyon, bounded by Maverick road on the west, Santa Elena Canyon road on the south, and Potential Wilderness (powerline) along Alamo Creek to the East. The buffer along the north side Santa Elena Canyon Road is 1200 meters to allow future relocation of the road out of the Rio Grande floodplain.

Unit 3:

This 53,983-acre unit, including Burro Mesa, Tule Mountain, and the Chimneys Trail, is bounded on the east and north by paved Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and the West Entrance Road. On its west is unpaved Maverick Road, and paved Santa Elena Canyon road is to the South. Unit acreage includes two sections of Potential Wilderness (powerline) corridor totaling 635 acres. The buffer along the north side Santa Elena Canyon Road is 1200 meters to allow future relocation of the road out of the Rio Grande floodplain.

Unit 4:

At 183,092 acres, this is the park’s largest unit. It is dominated by the Chisos Mountains and 7800’ Emory Peak. The rugged Sierra Quemada extends south of the Chisos. In the northern quarter of the unit are the excluded Chisos Basin and Panther Junction visitor use and administrative developments. The popular High Chisos trail network originates at the Chisos Basin development. The unit includes 1,909 acres of Potential Wilderness corridor for powerlines and their access routes. Excluded are a powerline and pipeline corridor from Panther Junction east to the KBar well site and a 100-meter wide pipeline corridor from Oak Spring, east to the Chisos Basin. Oak spring is the domestic water source for the Chisos Basin development, and the pipeline generally parallels the Window Trail. Additionally, a 15-foot wide corridor is excluded from Oak Spring, south approximately one mile to Cattail falls, centered along a currently out-of-service water pipeline. Unpaved road corridors into the unit include the Oak Spring road from the west and Pine Canyon and Juniper Canyon roads on the east. Trailheads originate at each road terminus. A corridor expansion near the end of Juniper Canyon road allows for relocation of a flood-prone road section. In the southwest part of the unit, a River Road corridor expansion between Smoky Creek and Johnson’s Ranch also allows for eventual road relocation to avoid recurring flood damage. The 1978 recommendation extended southeast past Tally Mountain to River Road, and called for closure of Black Gap road. The popular four-wheel-drive road was never closed and this recommends maintaining the road and corridor.

Unit 5:

This slender unit of 6,940 acres lies between the paved North Entrance Road and the former park boundary. It is bounded on the north by the unpaved Terlingua Ranch road and the Rosillos Ranch road, also unpaved, on the south. A telephone line that formerly traversed the unit was removed between 2000 and 2003. The North Rosillos, acquired in 1987; and the Rosillos Ranch, authorized for acquisition but still privately owned, were not considered in the Wilderness Study that culminated in the 1978 wilderness recommendation. The Big Bend National Park General Management Plan (2004) calls for a Wilderness Study of the North Rosillos. There is no barrier between Unit 5 and the now-contiguous North Rosillos area to the west.

Unit 6:

Adjacent to the Rio Grande, south of River Road between Woodsons and Talley is 9,512-acre Unit 6. The unit is low desert and river floodplain. The unit extends to the top of the active cut bank but does not include the water, where motor boat use is allowed. River use is rare on this section of the Rio Grande.

Unit 7:

Mariscal Mountain and scenic Mariscal Canyon are the primary features of this 24,542-acre unit. The unit is south of River Road, bounded by Tally road to the west, Solis road on the east, and the Rio Grande. The unit extends to the top of the active river cut bank, or where cliff meets water, but does not include the water. The 1997 River Recreation Use Management Plan excludes motor boat use between Tally and Solis except during October. At the unit’s north margin, Mariscal Mine historic district is excluded.

Unit 8:

Most of this 37,587-acre unit consists of gravel and sediment eroded from the Chisos Mountains and incised by desert arroyos. Igneous Chilicotal mountain rises along the western margin. The unit is bounded by Glenn Spring road on the west, the paved Rio Grande Village road on the north, and River Road to the south. River Road includes an expanded corridor at the San Vicente historic area to allow the road to be relocated away from the Rio Grande floodplain.

Unit 9:

This 66,290-acre unit is the largest of Big Bend’s trail-less units. It is bounded by the North Entrance road on the west, and unpaved Dagger Flat and Old Ore roads to the north and east. Tornillo creek traverses the unit and the igneous McKinney Hills rise along the east flank. 1,111 acres of Potential Wilderness accommodates the powerline corridor from Panther Junction to Rio Grande Village and its access routes. The K-Bar road enters the unit near Panther Junction and provides access to the historic K-Bar ranch house (now a research bunkhouse), an air quality monitoring station, a construction staging area, and two roadside campsites.

Unit 10:

This most easterly unit of the park is the second largest at 133,567 acres, and is extremely isolated and rugged. The unit has only a small amount of exposure to paved roads along its southern tip. This includes an expanded road corridor north of Rio Grande Village to allow a potential new water well site to be established out of view from the Boquillas Canyon Road. The unpaved Old Ore and Dagger Flat roads are the west unit boundary. The remainder bounds undeveloped Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, private ranches, and the Rio Grande in Boquillas Canyon. Along the River, the unit boundary extends to the top of the active cut bank, or where cliff meets water, but does not include the water. The Big Bend National Park Recreational River Use Management Plan excludes motor boat use from Boquillas canyon. Several primitive-use trails provide access into the broad, deep valleys of the unit’s southern half. Only the short Dog Canyon trail, near Persimmon Gap, enters the northern portion of the unit. A small non-wilderness area is maintained adjacent to the park boundary at the north entrance to allow future entrance facilities if necessary. At the eastern extremity a primitive unpaved road provides administrative access from outside the park to the Telephone Canyon trail and continues to the mouth of Boquillas Canyon. This route and area may eventually provide for at least limited public access.

Unit 11:

This 22,640-acre unit is generally bounded by the Paint Gap road on the west and Grapevine Hills road on the east (both unpaved), and the Rosillos Ranch on the north. An extension of the unit continues north of Tornillo Creek to the junction of the unpaved Rosillos Ranch access road and the North Entrance road. A 793-acre Potential Wilderness powerline and powerline access corridor parallels the Grapevine hills road. The 1978 recommendation called for maintaining a road corridor north of Paint Gap Hills to the park boundary. However, the road has been closed between Dripping Springs and the park boundary for over 30 years, and has long been impassable due to erosion. This recommends continuing the existing condition by terminating the Paint Gap road corridor at Dripping Springs

Unit 12:

North of the west entrance road and west of Paint Gap is Unit 12, consisting of 36,738 acres, including 768 acres of Potential Wilderness powerline corridor. The area has no developed trails and use is by occasional off-trail hikers, often following major drainages. Beyond the park boundary are private small-acreage ranchettes, and the Texas General Land Office’s 9000-acre Christmas Mountains property.

Unit 13:

This 1,124-acre unit was not included in the 1978 proposal because of its size; at the time a small block of land between the North Entrance road and private land to the west. However, the 1987 North Rosillos acquisition resulted the unit being contiguous with a large contiguous backcountry area. Should a future North Rosillos wilderness study result in a proposal, this area could become part of a more extensive unit.

What's of concern to some, though, is the approach to wrap roads with non-wilderness corridors much, much wider than has been practiced in the park system. Under the draft, these corridors would be 300 meters wide on either side of the centerline of "most" public and administrative roads in the park. That requirement would create a non-wilderness corridor 600 meters -- or 1,968.50 feet -- wide.

To give that number some context, such a corridor would create a buffer on either side of the road deeper than three football fields laid end-to-end. Currently, the widest wilderness buffer along a road corridor is 500 feet from the centerline of a few major roads in Death Valley National Park.

More so, the National Park Service Reference Manual 41, the manual for wilderness in the park system, calls for a buffer zone along dirt roads through designated wilderness of 30 feet on either side of the centerline and 100 feet on either side of the centerline for paved roads, unless otherwise specified by Congress.

Now, it's been calculated that if the proposed 600-meter buffer corridor is approved, as opposed to the corridors proposed by the Park Service's Reference Manual, tens of thousands of acres of the park could be excluded from the wilderness designation. For example, if the park has 200 miles of roads that that pass through proposed wilderness, a 600-meter buffer corridor would slice 48,000 acres from the proposed wilderness areas, versus 5,000 acres if a buffer just 200-feet wide (100 feet on either side of a road) were utilized.

Chief of Interpretation Elkowitz, though, stressed the need for the park to be "flexible" in maintaining, and possibly rerouting, roads as needs arise.

“I think we're looking for a standard that gives us future flexibility," he said. "We have situations here that I think it makes it desirable to have that flexibility.”

But whether a 600-meter-wide corridor provides more flexibility than necessary is debatable with some. Frank Buono, a long-time Park Service manager who now works for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, considered the proposed corridors to be overkill, especially if the only justification is concern over flash flooding.

"I have drawn legal descriptions for park wilderness at Joshua Tree National Park and at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Both of those parks, like Big Bend, are in arid areas subject to occasional torrential downpours and flash floods," he said. "Neither of the two parks adopted road corridors of such width for 'flash floods.' There may be some discrete portions of the Big Bend road network that are in danger of washing out, or are in a particularly vulnerable location. Wider-than-normal road corridors in such locations would be warranted, and supported by the NPS Reference Manual on Wilderness.

"But this simply cannot be the situation that applies to the entire network of dirt and paved roads in the park," continued Mr. Buono. "I know that the park officials have been offering this as the justification. But they have presented no facts to support it. I really do not know why the managers at Big Bend want such incredible and unprecedented widths of non-wilderness cordons around ALL roads, dirt or paved. But, the 'flash flood' justification does not hold water."

The current attempt to identify wilderness in Big Bend is preliminary with no public meetings yet scheduled to discuss the draft plan.

Comments

I believe the point of the wider-than-normal buffer areas around the backcountry roads is to permit eventual relocation of flood-prone and frequently flood-damaged sections. All of these roads are crossed by numerous arroyos and gullies, which occasionally carry flash floods to the Rio Grande. The park spends significant resources repairing these roads. The proposed buffer zone would provide flexibility in adjusting the road paths to reduce the potential for future damage. Because of the rugged nature of these roads and their surroundings, I can't imagine that the proposal to exclude additional space around the roads will in any tangible way suffer from lack of protection afforded by wilderness status.

It seems to me that any change of the magnitude proposed would require a more rigorous analysis of the effects and a clear justification for ignoring NPS guidance. The arroyos and potential flood effects are certainly no worse than Saguaro NP where there is designated wilderness. Why isn't the park proposing to close roads? There is something very sinister about this.

Wilderness is a disease of the mind.