National parks join the system for a variety of reasons: great natural beauty, the need to preserve wilderness in the face of development, historic resources that the nation needs to remember, and the like. For Texas's first unit of the NPS system, Big Bend National Park, all of the above features applied. In addition, the distinctive ecology of a mountain, desert, and riverine landscape compelled NPS officials and local sponsors alike in the 1930s and 1940s to plead with private donors and elected representatives to make Big Bend in 1944 the 28th unit of the NPS organization (at the time its sixth-largest park in the nation).
Were these dimensions of Big Bend National Park all that claimed the attention of park sponsors, its story might not unfold in quite the dramatic fashion that it did. Located along a 129-mile stretch of the border with Mexico, Big Bend National Park offered a glimpse of the cultural and diplomatic history that Americans shared (but little understood) with their neighbors to the south. Park officials could not decide whether to promote Big Bend as a wilderness or as a refuge. In like measure, they could not agree on whether to emphasize the otherworldliness of border culture, with its mixture of romance and violence, or to ignore the differences that a shared environment masked.
Big Bend National Park followed the standard cycle of its peers throughout the NPS system in its six decades of history. The struggle to create a park unit over 100 miles from the nearest transportation center required avid champions, and also encountered spirited resistance from local ranchers and absentee landowners. The depths of the Great Depression stimulated interest in donating over 1,200 square miles of southwest Texas to the federal government, and to create a tourist attraction in the most unlikely of places. Nine years of campaigning for private and state funds resulted in a frantic land-acquisition program in the early years of World War II, even as the NPS had applied every available dollar from the Civilian Conservation Corps. This money not only allowed for facility construction, but also underwrote much of the early scientific research of the Big Bend area.
When Big Bend opened for business in the summer of 1944, the task of building a park while entertaining visitors fell to Ross Maxwell, a geologist who had studied the area and advised on many details of park development. Maxwell and his successors would confront the perennial challenge of securing adequate funding for operations and maintenance, even as the forces of nature wore down park infrastructure. The vaunted MISSION 66 initiative brought the completion of the park's physical plant, not to be replaced for at least a generation. Park staff from the 1950s to the 1970s, then, addressed the tasks of interpretative programming, border relations, and the isolation that accompanied many NPS units. Of these, the most intractable would be Big Bend's relationship to its Mexican neighbors, which became strained in the 1970s with increases in illegal immigration, drug smuggling, and the resultant anxieties that accompanied federal agency operations in the area.
With facility and community relations at a nadir in the late 1970s, the NPS decided to promote a new generation of management at Big Bend. From the engineering skills of superintendent Robert Haraden, through the cultural sensitivity of his successors Gilbert Lusk and Jim Carrico, the park labored in the face of limited financial resources to become better neighbors to Mexico, and a better host to visitors. The 1990s witnessed more challenges in both domains, as superintendents Robert Arnberger, Jose Cisneros, and Frank Deckert advanced the cause of park service values in the heart of west Texas.
Six decades of NPS operations along the Rio Grande reveal much about Big Bend, Texas, Mexico, and the American ideal of preserving what is best about the land and the people who made it their home. Proud of their heritage as a private-property state, Texans had to learn about the ways of resource management that the NPS brought. The park service, in turn, had to address the political clout of the Texas congressional delegation, even as it negotiated with its Lone Star neighbors over such issues as predator control, land purchases, and visitor accommodations. Mexico also took a journey with the NPS, from the heady days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor Policy," through the industrialization and land reforms of World War II and the Cold War. Only with increased awareness of the joint occupation of the frontier zone along the Rio Grande in the 1980s and 1990s did both countries find the means to work towards the dream of an international park for peace. How that dream would unfold in the twenty-first century, and how it would parallel the internal needs of both nations' park systems, would determine how another generation would view the handiwork of Big Bend's creators and stewards.
Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003