The Impact of Human Use Upon the Chisos Basin and Adjacent Lands
NPS Scientific Monograph No. 4
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European Man's Use of the Mountains and Basin


The vast, open spaces of Big Bend, with miles of rolling grass, finally fell prey in the 1880s to the first major use of the vegetation when the ranching industry arrived with herds of longhorn cattle, Herefords, sheep, and goats.

On present-day parkland, the ranching industry had its developmental origins from 1882 to 1885 when the Estacado Land and Cattle Company, formed by General Gano and his two sons, acquired over 55,000 acres of land in the region. The spread ranged from Aqua Frio on the north to the Rio Grande on the south, and from Solitario on the west to the Chisos Mountains on the east. To care for the initial 6000 cattle, three line camps were established at Terlingua, Aqua Frio, and Chisos Springs. Chisos Springs, now called Oak Springs, became an important camp for the G-4 Ranch and those to follow. The operation disbanded in 1895, with over 17,000 cattle rounded up. That the operation was a successful venture is indicated by a maximum count in 1891 registering 30,000 head, only 5 years after a very dry year, 1885-86.

In the years that followed, a series of purchases and sales redistributed this and adjacent lands, but throughout the period Oak Springs remained important. In 1929 Homer Wilson purchased approximately 44 sections in the Oak Springs, Blue Creek, and upper mountain regions, including a part of the basin. By 1942 the Wilson ranch was estimated to control between 40,000-50,000 acres. The main line camp which supervised the cattle, sheep, and goat operations was in Blue Creek Canyon. The timbers used for the construction of the buildings came from the Chisos Mountains (Casey 1968).

Other ranchers in the area who had holdings in the mountains were: L. Wade, W. T. Burnham, and Sam Nail. Many other parties held claim to mountainous blocks or sections but ran no herds. Frequently, land use was leased or exchanged for other land.

The total impact of ranching upon the mountain area, and more specifically upon the basin, is extremely difficult to assess. A series of impressions may be obtained by reading Casey's history (1968) and the document files of the National Park Service.

Evidence generally indicates that the ranchers within the present park were professionally adept, not overstocking nor overgrazing their lands. The lands were used to their fullest capacity by some, however, with cattle, goats, and horses sharing the same range. This was necessary in some cases for a sound financial operation. Because most of the ranchers had long-range plans to remain in business at retirement or maintain family control, preservation of the range was of prime concern.

After the state of Texas purchased most of the privately owned lands in 1942, the ranchers were given free grazing privileges until actual creation of the Big Bend National Park in 1944. It was during this 3-year period that most of the range abuse occurred. There was general agreement among the ranchers themselves that during this time the ranges were greatly overstocked to take full advantage of the free grazing privileges. It is doubtful that had the ranchers intended to remain in operation on this land they would have allowed such large herds (Maxwell 1944). After having endured a drought in the mid-thirties, the effects of overstocking were greatly enhanced.

In the summer of 1944 over 40,000 head were grazed on parkland. Of these, 15,000 head were goats and 6000 were sheep (Maxwell 1947). Goats outnumbered other livestock in the basin because of their browsing habit and the steep terrain. Severe shrub damage was reported by McDougall (1953) at South Rim and Laguna Meadow. Maxwell (1944) reported that the basin had been quite heavily grazed during the past years, but for the last 2 years (1943-44) the grazing was limited to about 20-30 head of livestock.

Instances of severe grazing and the result of erosional problems are given for the lower desert in a report of Grazing Summary for Region Three (Big Bend National Park files). Agave lecheguilla (lechuguilla) and Larrea tridentata (creosote-bush) increases are cited as effects of overgrazing. Dasylirion is reported to have been nearly eradicated in Green Gulch during the drought of 1918-19 when it was fed to cattle (McDougall 1953). Even though these changes are reported for lower elevations, they undoubtedly hold true in part for the entire basin area, but are not definitely cited.

Grazing and browsing pressure is still evident in the basin. The preponderant presence of Xanthocephalum spp. (broomweed) is one outstanding example. This plant has been found to increase greatly and persist for long periods of time after grazing (Cottle 1931). Another example is the large, dense stands of Opuntia sp. (prickly pear) along the base of Pulliam-Bailey ridges, not obvious in the area in 1935 (Warnock 1967). The two diverse forms of the older oak trees in the lower basin area are also signs of animal use: tall, single-trunked, high-crowned; or low, multi-trunked, with poor crown development. The first is the effect of browsing upon older trees and the second, of browsing on younger trees. Other possible effects of overgrazing are the broad expanses in the lower basin covered with A. lecheguilla and the many scattered stands of Larrea tridentata on erosional sites.

Prospecting and mining

Although there were never extensive mining operations in the Chisos Mountains proper, evidence of such activities can be seen. A rather large excavation can be viewed on the east side of Appetite Hill. L. Miller (pers. comm.) states that this was dug by Bud Kimbell and Cone Brown of Marathon between 1920-32. It seems that a fortuneteller in California predicted great riches could be found there. The riches were not found, but large quantities of fine soil have washed down to the flat to the north of the hill.

Smaller shafts are present along the contact of the igneous with limestone on the ridge to the northeast of Ward Mountain. These are very local in effect, however, because they are on steep slopes adjacent to washes.

Probably the greatest impact reported by this industry upon the vegetation is that described by Maxwell (1968). Because of the increasing demand for flammable materials to keep the Chisos Mining Company's cinnabar retorts fired at Terlingua, large quantities of timber were taken from Green Gulch and the basin in the early 1900s. How extensive this practice was is not known. I have searched for such activities in the form of stumps, trimming piles, and logs in both areas, but time seems to have eradicated any direct evidence. Only a few chopped stumps can be found. Because of inadequate roads for removal of timber, tree-felling would not seem to have been too extensive in the basin proper. The first reported road into the basin was constructed in 1934 when supplies were being hauled in for drilling the well to provide water for the proposed Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the basin (Casey 1948).

Civilian Conservation Corps

In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the establishment of a C.C.C. camp in Brewster County. The two major sites proposed were in Green Gulch and the Chisos Basin, but because sufficient water could not be obtained in Green Gulch, emphasis was shifted to the basin. In April 1934, water was finally supplied by a well below the present campground. In May the first company arrived and established a camp above the well.

From this camp, which was later expanded, roads, buildings, and trails were constructed. These were directed toward providing facilities and developments for the Texas Parks Board which had created the Texas Canyons State Park and later Big Bend State Park. By 1938 state authority had granted permission to collect money for land purchases to the Big Bend National Park Association. Eventually, the state of Texas provided $1.4 million to secure private lands, which in 1943 were deeded to the National Park Service.

Most of the activity in the Chisos Basin during the 1930s was localized primarily in two areas: the Upper Basin, where the present Ranger Station and the National Park Concessions are located; and the Lower Basin, where the campground and Chisos Remuda are now situated. Remains of the C.C.C. camp can still be seen in the parking circle of the Campfire Circle. Old nails, metal objects, broken glass, and a concrete abutment are readily visible.

The projects of the C.C.C. camp completed before its abandonment in 1942 were: construction of stone cottages in the Upper Basin, 1935-38; completion and improvement of road into the basin, 1937; and construction of trails to Laguna Meadow, Window, and Juniper Flat, 1936-40; as well as the trail from Juniper Flat to Laguna Meadow Trail.

These projects resulted in complete removal of vegetation from the construction sites of trails, roads, buildings, and adjacent areas. They also made demands upon the area for building materials such as rock and soil. Drainage patterns were altered severely in many cases, thereby modifying vegetation growth. Along the many miles of roads and trails were signs of erosion and pathways by which disturbed area species advanced into new areas. The campground itself changed from a natural, vegetated area to a flat, hard-packed area with few native trees or shrubs. These projects created a demand for more improvements—a process which still continues.

It should be mentioned that even though the C.C.C. camp was in a state park, the Chisos Basin was still being grazed. One of the ranchers in the late thirties was Ira Hector (Warnock 1967).

Big Bend National Park

In 1944 the park was officially established, with headquarters in the basin. Within 3 years the two concessions were operating in the basin and making increased demands upon space and water supply. In 1947 another well was drilled, with a water tank soon installed above the present National Park Concessions residences, but was soon abandoned for lack of flow. By the end of the forties, activities were increasing greatly, and visitors were arriving in the basin on a newly paved road.

Improvements continued throughout the 1950s. The Upper Basin roads and parking lot were improved and paved in 1951. During the following year the Ranger Station was established, and the main water line from Oak Springs and the water barrel began to supply the increasing demand for water. A trail from Laguna Meadow to South Rim was added to the trail system in 1953. Much construction took place in 1958 and 1959 in the Lower Basin. Both the main and group camp grounds were built, including four comfort stations. The major sewer line was laid at this time. Adjoining the campground, the Campfire Circle and parking lot were constructed and paved along with the Lower Basin road.

The last decade saw expansion of the National Park Concessions in the form of two motel units (1960-65) and a lodge (1966). The National Park Service increased its buildings by adding four Ranger's residences (1962-64). To accommodate the increasing sewage, two lagoons were constructed in 1962.

A detailed analysis of the impact of the National Park Service and concessions upon the vegetation will be presented in detail, with supporting data, in Chapter 7.

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Last Updated: 1-Apr-2005