More than a battlefield
Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park was created to recognize an important historical event, but it is also notable for its natural features. Park boundaries are drawn around more than 3,400 acres of undeveloped land. The park contains an abundance of plant and animal life, including many species unique to the U.S-Mexico border region.
The defining feature of Palo Alto is the broad coastal prairie-scene to the first battle between the U.S. and Mexico. This coastal plain is carpeted with clumps of razor-sharp cord grass and other low-lying grasses and flowers. The field stretches eastward for miles toward the Gulf of Mexico. It is interrupted only by scattered trees, yuccas, and prickly-pear cactus.
Palo Alto's other side
To the north, south, and west, the open prairie gives way to dense thickets of mesquite, acacia, and thorny undergrowth crowning low rises. These thickets are believed to have inspired the name Palo Alto-or tall trees. The park is crisscrossed by a series of shallow ravines, known as resacas, These resacas once formed the bed of the ever-shifting Rio Grande. Although they remain dry much of the year, occasional heavy rains create small pools in them and spurs the growth of reedy plants that thrive in marshy areas.
This assortment of habitats also supports a variety of animal life. Coyotes, jackrabbits, and bobcats roam the open plain. Javelina, opossums, tortoises and many other animals find refuge in the cover of brush. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, and fiddler crabs can be found in burrows under the ground while dozens of different kinds of birds, including raptors and tropical species can be spotted on their perches in tree branches.
Birds, birds, birds
The abundance of wildlife makes the battlefield an attractive spot for nature lovers. Bird watching has become a particularly popular pastime at the park. Visitors have spotted birds of prey like the Harris Hawk, Aplomado Falcon as well as colorful species like the Roseate Spoonbill.
As the park continues to make more of the battlefield accessible to the public, it seems certain the site will draw many bird watchers and nature enthusiasts. Their numbers may even rival those who visit for the site for its historical importance.
This situation creates an interesting dilemma for park management. As a unit of the National Park Service, Palo Alto is dedicated to appropriately documenting, protecting, and managing the natural resources on the site. As a National Historical Park, however, the park must place an emphasis on the historical importance of the site.
Any activities to manage or restore habitat and wildlife must be planned carefully, to ensure well-meaning projects do not have a negative effect on the historical and archaeological features of the battlefield.
History & nature side by side
Fortunately, efforts to care for the cultural and natural resources of the battlefield usually complement each other. Plans to preserve the battlefield generally support the preservation of plants and animals that have lived on the site since the time of the U.S.- Mexican War. Likewise, projects to restore the landscape to its appearance at the time of the 1846 clash commonly encourage the park to restore native habitat and species.
These efforts to conserve both the natural and historical landscapes of the site will ultimately benefit park visitors. History enthusiasts who visit the park will have an opportunity to view the terrain and vegetation that influenced the course of the battle. Nature enthusiasts will have an opportunity to view plants and animals that drew the attention of soldiers more than 165 years ago.
It is the park's hope that all visitors will find Palo Alto to be a place of stark beauty--a living monument to the men who fought for their countries so many years ago.