Big Bend
Administrative History
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A Different Frontier: Mexico, the United States, And the Dream of an International Park, 1935-1940 (continued)

With an eye towards accelerating the process of park planning, Maier suggested to his superiors in Washington that they select a small group to be assembled in Alpine on January 15 to spend some 30 days in the field. The Mexican government had named nine individuals to collaborate with the NPS, but Maier feared that "there is already danger of the party becoming unwieldy." He also noted that beyond Big Bend and Organ Pipe, "the remainder [of the suggested sites] are low in scenic and recreational values from a national park standpoint and should, perhaps, be set aside primarily for the conservation of their peculiar fauna and flora." The U.S. Biological Survey could survey these areas in more detail, leaving the NPS-Mexico team to examine Big Bend and Organ Pipe. [22]

Policymakers in both the NPS and the Departemento Forestal, Caza y Pesca had much reason to celebrate in the first weeks of 1936, as the American secretary of state, Cordell Hull, announced on February 8 his appointments to the United States Commission on International Parks. The list sounded like a "who's who" of natural resource agencies: Conrad Wirth, Roger Toll, Frank Pinkley, George M. Wright, and Herbert Maier of the park service; Laurence M. Lawson of the IBC; and Ira H. Gabrielson of the forest service (replaced a week later by Dr. W.B. Bell). U.S. Representative Ewing Thomason anticipated the importance of this delegation's visit to Alpine in mid-February, and telegraphed Everett Townsend with the news of their impending arrival. "[I] am sure you and other citizens of Alpine appreciate [the] great importance [of] this visit," wired the El Paso congressman, "and what it means toward helping put over our program." Thomason made it clear to the "father of Big Bend" that "I am leaving nothing undone here [Washington] to get results and am sure you are doing same there." In particular, wrote the congressman, Townsend needed to know that Wirth "is our friend," and that "if Mexican authorities are strong for it [the international park] I will co-operate [sic]." Among Thomason's plans were "ideas for getting some money." He then admonished the former Brewster County sheriff: "This is big stuff and we must put it over." [23]

No one had to remind Townsend of the gravity of the moment, as the U.S. delegation stepped from the platform of the Alpine train station on February 17 and shook hands with the longtime park promoter. They and the Mexican commission members, among them such staunch advocates of international cooperation in natural resource conservation as Miguel Angel de Quevedo and Daniel Galicia, drove southward to the future national park and thence to the Rio Grande. Crossing the river at Boquillas, the commissioners drove into the Fronteriza Mountains before exchanging their vehicles for horses. After some time in the area that one day would become the Maderas del Carmen Flora and Fauna Protected Area in Coahuila, the party resumed their automotive tour to what future park superintendent Ross Maxwell would call "several interesting native villages." Then the US and Mexican commissioners drove from Boquillas westward around the north face of the Chisos Mountains to the border town of Lajitas, fording the Rio Grande once more for the trip south into the state of Chihuahua to the historic community of San Carlos (the largest town in what would become in 1994 the Canon de Santa Elena Flora and Fauna Protected Area). [24]

As the commissioners left the Big Bend area, they carried with them the radical idea of breaking with tradition to join the United States and Mexico in creation of an international park where Mexican bandidos and American soldiers had clashed less than two decades before. Photographs of the commission's tour of the Coahuila and Chihuahua landscape published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram revealed the sense of brotherhood and commitment shared by commission members. The historian John Jameson wrote that the officials marveled at the differences across the river in Mexico, where "unlike the overgrazed American side, there was little evidence of erosion in Mexico, and the mountains were covered with virgin stands of pine trees, some as tall as sixty feet and three feet around the base." Then one of the most tragic events to strike Big Bend (not to mention the international park idea) occurred less than 24 hours after the commission dispersed: the deaths of Roger Toll and George Wright in an auto accident. The two park service officials were en route from Big Bend to study the Arizona border park sites when a car veered into their lane on the old two-lane highway east of Deming, New Mexico. Richard Sellars, writing with the hindsight of six decades of history, would note in 1998 of the untimely deaths of Toll and Wright: "Although not fully apparent at the time, the loss of Wright's impressive leadership skills marked the beginning of the decline of [park service] science programs." It would be 60 years before the NPS and the government of Mexico would hold similar conversations at the highest levels about joining their two nations along the Rio Grande, and by then the memory of Toll and Wright's contributions would have faded considerably. [25]

At the time, however, NPS officials and their Mexican counterparts expressed a determination to continue planning for the international park, using the deaths of Toll and Wright as an incentive. Nonetheless, the initiative had lost two of its most ardent advocates, a circumstance that all who wished for a joint park realized within days. Herbert Maier wrote to Juan Thacker, one of the Mexican commissioners from El Paso, on March 8 to review the planning to date. Maier reminded Thacker that "upon my last visit in your office I had a conference with a man from Chihuahua who is interested in securing a nucleus herd of buffalo and elk for a club in the vicinity of Chihuahua in Mexico." The regional director of the ECW program had discussed the idea with Toll and Wright while on the inspection tour of the international park, and told Thacker: "Both of these gentlemen assured me that it will be possible to secure both elk and buffalo from the Yellowstone herds. [where Toll was superintendent]." Toll and Wright did caution Maier: "It will be highly advisable to consider the matter of undertaking the developing of herds of these species with a great deal of care and forethought." They knew that "in many cases living specimens supplied by wildlife refuge officials have proven a liability rather than an asset, . . . since the undertaking of development of herds involves a great many scientific and practical considerations." Toll advised Maier that "the elk and buffalo indicated for distribution during the current year have all been pledged." Yet the Yellowstone superintendent believed that "it will be quite possible to secure specimens during the coming year." Then Maier revealed to Thacker the scale of the deaths of Toll and Wright to the park service: "Considering the fact that both of these fine men have been unfortunately removed from our midst, I suggest that the individual in charge of this undertaking, . . . take up the matter directly with Mr. Ben Thompson, . . . who is a wildlife expert, and who was assistant to Mr. George Wright." [26]

The death of Toll and Wright also had personal implications for park service officials engaged in the work of park planning in Texas and Mexico. Amidst the correspondence that Leo McClatchy handled that spring was a note from Mrs. Roger Toll, who resided in Denver while her husband traveled the West in search of new parks for the United States. Toll's widow noted that the El Paso Times had printed pictures of the international park survey, and wondered if McClatchy would provide her with copies of the images that included her husband. The NPS publicist could not locate any of the original pictures, as all of the negatives had been sent to the NPS headquarters in Washington. He did, however, have a clipping from the Star-Telegram where "Mr. Toll is seen helping to push the car out of a rut." Then in a touching statement about the meaning of Toll's work to his peers within the NPS, McClatchy told his widow: "Though I had known Mr. Toll but a brief time, he was extremely courteous and helpful to me on the Big Bend trip, going out of his way to assist me in gathering information." [27]

Officials of the department of forestry, fish and game in Mexico sustained their own investment in the international park concept throughout the spring and summer of 1936, with the key representative, Daniel Galicia, soliciting of Leo McClatchy any newspaper stories in the United States about the project. Writing in Spanish, Galicia referred in a March 25 letter to the process of "establicimiento del Parque Internacional 'Rio Bravo' [establishment of the Rio Bravo International Park]." Galicia then wrote to Conrad Wirth to thank the assistant NPS director "for all the courtesies shown me and the members of the Mexican Conference on the International Commission of Parks and Reserves." The Mexican forestry division chief was "very happy to know that you [Wirth] enjoyed the trip that we made in the sierra del Carmen, in the State of Coahuila, in order to establish the Mexican portion of the International Park of Peace between Mexico and the United States." He also wanted Wirth to know that "we are also working to gather all the necessary data on the formation of the National Park 'Rio Bravo' in Coahuila as part of the Big Bend in Texas." From this Galicia hoped that "soon we will be able to declare it a National Park although we are faced with legal difficulties insofar as the acquisition of the land is concerned." Galicia nonetheless anticipated "another International Conference," along with a visit from Wirth to Mexico "to show you some of the beautiful attractions which we have in my country." He then praised "the enthusiasm and patriotism of my superior Senor Ing. Miguel A. Quevedo," for "these places are now being converted into national parks." [28]

By late June, NPS officials had just begun to recoup the momentum on the international park interrupted by the deaths of Toll and Wright. Conrad Wirth discussed with park service director Arno Cammerer the need for another meeting with the International Commission. "As you know," wrote Wirth, "after the terrible accident, things were rather left up in the air." Yet the assistant NPS director reminded Maier that "we did make arrangements insofar as the international park at Big Bend is concerned, to meet with the Mexican authorities this fall and go over their proposed boundaries." Wirth then asked the NPS's Region III director to contact officials in Mexico to see if "they would have the material ready so as to be able to sit down and decide on the boundary lines and determine the final recommendations to be made to both Governments." Director Cammerer had planned to attend this gathering, said Wirth, who hoped that Maier could coordinate such a gathering in Mexico when the director also could meet with Texas officials regarding the bill to be placed before Lone Star lawmakers for purchase of lands on the American side of the Rio Grande for Big Bend National Park. Maier reported back to Wirth that he had spoken with Santos Ibarra, the commission member charged with identification of the Mexican boundary location. From Ibarra Maier had learned that "it has been a little difficult to determine . . . just how they [Mexican officials] intend to acquire their portion of the land." Compounding this situation, wrote Maier, was that "of course their idea of setting up a National Park has been quite different from ours, for the most part, because funds are not available to purchase immense areas." This procedure Maier described to Wirth as "in some cases they declare an area a national park, although there are private holdings within it, and in such cases they limit destruction of all plant and animal life, but do not force such land owners that may be within the area to immediately give up the land." Yet Maier conceded that the Mexican commissioners "are thoroughly in sympathy with our ideals, and this contact with our National Park Service will probably eventually lead to the same general policies as ours." To strengthen this bond, Maier noted that "when we were in Mexico City a trip for the Mexican officials was planned which would bring them up into Yellowstone and other National Parks in August and September." [29]

In preparation for the fall gathering of the international park commission, Maier assigned J.T. Roberts, associate landscape architect for Region III, to join Daniel Galicia in Alpine to study "the problem of boundaries for the proposed park." When the two departed for the Rio Grande on September 2, Galicia informed Roberts that his instructions from Miguel Angel de Quevedo "were to limit the boundaries, as far as possible, to the forested area because of the very limited funds available for use in obtaining land for park purposes." Galicia and Roberts had to leave their vehicle at the river town of Boquillas, Texas, because "the Rio Bravo [was] on a 6 foot rise." Taking a truck from the Mexican village of Boquillas, the party traveled along "the eastern and northern extremities of the Fronteriza Mountains," finding that "the timbered lands were mainly above 1780 meters, or approximately 5300 feet." Roberts would report to Maier that "for this reason Sr. Galicia first proposed an eastern and northern boundary from Mesa de los Fresnos to Mesa de los Tremblores." From there, wrote Roberts, the boundary line would extend "to Pico Sentinel, then north, including only the face of what we know as Del Carmine, then to Stillman at the end of the Boquillas Canyon." Roberts believed that "this would be similar to establishing the boundaries of the Chisos Mountain area by running a line from Mule Ears to Castillon Peak to Elephant Mountain to Crown Mountain to Lost Mine Peak and so on." The problem for the NPS architect was that "in this no consideration was given to the wild life or scenic values." He informed Maier that "with some difficulties in conversation I presented these points as we traveled along, and it was finally determined that the park should include all the mountain areas and such adjacent land necessary for the protection of wild life;" a decision that Roberts said "will include Pico Etereo." [30]

In order to redesign the Mexican portion of the international park, Roberts told the Region III director that "Sr. Galicia will recommend that the entire area within the original proposed boundaries be established as a game preserve, eliminating at once the value of the land for hunting." The NPS architect noted that Galicia "will then suggest that those owners within the boundaries of this area exchange their holdings for other excess forested areas now held by the Government." Roberts conceded that "the greatest trouble experienced by the department [of forestry, game and fish] is not with the native owners but with those owning 'The Club,' all of whom are citizens of the United States." Within the acreage owned by these foreigners, "the physical features," said Roberts, "may be described as very rugged, of volcanic origin and heavily timbered above 5300 feet." Among the species of timber were "Ponderosa pine, Mexican white pine, cypress, and fir, probably pseudopseudo douglasii." Roberts further reported that "below 5000 feet there is a great variety of trees, the most predominant being the oak and wild cherry." He contended that "sufficient water is available, all year, at The Club for a large development, and it may be found that there is an ample supply below the mine." Roberts indicated that "there are may other places, such as the Laguna and Carbonera, for overnight facilities." This latter locale was, "on the present trails, a three hour horseback ride from 'Casa del Nino' and four hours from The Club . . . at an elevation of 2170 meters (6500 feet)." Roberts estimated that "the distance between The Club and Casa del Nino is 28 kilometers [16.8 miles]," and he claimed that "it is between those two points that the most beautiful scenery was found on this inspection trip." Other distinctive features included an area "above the laguna, which is about 5 kilometers [three miles] north and east of Carbonera," which was called "Mesa Escondida where the largest timber of the mountains is found." Roberts also "found a cave described as being 'large enough to hide two hundred men and horses and with water convenient.'" The NPS architect then closed his report by noting that Galicia spoke less enthusiastically of "the eastern slope of the 'Del Carmine Mountains' — that is, the limestone uplift from Boquillas south." Roberts agreed that the area "is barren of trees and has no spectacular geological formations." Thus he concurred in "Sr. Galicia's point of view [that] it is of no value as a National Park and is in fact of interest only as a wild life refuge." [31]

Galicia's caution reflected the sentiments of his supervisor in Mexico City, Miguel Angel de Quevedo. While dedicated to natural resource preservation, Quevedo also knew of the political and economic realities of life in Mexico that constrained the Cardenas administration in its negotiations for an international park at Big Bend. As he prepared to attend the commission meeting in El Paso that fall, Quevedo advised Herbert Maier in September that he would accept NPS director Cammerer's invitation, "inasmuch as I have numerous problems I desire to clarify." American promoters of Big Bend National Park, however, saw only good fortune awaiting the deliberations of the international commission. Amon Carter's Fort Worth Star-Telegram trumpeted the windfall of publicity and tourism to come to the most isolated reaches of the Lone Star state. "Texans have a right to be enthusiastic about this development," declared the Star-Telegram on November 4, 1936, as "already the Big Bend park begins to take rank among the foremost on the national list." Carter's editors could hardly restrain themselves when calculating the benefits to accrue from the "millions of American holiday visitors" about to descend upon the "last frontier." Echoing the prose of Walter Prescott Webb, the Star-Telegram reminded its readers that "great mountain ranges on both sides of the river, gigantic abysses, towering peaks and crashing streams complete the region's attractions to the sightseer." Then the paper noted that "the international aspect of the park project enlarges its possibilities to an infinite degree." If possible, "the area in Mexican territory has been even more remote, more inaccessible, than that on the Texas side." This led the Star-Telegram to claim that joining the two countries in a venue covering some 1.2 million acres in "an international park freely open to the public of both nations — a sort of free port of recreation and fraternization — is a notable project in international relations." [32]

Four days after Franklin Roosevelt achieved the most sweeping victory in modern times in a presidential election, the director of the NPS arrived in Texas for a series of meetings on Big Bend and the adjacent Mexican park initiative. Historians have noted the energy that surged through the FDR administration in the days and weeks after his capturing of 61 percent of the nation's popular vote, and all but eight of the 535 electoral votes for president. Roosevelt and his staff believed that the public had validated their measures for reform, economic recovery, and protection of the nation's natural and cultural resources. Issues to be discussed at the El Paso gathering of federal officials from the United States and Mexico thus expanded to plans for reforestation along the border (a favorite of Miguel Angel de Quevedo), and a meeting of NPS officials and the "National Park Committee" of the West Texas Chamber of Commerce. Headed by Sul Ross's Howard Morelock, the entourage wanted to remind the park service of their own work on the acquisition of land for Big Bend, and of the need to highlight statistics about travel and economic development akin to those of the Star-Telegram's news story of the previous Sunday. [33]

When the international commission on parks and reserves came to order on November 9, the attendees represented the highest levels of natural resource management in both the United States and Mexico. NPS director Cammerer joined with his top assistants, Conrad Wirth and George Moskey, Herbert Maier of Region III, and Frank Pinkley, the longtime superintendent of Casa Grande National Monument who also served as the coordinator for the Southwestern Monuments network. Maier had invited his top assistant, Milton McColm, along with his chief biologist, Walter McDougall, Merel Sager of the surveying parties, and Everett Townsend, representing local interests in the international park initiative. Daniel Galicia led the Mexican contingent, which included game division chief Juan Zinser, Juan F. Trevino, and Juan Thacker. The International Boundary Commission likewise sent its highest ranking members from both countries: Laurence M. Lawson for the United States, and Joaquin C. Bustamante, the IBC's consulting engineer from Mexico. The NPS played for the commission a reel of film on the Big Bend region, followed by a presentation from Maier on the criteria used by both nations to determine the boundary lines of the international park. [34]

It soon became clear to the attendees that the demarcations of the joint initiative would be the most challenging task before them. Maier reported after the meeting that "it will be highly desirable that the east and west boundaries of the Mexican area, as nearly as practical, coincide with those of the Texas area where they join the Rio Grande." The commission members thus "agreed that the point where the Mexican boundary line will touch the River on the west should be the confluence of San Antonio Creek with the Rio Grande." The regional director then noted that "this will throw the Lajitas Crossing and its road for mining and cattle outside the area, which is desirable." Maier conceded that "while the eastern boundary of the Mexican area will contact the Rio Grande at the present proposed point," he realized that "the American line will be swung somewhat to the north so as to strike the Rio Grande at Los Vegas de Silwell [Las Vegas de Stillwell]." The attendees further decided that "probably only one vehicle bridge across the Rio Grande within the international park, crossing to the Mexican side, will be necessary and advisable for administrative and policing purposes." The future park management would have to consider, however, "that visitors should have free access to both sides, any Customs regulations being taken care of at the checking stations leading into each area." Then director Cammerer agreed that "it will probably be best not to run a main park road along the Rio Grande on the American side." Instead, the NPS director believed that "this should be left free for open wildlife range down to and across the border." [35]

After a luncheon hosted by the El Paso chamber of commerce, the commission heard from the IBC's Lawson, who showed them "very useful aerial surveys and aerial photographs of the Rio Grande." The group then revisited the boundary question, agreeing that "the present crossing at Boquillas for cattle and the mines could continue to operate even after the park is established." A primary consideration was the location of the road from Boquillas to Marathon along the eastern edge of the proposed Big Bend National Park. Several attendees noted that "mining activity on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande is almost extinct and the moving of cattle to the U.S. side is now of little consequence." Referring to "the small ranches now operating along both sides of the Rio Grande," Maier reported that "it was felt that the two governments, even though acquiring the land, might well extend permits to the owners of the land to remain for the remainder of their lifetimes." Then the regional director observed that "the boundaries of the American and Mexican side were corrected on the map by Daniel Galicia and Merel Sager and new photostats struck off and copies distributed to both delegations for future guidance." [36]

Following the discussions of boundaries and their locations, Conrad Wirth "suggested that on the basis of these lines the President of each country should be approached by the respective Departments and the two Presidents could then make final arrangements for the international aspects and proclamations." One detail that might hinder such collaboration was addressed by the IBC's Lawson, who "discussed the possible hydrographic considerations along the Rio Grande within, above and below the area in which it [the IBC] and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation may in the future be interested." Lawson led the commission to believe that "no major hydrographic project along the Rio Grande within the proposed area is now being considered." Yet several commission members had heard that "there may be a storage reservoir established immediately below the eastern U.S. boundary [of Big Bend]." Maier added in his report that "the fact that the present Irrigation Project on the Mexican side along the Conchos River, running into the Rio Grande above the area, may in time consume the major part of the water at present flowing into the Rio Grande proper below this point and through the proposed park;" a point which the attendees agreed was "of marked importance." The El Paso conferees concluded, however, "that once the international park is established an adjustment in the operation of the Conchos River irrigation project may be effected by the Mexican government so as to prevent this threatened consumption of the main source of Rio Grande water within the park area." [37]

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003