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)

For promoters of Big Bend National Park, the good news from El Paso coincided with their campaign to lobby the Texas legislature in January 1937 for funds to purchase the private land in Brewster County needed for the park. Milton McColm wrote to Arthur Brisbane of the King Features Syndicate in New York City, to encourage the national journalist to "comment in your column 'TODAY,' on the proposed Big Bend International Park that would link 788,000 acres in Texas . . . to approximately 400,000 acres on the opposite side of the Rio Grande, in the Mexican States of Chihuahua and Coahuila." McColm noted that plans now called for two separate national parks, each "under the supervision of its respective government." Texas thus would have its first NPS unit, while "the International Park, it is believed, would tend to cement existing friendly relations between the two nations." This latter point, McColm hoped, would appeal to Brisbane's nationwide readership. "Director Arno B. Cammerer . . . has stated," wrote McColm, "that the establishment of such an international park, dedicated to Peace, in which the rank and file of both nations may freely mingle on both sides of the international boundary in their hours of leisure and recreation, and unrestricted by customs and similar regulations, may set an example to other nations." Speaking as if Cammerer's words soon would come to fruition, McColm concluded that the initiative "marks an outstanding step in the recreational field." [38]

McColm's solicitation of Arthur Brisbane's support indicated the national level of interest that the park service hoped to reach with its publicity on the international park. Another approach that the NPS took was to endorse the concept in an article in the December 1936 issue of the journal American Forest. The Mexican department of forestry, game and fish then reprinted the story in Spanish as "El Parque de la Paz de Mexico." This allowed Mexicans to read for the first time in a national publication of the wonders of the proposed international park in Coahuila and Chihuahua, complete with photographs from the February 1936 journey of U.S. and Mexican members of the international park commission. Howard Morelock wasted little time in capitalizing on this new mood of cooperation, contacting Texas state representative R.A. Bandeen with "a tentative draft of a resolution covering the 'Good Will Trip' to Old Mexico." The Sul Ross president wanted to take a group of state lawmakers to Mexico to impress upon them the sincerity of the Mexican government. To strengthen his case, Morelock asked Everett Townsend to review the proposal, which the longtime park advocate did in language revealing the delicate nature of negotiations behind the optimistic public pronouncements. Townsend cautioned Morelock to avoid use of the term "international park" without references to the specific control that each nation would have over their territory. "We want to breathe as much peace and good-will as possible throughout the whole document," wrote Townsend. He also wanted the Sul Ross president to emphasize that the trip to Mexico "would be for the consummation of this great International Peace Park or play-ground — the first thing of the kind ever attempted between non-related nations." Yet Townsend found himself in the unlikely position of correcting Morelock over the tone of the resolution. "I just know that you can do better than the sample that I have," he wrote. "You must remember that those people South of the Rio Grande love a lot of flowery language," Townsend concluded, "and of course, the Resolution will be made public down there, and we want it to please them as much as possible." [39]

While publicity circulated nationwide in favor of the international park idea, Mexican and United States commissioners in April 1937 addressed the boundary issue in separate surveys. A problem soon arose when IBC and NPS officials realized that the eastern and western limits of the international park did not intersect. J.W. Ayres of the Region III office learned when he arrived in El Paso that neither the U.S. nor the Mexican IBC agents had copies of the maps corrected the previous November by Daniel Galicia and Merel Sager. Ayers did report to Maier on April 16 that "Lawson's mosaic map has pencil cross at approximate location to which Bustamante has agreed." He then noted that the American IBC surveyors would travel to Big Bend "to establish a mark at each point consisting of metal disk cemented in rock with six foot wooden monument painted aluminum over it." The IBC's Lawson wanted these markers "located for latitude and longitude by stellar observation and later tied into existing triangulation system." Ayers met with Lawson's crew in Terlingua, and proceeded to the CCC camp in the Chisos Mountains prior to spending a week on the Rio Grande. Upon completion of their work, the western boundary markers had been placed at Latitude 29 degrees 14' 48", Longitude 103 degrees 40' 17"; while the eastern marker was placed at Latitude 29 degrees. 22' 09", Longitude 102 degrees, 50' 47". [40]

Marking the parameters of an international park proved easier than convincing Texas legislators to fund the acquisition of land on the American side for their state's portion of this historic initiative. As word filtered down to Mexico in June 1937 that Texas governor James Allred might veto the Big Bend appropriation of $750,000, Herbert Maier decided to enlist the aid of Mexican officials engaged in the international park process. Pierre deL. Boal, charge d'affaires for the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, contacted Secretary of State Cordell Hull on June 7 to advise him of a conversation that had taken place that day between himself and Daniel Galicia. Maier had asked Galicia to contact U.S. ambassador Josephus Daniels for a letter to Governor Allred in support of the bill, adding the benefit of the international park to the larger scope of the Texas governor's action. Galicia's supervisor, Miguel Angel de Quevedo, also acceded to Maier's request for Mexican support, by writing Boal on June 7. "I beg to inform you," Quevedo told the American charge d'affaires, that "the establishment of the Sierra del Carmen National Park in the States of Coahuila and Chihuahua contiguous to the Big Bend National Park in the State of Texas having been approved in principle by the President of the Republic, these two parks to be combined, at the suggestion of the American Government, into an International Peace Park - the Matter now awaits the conclusion of topographical studies now being made, and the drafting of the (Presidential) Resolution making this area a National Park." Given the advanced status of study, said Quevedo, he hoped that Boal would ask ambassador Daniels "to lend his valuable cooperation in asking the Governor of the State of Texas to approve the appropriation" of the funds for Big Bend. Daniels, well-liked by the Mexican people for his understanding of their culture and historical realities, and identified by Maier as having a "personal interest in the project," had no time to influence Allred before his veto of the Big Bend bill. Daniels, however, did meet in Washington with NPS director Cammerer to voice his support of the park, and to "hope that it is only delayed" by Allred's rejection of the funding measure. [41]

Solicitation of Mexican support for the Big Bend funding bill prompted Quevedo and his department to publish in El Diario Official an acuerdo (an accord or agreement) about national parks in Mexico. Boal sent a copy to the NPS in Washington, as he believed "that this order may have some relation to the establishment and protection of the International Park around the Big Bend area of Texas." Drafted on April 28, signed by President Lazaro Cardenas, Cabino Vasquez, chief of the Agrarian Department, and Quevedo, but not printed until June 7 (at the height of the lobbying campaign against Allred's veto), the acuerdo declared "unaffectable the National Parks in the matter of ejidial dotations and restitutions." Recognizing the need to preserve Mexico's forests to avoid erosion, and because "the country requires places or spots where nature appears in its wild state, as living and real examples of what virgin forests and wild fauna are in their primitive state," the Mexican federal government "considers it essential to submit [national parks] to a special system of control (regimen especial)." This process would be in addition to "issuing measures tending to insure the utilization (aprovechamiento) of the grasses, dead wood and other products (demas esquilmos) which neither harm nor destroy those parks, for the exclusive benefit of the ejidos or nuclei of rural population immediately adjacent to them." [42]

To explain the meaning of this paradigm shift in Mexican natural resource policy, the American embassy in Mexico City drafted a statement for officials in Washington. William P. Bowen of the embassy staff suggested that "this provision appears to be a withdrawal of Mexican Federally owned lands of national park character from the right of acquisition by the Mexican peasant under . . . both the Agrarian and idle land laws, and a regulation of the use of certain products of the areas of national park character." Bowen then asked his Mexican counterparts to explain the history of their country's land laws, so as to place the June 7 acuerdo in perspective. His synopsis for State department officials revealed the painful legacy of the "Porfiriata" (1880-1910), "during which foreigners and foreign capital were given every privilege in Mexico" by the regime of Porfirio Diaz. After the revolt in 1910, "men of Indian or Mexican blood came into power," followed by "a great wave of nationalism with the slogan 'Mexico for Mexicans' — Mexicans being the Indian population of the country." Bowen wrote that the task of land reform for the revolutionaries was daunting, in that "many of [the Spanish-era] haciendas were of unbelievable size, measured in miles rather than acres, and in many instances were held by absentee landlords." This meant that "the Indian populations of these plantations had been reduced to serfdom and virtual slavery." [43]

Of significance to American policymakers, wrote Bowen, was the fact that "the coming to power of the Mexican, the advance of socialism, and the cupidity of the politician gave rise to the theory that the Spanish landlord, just as Americans, Germans, etc., were aliens and that they had despoiled the Indian of his rights." This concept held "that the land rightfully belonged to the peasants." In "working on that theory," said the American embassy official, "a great number of the vast estates were confiscated by the State — depending, I was told, upon which side of the political fence the owner stood." In so doing, "title was by decree vested in the State, [and] bonds, in an amount which the Government found as due the divested owners, were issued to the landlords." At this juncture "the former peasant made application to the Government for a parcel of land for which he was to make stipulated annual payments, which payments were to retire the bonds held by the former landowner." Bowen compared this process to "the settlement of the Irish Land Question," and "the system was called restitution of the land to the Indians." [44]

The most challenging issue of the acuerdo remained the selection of lands for national park status. Bowen admitted: "I have no knowledge of the idle land laws, but it seems logical that they would be laws relating to lands in Government ownership that have not been 'restored' to the Indians." He also found that "there is no English word 'unaffectable,' but in a breakdown of that coinage, we would get 'not capable of being affected.'" The term ejido had a more straightforward meaning ("a public common held by a pueblo or the like"). As to the term "dotation," Bowen claimed that it was "an [endorsement] or the giving of funds (in this case lands) to a public institution." The embassy official read this section "to mean that those areas which have been set aside as national parks, are removed, by this order, from the provisions of the laws governing the endowment of villages with lands for commons." In addition, said Bowen, such status meant "reserving them from the provisions of the laws governing restitution of lands to the peon — that is, they are not to be used for either purpose." In the case of proposed national parks, Bowen read the language of the acuerdo to prohibit release of such lands wherever a park was being surveyed. He then closed with an explanation of the language permitting local landowners to use the natural resources of future national parks. Bowen believed that "the provision in this order is to require that before attempting to use the products they must first consult the Agrarian Department, to determine whether such use will harm or destroy the park, and to obtain permission for such use." [45]

The fall of 1937 was a critical period for Mexico, the United States, and the fate of the international park. As the Texas legislature would not reconvene for another eighteen months, the issue of land acquisition on the American side of the Rio Grande looked unpromising. In Mexico, workers in American-owned oil fields went on strike demanding higher wages; a circumstance that led the following March to the bold move by the Cardenas administration to nationalize all oil production in Mexico (and endanger both the "Good Neighbor" policy and the international park). Yet proponents of Texas's first national park persisted in their efforts to link the two nations by means of publicity and news coverage.

One intriguing moment in this campaign occurred in October, when Leland D. Case, editor of The Rotarian: The Official Magazine of Rotary International, wrote to Leo McClatchy upon receiving word of the international park initiative in the Southwest. Six decades later, Rotary International would campaign aggressively for creation of a park between Mexico and the United States like that of Waterton Lakes-Glacier International Peace Park, an initiative that Rotary had orchestrated in 1932. Rotary had expressed no interest in the Big Bend idea when developing the Canadian-American park, and Case revealed his ignorance of this oversight when he asked McClatchy: "Are there any other international parks in which the United States is concerned . . . ?" Case had planned an issue of The Rotarian devoted to "International Peace Monuments on national boundaries," and McClatchy revealed no sense of irony in his reply. The Region III publicist noted that the "International Peace Gardens" existed on the border between North Dakota and Canada, although this was "strictly a State Park, and there is no international angle." More appealing to Rotary, said McClatchy, was Big Bend, which "would merge areas occupied by two different races — people with different languages and different customs." The NPS official thought that this "would be a big step in the direction toward which Rotary points — the promotion of international good will." In addition, he told Case, "it would lead generally to a better understanding between Mexico and the United States, and it should tend to cement the existing friendships between those two countries." It was McClatchy's hope that The Rotarian would focus upon Big Bend, but would be grateful if Case folded that story into a larger narrative about borders in general and their parks for peace. [46]

McClatchy could not know that the last official action taken by either government to ensure creation of the international park occurred on October 16, 1937. On that date, the government of Mexico accepted the boundary markers on the south side of the Rio Grande across from the American markers. Overshadowing the dreams of park advocates was the deterioration of relations between Mexico and the United States, in addition to the looming crisis in Europe that would explode in September 1939 as the Second World War. Friedrich Schuler wrote in Mexico Between Hitler and Roosevelt: Mexican Foreign Relations in The Age of Lazaro Cardenas, 1934-1940 (1998), that "whereas 'experimentation' had been the central paradigm for the period between 1934 and 1936, by 1937 the new central theme would be 'survival.'" The Mexican economy had not improved materially with three years of Cardenismo, even as the American economy softened after the first term of the Roosevelt New Deal. Schuler contended that Secretary of State Cordell Hull "saw Mexico's crisis as an opportunity to extract concessions from Mexico first and help the southern neighbors later." Then in the months after the nationalization of foreign oil interests, said Schuler, "even the staunchest Cardenas supporters were rethinking their personal commitment when the government failed to pay wages, left rural banks unfunded, and did not stop the rise in food costs." Michael Meyer and William Sherman elaborated on this challenge to Mexico and America by noting that "many United States newspapers expressed outrage, and not a few politicians called for intervention to head off a Communist conspiracy on the very borders of the United States." [47]

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003