Big Bend
Administrative History
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Discovering Nature's Way: Scientific Research and Resource Protection, 1936

The years between congressional authorization of Big Bend National Park and its establishment witnessed a steady stream of university faculty and graduate students, as well as park service technicians, eager to chart the natural and cultural wonders of the region. These observers of the landscape anchored Big Bend's reputation as a marvel of scientific opportunity. They also recognized the need for protection of the flora and fauna from human intrusion, and called on many occasions for regulation of such practices as overgrazing and big game hunting. From these appeals would come patterns of resource management that reinforced Big Bend's reputation as an outstanding nature park. The emphasis on the latter phenomenon also paralleled the general NPS tendency to discount cultural resources. Thus the legacy of Big Bend as a "pristine" wilderness, where signs of human habitation should be removed, gained momentum in the first years of research, and had become its signature when the park opened for visitors.

Once the preliminary surveys of Big Bend had been completed, NPS officials set out in early 1936 to expand upon the findings and make recommendations for park facilities, interpretative programs, and future research needs. The massive study undertaken late in 1935 by William B. McDougall and Maynard Johnson led George F. Baggley, wildlife supervisor for the NPS's branch of planning and state cooperation, to suggest several initiatives for the Big Bend. "In view of the present land status in the Big Bend area," Baggley warned Conrad Wirth, "it is naturally difficult to undertake any large work projects with the CCC camps now in the area." Yet the NPS wildlife supervisor saw an immediate need for "range study plots," as these would "determine the rate of change in range grass cover and forest reproduction." Baggley wanted "at least one such plot . . . located in each of the different cover type zones." These would measure 33 feet square, and would have to be fenced "to exclude all animals." The state of Texas could assist the NPS by conducting "erosion control on State-owned land." The park service would need a relief map of the future national park unit, as well as a topographical map "with as many of the existing roads, trails, fences, and other improvements as possible." Baggley hoped that the NPS could initiate "a continuing project to provide for wildlife observation and a study of all wildlife species, their abundance and distribution." Building on that study, Baggley wanted to "arrange with the State authorities for immediate protection of the Peccary which has no protection whatever in the Big Bend project." Baggley then reminded Wirth: "On the Big Bend project similarly as at Boulder Dam there seems to be a definite need for the assignment for a wildlife foreman to devote his full time to this project." [1]

Survey of Big Bend's natural landscape had an additional purpose in 1936: the need for regulation of resource use. Conrad Wirth asked George A. Moskey, assistant director for the NPS, to offer advice on requests for permission to mine the region. While the history of the Big Bend reflected the impact of resource extraction, the new authority of the park service prohibited this pattern of use. Moskey told the NPS director of land planning that "we should make it clear to these people that when the lands are turned over to the Federal Government for national park purposes, no mining of any kind can or will be permitted." The park service needed to make clear, Moskey warned, that "any reservation in the deed of conveyance, or any covenant in connection with the transfer, which could require that the land be open to mining, or compel the United States to open the area to the extraction of minerals, will prevent our accepting the land for national park purposes." Moskey noted that the NPS had faced similar situations when accepting land donations for such parks as Shenandoah, Great Smokies, and the Everglades. The assistant NPS director also advised Wirth that "a well-studied letter should be written to the [Texas] Governor to supplement the brief letter of October 14, 1935, covering fully the requirements that will be insisted upon by us in the transfer of lands to the Federal Government." He also asked Wirth to remind Texas officials of "the necessity for the State to enact preliminary legislation ceding to the United States exclusive jurisdiction over the area." This latter point would complicate relations between the park service and state and local law enforcement officials for the remainder of the twentieth century. It also required legal clarification as late as 1996 when closure of the park during a shutdown of the federal government blocked access for travelers and locals across the vast expanses of the park. [2]

Protection of the NPS's interests in the area, and acquisition of knowledge about Big Bend's resources, also required the park service to promote the findings of its technicians. In April 1936, George Baggley received an invitation to speak on Big Bend at the annual meeting of the Society of Mammologists. Baggley asked Maynard Johnson to craft an argument that would appeal to his audience, and the NPS regional wildlife technician responded by linking the American and Mexican portions of the Big Bend. This would give scientists, said Johnson, "an approximately complete biological unit," making Big Bend "the only national park that does so." Johnson also praised the future park's inclusion of the Chisos Mountains, as they were "separated from any other mountains by wide stretches of desert flats." This meant that "the fauna will be better protected in certain respects than is possible in any other national park." Johnson remarked that another distinctive feature of Big Bend was "several Mexican species that enter the United States only at this point," most notably the "weeping Juniper (Juniperus flaccida)." The wildlife technician noted that the "most characteristic plant" of the plains surrounding the Chisos Mountains was the creosote bush, with mesquite, ocotillo, lechuguilla, and prickly pear the other representatives of lower Sonoran desert cacti. The higher that one climbed into the Chisos, said Johnson, the more one encountered Upper Sonoran species like the Mexican buckeye, desert willow, Apache plume, oak, pinon, juniper, Arizona cypress, Douglas fir, and yellow pine. [3]

Johnson hoped to impress upon Baggley that "the study of the flora of this region is in its infancy." While scientists already had identified some 450 to 500 species, much remained to be accomplished. As an example, Johnson cited disparities in naming oak trees in the future national park. "There are probably nine or ten species and varieties of oaks in the Chisos Mountains," wrote Johnson, "some of which may be new to science and some of which are probably hybrids." Since Baggley's audience would focus primarily on mammals, Johnson mentioned that "tree squirrels, and porcupines, are among the mammal groups absent from the area -- perhaps because an extensive area surrounding the Chisos Mountains is treeless semi-desert." In the proposed park area as a whole, the mammals most frequently seen were Texas jackrabbits. The "most abundant" of mammals "are various species of Peromyscus -- especially in the mountains, and perognathus -- especially on sandy lowlands." [4]

Despite large quantities of mammals as common as jackrabbits, Johnson nonetheless recognized that "there are several other features or characteristics that will serve to make the mammalian fauna of this park outstanding and intensely interesting." He noted that "the peccary occurs here and in no other existing or proposed national park." The regional wildlife technician reiterated the charge of earlier NPS surveyors that the javelina "was formerly very abundant in this region but has been killed extensively for hides and often by hunters merely for the sake of something to shoot." Johnson did know of "several small bands in the area," and believed that "with protection they will increase satisfactorily." Of major importance to this effort, wrote Johnson, were plans "to make the area a state game refuge in order to prohibit all hunting until such time as the park is established and full protection is given to the entire fauna and flora." [5]

In addition to the need for protection of the javelina, Johnson also drew attention to "another characteristic of the unique mammalian fauna of this park:" the presence of three distinctive species of deer. Most common was the Mexican mule deer. "Since this is the only place in Texas where the mule deer is abundant," reported Johnson, "it has in the past been hunted rather persistently." NPS officials had undertaken "voluntary agreements with the ranchers" that provided "a measure of protection." Mule deer as a result had become "quite abundant," and were increasing "at a satisfactory rate." The NPS technician also noted the presence of the Texas whitetail deer, "found mostly in the rimrock country of the southern foothills of the Chisos Mountains." Johnson found that "the range overlaps that of the mule deer to a certain extent," but did not extend to the surrounding flats "where the mule deer has a tendency to range." The whitetail also foraged higher into the mountains, encountering there the fantail deer. "Since the whitetail deer are common in some other parts of Texas," Johnson told Baggley, "and are smaller than the mule deer they have not been hunted so persistently." [6]

Johnson then turned to mountain lions, which were "frequently killed" by local hunters. Echoing later laments of NPS officials about the hunting of predators, the technician reported that "there seems to be no way of giving certain protection to these animals at present." One reason was because "these animals range so widely," so that "the protection that is given them in most national parks is often of little benefit." Johnson hoped, however, that "since the Big Bend National Park will be biologically isolated the protection of predatory animals will be a somewhat simpler matter than elsewhere." He claimed that "indeed, this park is likely to be one of the most favorable places in the United States, if not the most favorable, for the permanent preservation of any kind of cougar," as "the variety occurring in the Big Bend (Felis oregonensis azteca) is not found in other national parks." Johnson then added three smaller mammals "that are peculiar to this park:" the Couch black rock squirrel, which was "found only in northeastern Mexico and the adjacent part of Texas;" the Chisos Mountain cotton rat, "known nowhere else in the United States;" and the Davis Mountains cottontail, which Johnson claimed "is known only from the Davis, Chisos and a few other mountains of southwestern Texas." [7]

The field research conducted in the Big Bend area by regional geologist Charles H. Gould paralleled the biological work of McDougall and Johnson as the Civilian Conservation Camp expanded. On the second of six visits to the area in April 1935, Gould sought more information about the future park site, and also hoped "to collect specimens and start the geological museum." His first destination was the "Chisos Pen," an old camping and branding site located near some tinajas (rock water holes) about three miles south of Slick Rock Mountain, "at a point where Cottonwood Creek has cut its way through a row of hills which extend north from the north end of Burro Mesa." Here at what local ranchers called "Sulphur Springs" did Dr. J.A. Udden in 1907 make "his classic section of the Rattlesnake (Aguja) beds." Gould described the formation as "yielding large quantities of petrified wood, and occasional dinosaur bones and sharks' teeth." The geologist also identified deposits of sandstone, volcanic igneous rock, clays, sandy shale and coal around Sulphur Springs, the latter connected to an abandoned mine at the south flank of Slickrock Mountain. Some of the sandstone strata along the north side of Cottonwood Creek contained "many fossils, chiefly oysters," and Gould highlighted this in his call for more research on the area. [8]

From the Chisos Pen at Sulphur Spring, Gould then journeyed to the Banta Shut-In, which the geologist described as "a deep narrow gorge cut by water flowing in Tornillo Creek through an intrusive sill of lava." He examined a section some 5.5 miles "as the crow flies" due east of "the point where the road to the [CCC] camp leaves the Marathon-Boquillas road." Gould noted that "this region is now impassible for cars," as he had to drive over "an old road, to a point on Tornillo Creek about a mile west of the old Stillwell Ranch, and the same distance southwest of McKinney Spring." At that juncture Gould had to proceed on foot, "down the dry bed of Tornillo Creek, a distance, following the winding of the creek, of about six miles." The geologist found his hike "very interesting," as Tornillo Creek and its tributaries "have cut steep bluffs and over-hanging cliffs, in places 100 feet or more high, in the Rattlesnake and Terlingua beds." As he had at the Chisos Pen, Gould found in the Banta Shut-In oyster shells and petrified wood. He then speculated on the formation of the Banta Shut-In; a term that "has long been used for a narrow gorge, which in many ways, rivals [the] Royal Gorge of Colorado." The Banta Shut-In, "while not so deep as the latter," nonetheless "has sides . . . as precipitous," with a canyon narrower than the Arkansas River chasm in south-central Colorado. Gould suggested that the "Banta Shut In might be utilized in one of two ways:" as a "show place, and second, as a reservoir site." Because "people like to walk through narrow gorges," said Gould, "a road could be easily constructed from the present Marathon-Boquillas road along one of the ridges between draws, and come out on top of the gorge." The dam site could "form a lake for bathing and fishing," as "there is little doubt that the basaltic walls would hold water." Gould estimated that the drainage area for a reservoir would be over 300 square miles. Hindering such a plan, reported the NPS geologist, was the fact that "rainfall is scanty, occurring usually as cloudbursts." In addition, "the evaporation is excessive, and the reservoir will probably silt up rapidly." Thus Gould cautioned his superiors: "Careful studies should be made of all the involved factors before seriously considering building a dam." [9]

Gould's third inspection in the spring of 1936 was in Dog Canyon, which local residents also called "Bone Gap". Situated about five miles south of Persimmon Gap, Bone Draw had cut "a deep and narrow gorge . . . across a limestone mountain 500 to 1000 feet high and a mile wide." This constituted part of a larger series of fissures in the earth that stretched "for a distance of approximately 80 miles in Texas and for an unknown distance in Mexico." Gould found that "the dry bed of Bone Draw affords easy walking, and an auto road could easily be lead down the canyon, the entrance to which is about two miles from the Marathon-Boquillas road." Its only problem, Gould conceded, was that "this road would have to be repaired after heavy rains." Nonetheless, the regional geologist pressed for inclusion of Bone Draw in the park's planning, as "I do not remember of ever having seen finer examples of faulting in limestone than those shown in Dog Canyon." The area was "longer and deeper than the Banta Shut In, but not so narrow." It also did not require the twelve-mile hike of Banta Shut-In for access. Gould did note that "on account of the porous and soluble nature of the limestones comprising the walls[,] Dog Canyon would probably not be suitable as a reservoir site." Given this dilemma, the geologist suggested that "mention should be made of Devil's Den, located about one mile south of Dog Canyon." This "narrow, winding, tortuous gorge, easily seen from the road," had "many tenajas [sic], or rock water holes, in the gorge, so that under ordinary conditions it can be traversed only by swimming in certain places." [10]

Completing his arc from northeast to southwest in the Big Bend area, Gould stopped last at the "Terlingua-Lajitas country." He described Lajitas as "a small village located one mile above the entrance to Santa Helena Canyon and twelve miles southwest of Terlingua." Surrounding Lajitas were rocks dating to the Cretaceous age, while "fossil shells found at Fossil Knobs two miles northwest of Terlingua indicate that the rocks are Boquillas flags." Further to the southwest, Gould identified "large fossil oysters thirty inches in diameter" in the Terlingua beds, "very similar to those found at San Vicente." Between Terlingua and the Rio Grande, "and extending from the mouth of Santa Helena Canyon to Lajitas," reported Gould, "appears to be a series of fault blocks, similar, structurally, to those which make up the Del Carmen-Dead Horse-Santiago Range." Known as the Mesa de Anguila on the American side of the river, and at the time the "Sierra Rica" on the Mexican side (later changed to "Sierra Ponce"), these ridges "constitute the western limit of the 'graben' which occupies the greater part of Big Bend park." [11]

With his journey complete, Gould devoted the remainder of his report to his efforts to create at the Chisos CCC headquarters a geological museum. Workers at the camp had finished a laboratory-museum structure that allowed the geologist to "have tables built and shelving erected, to display a number of geological specimens." After each surveying trip made by Gould, he would send back to the camp a truckload of specimens, and "one special trip was made to San Vincinte [sic] and Glenn Springs to collect large fossil oysters." Once Gould had departed the Chisos Mountains, the museum had over 300 specimens on display, with "the most abundant material [consisting] of fossil oysters and ammonite found in the Terlingua beds." He also took pride in the display of "a very good collection of 'desert pebbles,'" along with "crystals of calcite and quartz, novocalcite, celestite, lava, petrified wood, sandstone, limestone, flint chips, hammerstones, and metates." The museum also benefited from the assignment by CCC superintendent Morgan of two enrolless, "one lettering signs and labels, the other arranging specimens." These activities led Gould to conclude: "Only a very crude beginning has been made, but with time and effort a very creditable exhibit of geological and paleontological material may be collected and displayed." [12]

Throughout the summer of 1936, voices of concern arose to call for protection of the future park's natural resources. Arthur F. Robinson of the Alpine chamber of commerce wrote to Conrad Wirth and Herbert Maier to offer his advice. "Because of my continued interest in our Big Bend Park and close observance, for a number of years, regarding plant life, animal life and Indian Archaeology," said Robinson, "I am taking the privilege of outlining information which I believe will be valuable to you . . . for the future good of our Park." The Alpine business leader noted that "conservation of the plants and animals and the archaeological sites of the Big Bend is a subject near to the hearts of an increasing number of residents of the region." Along with "observers from outside," champions of the new park "realize the imminent danger of their [the resources'] serious depletion, and even of the extinction of some species." For Robinson and other park advocates, "since the acquirement of the land for park and its transfer to the National Parks Service will require some time, steps should be taken IMMEDIATELY to form a game reserve that will include the whole Big Bend." This would mean that "the remaining remnants of deer, bear, jabalinas [sic] and other animals may be preserved to become a [nucleus] for the Big Bend National Park." [13]

As for the flora of the region, said Robinson, "hundreds of truck loads of cacti have been taken from the Big Bend by commercial curio dealers and [those] to whom the fad of a cactus garden appeals." These thieves ignored "the commoner species," preferring "the smaller and rarer species." Thus "whole localities have been denuded of rare species that once occurred plentifully." All of this persisted "in spite of a prohibitory measure passed by the State Legislature some five years ago." Robinson conceded that "regulations should not preclude the taking of herbarium specimens by bona fide scientists." He also noted that "the dry shelters of the Big Bend are known to contain relics of ancient cultures about which too little is known." He feared that "if the present practices of relic hunters and amateur archaeologists from the city museums are continued, these shelters will be denuded without doing anyone any good or proper records being obtained." Robinson called the Big Bend "the happy hunting ground of relic hunters who invariably spoil more material than they save." He called upon the NPS to leave "as many of the shelters in the Park area as possible . . . in their natural state." Robinson would allow for "representative shelters [to] be explored for the material for study to determine the culture represented, the material to be deposited in a museum at the Park headquarters with duplicates in the museum of the West Texas Historical and Scientific Society [in Alpine]." [14]

Robinson gave specific attention to the "pulling of wild flowers" in the Big Bend region by visitors, calling this "an inane and useless pastime as they seldom last half an hour before wilting." His observations led the Alpine chamber official to conclude: "Whole areas of lupines, penstemens and other wild flowers that formerly grew in certain localities in profusion have entirely disappeared due to their destruction by thoughtless people." Ironically, Robinson claimed that "the publicity given the region by reason of the establishment of the Big Bend National Park has turned the attention of game and relic hunters to the Big Bend." Ignoring his chamber's role in the promotion of the future park, Robinson told NPS officials: "Conservation measures should be initiated immediately if they are to do any good." He wanted "property owners in the region [to be] encouraged to cooperate in protecting the flora and fauna which, after all, contributes so much to the charm of the Big Bend." This meant that the NPS should station a uniformed ranger in the area "at an early date." He then revealed his proprietary interest in the scheme: "As you know my intimate acquaintance with the property owners and this territory for twenty years, I shall appreciate your consideration for the position." [15]

While the park service could not accommodate Robinson's request for employment, it did take seriously his call for protection of natural and cultural resources in the Big Bend area. James O. Stevenson, acting chief of the NPS's wildlife division in Washington, asked officials of the Oklahoma City-based region for advice on "current activities of Texas or federal agencies for the conservation of wildlife and Indian relics in the Big Bend." Stevenson acknowledged that "Doctor McDougall has discussed establishment of a game refuge in Brewster County, Texas, with the Texas Game Commission." Stevenson also knew that "some action is being taken for the protection of javelina and one or more species of deer." The park service, however, realized that "Texas authorities feel there is little likelihood that the entire Big Bend can be made a game refuge as suggested by Mr. Robinson." The acting wildlife division chief reminded Region Three officials that "it is certainly desirable that Texas laws, prohibiting removal of cacti, be enforced." Stevenson thus wanted to know if the regional office had "any information as to which bureau of the Texas government should be contacted with reference to this enforcement?" [16]

Regional biologist William McDougall participated in this dialogue with additional work related to resource protection in the Big Bend area. In June 1936, McDougall outlined some six pairs of plots of land for range study, with different types of vegetation for accuracy in sampling. These pairs would have one section of 33 feet square fenced to keep out all grazing animals. Dr. Omer C. Sperry of Sul Ross College would monitor the plots, with the goal "to show what progress in the recovery of over-grazed areas may be expected when domestic animals are finally removed from the Big Bend Park area." McDougall foresaw an additional benefit from the range-study plots: "They will also be very valuable in enabling us to estimate the wildlife carrying capacity of the various portions of this area." Beyond that, said the biologist, "the plots will be of considerable value in enabling us to work out the natural plant successions in this area." [17]

McDougall also addressed the pleas of A.F. Robinson and others for protection of fauna in the future park. McDougall's conversations with officials from the state game, fish and oyster commission revealed that "'since several large areas have already been set aside as game refuges in Brewster County it would not be possible, under the law, to include more than 20,000 acres in a Big Bend refuge.'" Everett Townsend had suggested that the Texas legislature enact sweeping legislation protecting entire species of animals that inhabited the Big Bend, but McDougall believed that "'this could not be successfully done without the consent of the ranch owners in the region concerned.'" The NPS biologist recalled that "'before there was any protection at all for game animals in the Big Bend area, hunters came into the region by the hundreds to shoot deer and incidentally to kill javelinas and other animals.'" Then Texas passed a law "'prohibiting any hunting on privately owned land without the consent of, and some compensation to, the owners.'" McDougall claimed that "'this served to materially reduce the numbers of hunters.'" He then turned to predators, stating that "'the ranchmen are constantly fighting the predatory animals and especially the mountain lion.'" The only such animal for which they might accept restrictions, reported McDougall, would be the bear. Further complicating the work of resource preservation was the ranchers' belief that "once the international park is established and protection given to all life the predatory animals will increase rapidly.'" [18]

With the admonitions of A.F. Robinson clearly in mind, McDougall had sent Everett Townsend "a list of eight species of animals including the javelina, three species of deer, bear, badger, raccoon, and rock squirrel with instructions to contact the ranchmen and endeavor to get their consent to the protection of these animals.'" The biologist also had "given [Townsend] authority to remove from the list any animal that the ranchmen object to excepting the javelina.'" From this Townsend could approach "'a local representative to introduce a bill in the next legislature when it meets in January.'" McDougall had less advice for Herbert Maier about the issues raised by Robinson on the loss of plants in the Big Bend country. "I question whether much destruction of flora is taking place under present conditions," wrote the biologist, "other than that done by domestic animals and by the activities of [Ira] Hector in burning old maguey and sotol plants." McDougall nonetheless warned that "nothing should be taken for granted and every effort should be made to give as much protection to the flora as possible." He advised Maier to seek the advice of Townsend and the CCC superintendent, "since they are not seeking jobs as rangers." McDougall agreed that "certainly there should be one or more rangers in the area." Yet he saw "no way of putting them there unless the Texas State Park Board can do it." He then concluded by noting to Maier: "I have no information about the archaeological situation." [19]

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003