Big Bend
Administrative History
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Maintaining Big Bend: Operations, Planning, and Personnel Issues, 1960-2001

Observing the daily operations of Big Bend National Park reveals much about the hopes and dreams of its early advocates and employees. Big Bend also provides an excellent venue for understanding the complex relationship of park service policies, public moods, and political pressures that have affected all NPS units over the past four decades. Once the infrastructure funded by Mission 66 was in place, it fell to the management and staff of Big Bend to uphold the mandate of preserving the park's resources for the enjoyment of the taxpaying public. Among the more intriguing features of that process was the shift in public attitude from development in national parks to preservation of wilderness; a circumstance that Big Bend's neighbors found problematic (despite the park's creation in harsh environmental and economic times). As the nation and the NPS struggled at the turn of the twenty-first century to define a new generation of park policies, the story of Big Bend's management (with its isolation, distance, aridity, size, and location along the border between the United States and Mexico) offered insights that had parallels throughout the NPS system.

Whether coincidental or not, each decade of Big Bend's existence after the dedication of the Mission 66 structures had its own character and challenges for park staff. The 1960s, a time of great turmoil nationally amidst the movements for civil rights, antiwar protest, and environmental activism, seemed to bypass Big Bend, with the result a stagnant operation awaiting the need for a new master plan. The next decade, however, was not so fortunate. During the 1970s the process of rethinking Big Bend's management style included the new ideas of ecological sensitivity and reduction of human use of the resources. At the same time, the failure of the superintendent and his top staff to solve the difficulties of managing Big Bend required drastic measures of NPS supervisory personnel. When the park service decided in the early 1980s to change the direction of Big Bend, the interaction of the park and its neighbor to the south became intertwined with management objectives. Then in the 1990s, the need for increased funding to upgrade the half-century-old physical plant brought Big Bend's problems once again before the park service.

When Stanley Joseph took command of Big Bend in 1960, he realized quickly that Mission 66 had not resolved all of the issues that had plagued the park since Ross Maxwell's day. Doug Evans, chief naturalist at Big Bend from 1961-1966, analyzed in 1965 the visitation patterns of the park in anticipation of changes in the interpretative program. As late as 1959, wrote Evans, Big Bend hosted some 70,370 patrons; a number that was hard to verify, since Big Bend did not charge admission, and there were no automobile counters installed at the entrance stations until the late 1960s. By 1963, Big Bend's visitation estimates had grown some 62 percent (to 114,232). Evans speculated that "if this rate of increase continues, we could expect 185,000 visitors in 1968 and 300,000 by 1973." The chief naturalist viewed these figures as "conservative," assuming that "visitation will certainly be affected by the completion of the new interpretative roads, new lodge, campgrounds, trailer facilities, and museum facilities" that he studied. He also believed that once "the new road, now being constructed northward from Muzquiz, Coahuila toward Big Bend is completed, the number of park visitors will certainly soar above all predictions made thus far." [1]

Reflective of the mood of park officials prior to the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Evans offered solutions for this visitation that accepted current visitor habits and tastes. "At the present time," wrote the chief naturalist, "all visitors to Big Bend come in private cars." These patrons "drive either to Santa Elena Canyon," he noted, "or Boquillas Canyon, and to the Chisos Basin." The most striking feature of visitor use, said Evans, was that "during the summer months, up to 80 percent of park visitors go to the Basin." He suggested to NPS officials that "with improved facilities there we can expect that nearly all visitors will go to the Basin in the future." Thus Big Bend needed to improve roadside interpretation, which Evans hoped would include self-guided tours of the main roads and trails. The park also could expand its programs of guided walks, campfire talks, and museum exhibits. Evans also encouraged more use of the Rio Grande Village, which he envisioned with "overnight accommodations, [a] dining room, and saddle horses" to augment the existing campground, picnic area, and service station. "Interpretation in the Rio Grande Village," wrote the chief naturalist, "will emphasize the biology of the river floodplain and the river." Evans also called upon NPS officials to construct at the river's edge "a campfire circle with a seating capacity of about 250." He predicted that ""when proposed facilities are complete, and naturalists become available, campfire programs will be conducted seven nights a week through at least nine months of the year." Should the NPS add "trailer facilities and air-conditioned accommodations," the park could anticipate a twelve-month schedule of activities in the vicinity of the old Daniels ranch and the mining community of Boquillas. [2]

At the west end of the park, said Evans, the NPS should consider expansion of visitor services at the old Army compound of Castolon and the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon. "Plans for the future," he wrote in 1965, "include sleeping and dining facilities, saddle horses, campgrounds, trailer facilities, and picnic areas." NPS staff could explain to visitors "United States Cavalry operations during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, and of an isolated Mexican-border trading and ranching center." Evans suggested that the park service use the Alvino residence to "illustrate the way of life on an Mexican border farm." The interpretation could include "a small demonstration garden of vegetables and melons" growing next to the house. Then in a statement filled with irony, the chief naturalists noted that "the candelilla wax processing system will be restored nearby." Museum exhibits to be housed in the old Castolon store also would have on display candelilla wax, which Evans characterized as "an important means of livelihood." [3]

The chief naturalist's plans for interpreting Big Bend's story represented the peak of the "development" phase at the park. Within two years, NPS resource planner David J. Jones would come to Big Bend to gauge the future of resource planning, and comment on the challenge that facilities expansion posed. "The establishment of Big Bend as a National Park has not entirely solved the problem of consumptive use," claimed Jones in a 1967 natural sciences research plan. "Recreation has replaced the previous forms of land use," he suggested, "but it, too, places demands upon natural resources." In Jones's mind, "three developmental determinants established long ago are critical factors." These he labeled as "encouraging a highway in Mexico to connect with the park ending at Boquillas; concentrating visitor-use facilities in the Chisos Basin; [and] developing visitor-use facilities at Rio Grande Village and Castolon to avoid over-concentration of visitors in the Chisos Basin during the heavy travel season." The NPS faced "a crucial problem . . . [in] making the decisions now that will control how we accommodate the one million visitors anticipated annually some 60 to 100 years from now." This would include "providing them [with] an enjoyable and quality park experience with minimum impact upon the biological and esthetic well-being of the land." [4]

While not mentioning the work of Mission 66 in the park, Jones nonetheless asked: "Is it wiser to concentrate in one large developed area the principal food service and overnight accommodations offered visitors by the concessioner, and government employee housing and administration facilities?" These he attributed to "the scheme envisioned in the master plan team study dated February 1965." Instead, wrote Jones, "is it better to have what amounts to four highly developed areas of the park: one in the mountains; one on the upper bajada; and two at the river, as proposed by a different study team plan dated June 1965." The NPS resource planner recognized the need to balance visitor demands and "the biological well-being of the park." Equally challenging was Jones's question: "Which [option] is more feasible to finance, is the least costly to operate, and is the best investment for the concessionaire?" NPS planners would need to determine "adequate water supply, disposal of sewage, garbage, and trash, space enough to expand accommodations as the need arises, ready and free-flowing access to and egress from the major points of interest in the park (the Chisos Mountain Basin being a prime example)?" Jones declined to "review the validity of the basic development scheme which has prevailed for the past 20 years," preferring to ask: "How productive have our efforts to achieve this really been?" He then wondered: "Is it not possible that by the time such an investment becomes economically feasible the Mexicans will have developed acceptable high standard facilities at Boquillas as part of the Border Improvement Program?" [5]

For the NPS resource planner, the challenge included the thinking of the park service itself. "If restoration to a vignette of primitive America is to be attempted at Big Bend," wrote Jones, "who determines what was there in 1880 (the date proposed by the park staff)?" Jones could not ascertain "who knows what is 'natural' when one is dealing with an area supporting some vegetation and perhaps some fauna that are either relict species [of] that date from a more favorable environment of the past or are species just becoming established?" The planner worried that "a number of competent scientists, including biologists, who have experience with paleo-reconstruction in the Southwest doubt the wisdom of such an effort." Instead, Jones concluded, "it would be more practical and useful to manage Big Bend 'to assure a minimum of man-induced interference with the natural evolutionary process.'" This involved what Jones called "documenting the changes of the past to the degree possible, determining what is taking place today, and noting trends that indicate what changes might occur here in the future." The Southwest regional planning team should revisit its assumptions made in February 1965, and "utilize both normative and humanistic decision model theory, if possible, before selecting the appropriate development scheme to be followed in the future of Big Bend–if the goal is to produce a minimum of damage and deterioration to the natural resources the park was established to perpetuate." [6]

David Jones's comments reflected the growing discontent within scientific circles about environmental degradation and land-use patterns in national parks. To claim that the park service was harming the Big Bend ecosystem like the ranchers before them said a great deal about the turmoil and confusion awaiting the staff and management of the 1970s. A decade of planning ensued, with criticism and complaints about NPS strategies arising almost immediately. Three factors came together in park planning that generated much controversy: the 1964 wilderness act, the 1968 wild and scenic rivers act, and the 1969 national environmental protection act. All three measures would influence thinking about Big Bend, and would draw attention from landowners in the area, environmental activists far away, and NPS planners from Santa Fe to Washington.

Like every other federal agency involved in natural-resource issues, the NPS had to adjust its planning process after the passage of NEPA to solicit public commentary at open meetings. In January of 1972, a group out of Temple, Texas calling itself "Americans Backing Better Park Development" called upon the park service to consider their "Alternative to the Master Plan and Wilderness Proposal for Big Bend National Park." Bob Burleson, president of the association, echoed David Jones's cautions about the 1965 master planning strategies. The 1972 document, said Burleson, "would authorize projects that in the long run will result in over-development in the form of high-speed highways, excessive automobile and commercial traffic, an international river crossing to Mexico, and excessive water use and impact in the Chisos Mountains Basin." Burleson's association realized that "all parks cannot be left forever undeveloped, and that some segments of public pressure on the National Park Service will tend to call for increased development in the future." But the group warned that "over-development, in the long run, will be a much greater sin than under-development." [7]

The organization, which Burleson claimed had over 1,000 members in chapters throughout Texas and in Los Alamos, New Mexico, agreed with the NPS that "the Wilderness proposal is realistic and large enough to protect the most important values in the Park." Burleson called the "Chamber of Commerce-type groups" that opposed the plan "misguided." What they sought, claimed the association, "is an influx of automobile tourists, the 'pie in the sky' road link with Mexico, motels and campgrounds for the 'swelling millions' of tourists that they envision will contribute heavily to the Alpine-Marfa economy." Burleson's group believed that visitation would increase with "a really quality experience," given that "the beauty of the Big Bend Country lies in its mood of remoteness, of silence, of vast and untouched space, of its blend of desert and mountain wilderness." While criticizing the tone of the master plan as "vague," Burleson agreed with its goals "to reduce human impact in the Chisos basin, remove the horse concession to some other point in the park and to concentrate development in the future in the area of Panther Junction, Nugent Mountain and Rio Grande Village." But the "consensus" of the association was that "the proposed Master Plan will continue to allow excessive impact and development in the Chisos Basin, and that its emphasis on the proposed international park and bridge crossing into Mexico is highly dangerous to the long-term survival of the highest values of the Park." [8]

Writing some 40 years after the initial conversations with Mexico about the international park, Burleson and his group regarded the Muzquiz-Boquillas road as "the most dangerous proposition that Big Bend National Park will ever have to face, exceeding in gravity even the anticipated large increases in automobile visitation to the Park from the United States of America." The road was "fraught with such danger to the park," said Burleson, that "we were shocked by the great emphasis placed upon this proposal in the Master Plan and by the enthusiasm with which the Park Service has embraced a proposal that threatens the ultimate destruction of the most valuable features of the Park." Burleson warned that "the National Park Service was not created as an instrument of foreign policy, and is ill-suited to the role." Unaware of the four decades of negotiations over the international park, the association claimed that "anyone acquainted with the history of Mexico and its present problems of population growth vs. economic growth will at once recognize the dangers of mixing Big Bend National Park with foreign policy." Burleson argued that "the Mexican government is obliged by political expediency to remain committed to The Revolution, one of the cardinal tenets of which is that the rural landholdings should be broken up and re-distributed to the former peons." This had given rise to "the Ejido Program, under which tracts of land are worked cooperatively, almost communally, both for livestock grazing and for row-crop agriculture." The ejidos created near Boquillas and Santa Elena, claimed Burleson, included "a vast grassland area, and an important source of commercial timber, as well as active mines." The association president warned that "all of these are local economic interests which will have to be reckoned with by the Mexican government if it should ever actually be serious about an international park." [9]

Burleson then noted the policies of the Mexican government in the 1960s to shift its population from the central valleys to the northern border. "The lack of money, jobs and space in Mexico," wrote Burleson, "and the ease with which the border is illegally crossed and employment obtained, has caused tremendous buildups of population in Mexican cities along the border where international crossings are maintained and cities have grown up." Given these realities, the association claimed that "Mexico has no genuine interest in withdrawing lands from economic use and creating on its soil a 'national park' of the type that we have in Big Bend." Burleson believed that "economic self-interest" tied the chambers of commerce in west Texas to Mexico's plan for a highway to Boquillas. Since "the Mexican government cannot be expected to take away the property and livelihood of the local miners, ejido-dwellers, and ranchers without gaining for the area some economic benefits," Burleson claimed that "this must come from the proposed commercial uses of the new road and river crossing." He warned that "the population of Boquillas can be expected to increase perhaps a thousand-fold in the event that there is an automobile linkup and river crossing." "Who wants a Villa Acuna across from Rio Grande Village," asked Burleson, "among the tourist traps and vice parlors?" Instead, wrote the association president, the NPS "should stick to its business of providing quality park experiences within our own national park system, and leave the economic development of northern Mexico to the Mexican government." The park service would do better to encourage development at the La Linda bridge-crossing outside park boundaries. The local economy would not suffer, and "both tourism and commercial use would be greater on such a road . . . because it would be less restricted." [10]

Turning their attention to the Chisos Basin, Burleson's group highlighted the impact studies conducted there for the NPS by Dr. Paul Whitson. He had concluded that "the upward spread of desert vegetation and the drain on limited water resources" faced any plans for expansion of visitor services. Burleson found particularly offensive the master plan's call for "new structures for the private personal gain and benefit of National Park Concessions, Inc." Whitson and others had found that "pollution problems are becoming more pressing in the Basin with the advent of new developments and increased overnight use by staff and tourists." Big Bend had but two percent of its acreage devoted to woodlands, and Burleson saw "no excuse or justification for further concentration of the major human use and impact on the smallest and most fragile part of the Park environment." The 1972 draft master plan called for a multi-story motel unit in the upper Basin, a new interpretative-contact station in the upper Basin, new employee housing and storage areas near the Chisos Remuda location, a new house for the NPCI concession manager, and a new gas station-store and ranger station in the lower Basin. Burleson wanted NPCI to build any new motel units at Panther Junction, Rio Grande Village, "or elsewhere in the developed areas outside the mountains." He also called for retention of the CCC-vintage "Dallas huts," with their "common shower houses and toilets." Should these be replaced with more modern accommodations, "the water usage by overnight guests rises in direct proportion to the availability and ease with which water can be used." Aesthetics, ironically enough, added to the appeal of the Dallas huts for Burleson and his association. "The Dallas huts, as old as they are," he wrote, "at least blend with the landscape and are not readily visible from a distance, as from the trails to the South Rim, etc." [11]

If the park were to limit expansion of visitor service in the Chisos Basin, argued the association, it also should follow the master plan's recommendation to remove the horse concession. "The horses are daily contributing to the ruin of the Chisos Mountains trail system," wrote Burleson, "and to the pollution of the Basin with fecal matter and exotic plants." The association conceded that visitors liked the horse concession, and suggested one of three options for relocation: Rio Grande Village, Castolon, or "the proposed campground are near Nugent Mountain." Burleson preferred the latter site, as it was "at an elevation high enough to make summertime riding possible." He admitted that "the horses will still do some trailside grazing and damage to the new trails." Yet Burleson believed that "the grassland slopes around Nugent Mountain are more stable than the woodlands in the Chisos, and comprise a much greater percentage of the land area of the Park than do the woodlands." Burleson called this "the top priority" for the NPS, and asked that it be accomplished within two to three years. [12]

If the association's advice were taken, said Burleson, within a generation all visitor facilities and NPS operations in the Chisos Basin would be gone. The Nugent Mountain area, which Burleson suggested could be built "west of the Boquillas Road and 1/2 mile below the K-Bar Road," would include the Chisos Remuda, a campground, amphitheatre, and ranger-interpretative station. NPCI also should be encouraged to locate a service station, grocery store, and trailer court at Nugent Mountain. "Ample water has been demonstrated in this area," wrote Burleson, "and no natural water sources such as springs are involved." By 1995, the visitor would find in the Chisos Basin a landscape not unlike that encountered by the CCC when its first work crews began the task of creating Texas's first national park. [13]

The Burleson study of Big Bend's future had elements of the larger planning process that the NPS faced throughout the decade of the 1970s. By January of 1973, the park service had decided to request wilderness protection for 523,800 acres of the park (nearly three-quarters of the park's land base). Some 245,000 visitors had come to Big Bend in 1971, but the vast majority had not ventured into areas that the park service outlined in its wilderness proposal. The area most utilized, the Chisos Mountains, should be included (a total of 141,000 acres), with twelve additional sections of the park comprising the request for wilderness designation (each needing at least 5,000 acres to qualify). At public meetings held in Alpine, a group calling itself the "National Park Development Committee, Inc., wanted no action taken on the wilderness proposal, and asked that any future designation expire within seven years. The "Lone Star Chapter" of the Sierra Club, by contrast, joined with the Wilderness Society and the Fort Worth chapter of the Audobon Society to petition the NPS to expand wilderness in Big Bend to 669,000 acres (almost 95 percent of the park). The Texas Highway Department, speaking through its office of travel development, vigorously opposed the master plan. "The wording of the restrictions," wrote Richard H. Pierce of the highway department, "makes it abundantly clear that 74 percent of Big Bend National Park will be placed off limits for casual family travelers." This included "the station wagon family with youngsters, who are neither inclined nor equipped for cross-country hiking and dry-camp survival." Also prohibited would be "the senior citizens who travel so extensively, but are physically incapable of the rigors of back-packing across mountain and desert." The Texas highway department found most disturbing the clause in the 1964 wilderness act that would "apparently make impossible any future expansion or development of normal tourist facilities in that Wilderness Area, without a special rescinding act by Congress." [14]

Public debate about the master planning process for Big Bend led NPS officials in March 1973 to send another team to assess the interpretative needs of the park. Aram Mardirosian and Bill Ingersoll of the NPS's Denver Service Center went to Big Bend with Bill Brown of SWR, and discussed the issues surrounding the master plan with park staff. The team tried to reconcile the vision of park use outlined by Doug Evans in the mid-1960s with that of the environmentally conscious planning of a decade later. While no thorough assessment had been made of the types of visitors to Big Bend, the team identified "Texans and other southwesterners" as the primary users of the park. Their desire for high-altitude recreation in the summer would require "stimulation to explore the desert more carefully," wrote the review team. The same could be said of other groups like senior citizens, young people seeking solitude, and families coming at other times of the year like winter and spring holidays. Responding to the concerns of the early 1970s created by the "energy crisis," the review team conceded that their proposals "are based on the assumption that visitors will continue to explore Big Bend in private cars." The team believed that "ten years from now, the private-car, family-group type of visitor may be a rarity." In their place, "charter-bus tour groups may be the norm, with in-park bus tours the principal patterns." To meet that exigency, the NPS review team suggested that "wayside exhibits would have to accommodate to this, or they might be dispensed with in favor of on-bus personal and audio interpretation." [15]

The DSC review team also commented at some length on the park's distinctive historical resources, and noted the need for more recognition of the cultural heritage of the Big Bend country. The team liked what it found at the Castolon compound, especially the presence in the grocery store of historical detail that "gives the place the look of an old country store." The team called upon park officials to provide "formal furnishing plans" at Castolon, as "Big Bend is a marginal area, and there are virtually no social histories of that time and place." They believed that "the first decades of the 20th century are just long enough ago so that furnishings are beginning to interest collectors." Then the team commented at length on the invisibility of Mexican culture at the compound. "Big Bend is curiously free of Mexican food," wrote the reviewers, "although there is hardly any place in the park where you can't see Mexico." They suggested that "a small Mexican kitchen in the other wing of the [Garlick] house could sell tacos and burritos or something similar." The team believed that "interpretively, the Mexican kitchen would underscore the fact that Big Bend is not as overwhelmingly Anglo as the visitors are, [and] that the ecology of the Chihuahuan Desert ignores the international boundary." Their plan for a Mexican restaurant "would certainly not be aggressively modern, but then it wouldn't be historically pure either, just a comfortable sort of bridge across the river, linking the past and the present." In like manner, concluded the review team, the park needed "special salvage and documentation of cast off debris at places like Glenn Springs and Mariscal Mine," as well as "the need for more emphasis on oral history." The team noted that these tasks "are admittedly low priority in the operational context," but believed that they would "produce valuable interpretive data–and the things and the people involved are fading away fast." [16]

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003