Big Bend
Administrative History
NPS Logo

"What a Beautiful Laboratory Big Bend Was!": Resource Protection and Management At Big Bend National Park, 1944-200

The famed environmental writer, Edward Abbey, found special satisfaction in visiting the wonders of Big Bend National Park. A former seasonal ranger at Arches National Park in southeastern Utah, the controversial and opinionated author of such works as Desert Solitaire (1968) and The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), recalled in the late 1970s that "half the pleasure of a visit to Big Bend National Park . . . lies in the advance upon the object of desire." Calling the Chisos Mountains "a castled fortification of Wagnerian gods," Abbey also likened them to "an emerald isle in a red sea." He appreciated as well the cultural heritage of this rugged land, remarking that "we have good reason to think of frontier history as we drive steadily toward the looming mass of the Chisos Mountains." Then in a statement that echoed his love of undeveloped landscapes, Abbey declared: "I'd rather be broke down and lost in the wilds of Big Bend, any day, than wake up some morning in a penthouse suite high above the megalomania of Dallas or Houston." The author then promised the readers of One Life at a Time, Please (1988): "We will return, someday, and when we do the gritty splendor and the complicated grandeur of Big Bend will still be here." [1]

The process of resource protection and interpretation that so impressed Edward Abbey in the 1970s had followed a route that mirrored the bend in the Rio Grande from which the park received its name. Big Bend witnessed all of the policy changes implemented by the NPS in the half-century after World War II, and then reflected its own distinctive location in one of the most arid and isolated quarters of North America. Superintendents and their staffs from Ross Maxwell in the 1940s to Jose Cisneros in the 1990s had to reconcile visitor expectations, park needs, budget constraints, changes in scientific research, and NPS policy directives that shifted from the promotion of scenery to the championing of ecology to the rehabilitation of cultural landscapes. By the turn of the twenty-first century, Big Bend could claim a place in the larger park service system as a window on the fascinating and complex world of resource management every bit as important as parks with far greater visitation and public profiles.

For NPS historian Richard Sellars, the first years after World War II presented the park service with a critical challenge. "Park development," wrote Sellars in 1997, "was to be carried out with a scientific understanding of natural resources to help ensure their preservation." Unfortunately, "documented needs and statements of good intentions notwithstanding, the Park Service made no real increases in its biological program during the [Newton] Drury administration [1940-1951]." This Sellars attributed to the parsimony of conservative Congresses, the intrusion of war in Asia (the Korean conflict), and public use of the nation's premier parks at record rates. Recreation, especially for a war-weary nation just embarking upon the "baby boom" of the 1950s and early 1960s, dictated strategies for recreation rather than science, and the removal of "eyesores" and "hazards" from parks like Big Bend. [2]

During the tenure of Ross Maxwell as superintendent of Big Bend (1944-1952), the geologist had to devote the bulk of his energies to the creation of park infrastructure. Among his early staff hires was Harold Schaafsma, whose son Curtis Schaafsma recalled in a 1996 interview the summers that he spent with his father in the Big Bend country (1948-1952). "Harold was the de facto naturalist," Curtis told an interviewer, even though he had no scientific training or experience as an interpreter. Schaafsma would give campfire talks in the Chisos Basin nightly that drew substantial crowds (there being few other options for entertainment). He also "would travel to surrounding towns to sell postcards and window decals of Big Bend;" a source of income that augmented his modest ranger's salary. Curtis Schaafsma remembered in particular the time that the famed nature photographer Ansel Adams visited Big Bend (1947), with Harold Schaafsma serving as his personal guide. "Harold shared that late 1940s romantic vision of protecting pristine nature," said his son five decades later; a perspective that Adams promoted in books, calendars, and brochures about the wonders of the national parks. [3]

In order to fulfill this vision, the park service and superintendent Maxwell could not devote much attention to scientific research. Instead, they would remove old structures from the landscape that marred the beauty and/or starkness that evoked such a vision of serenity and escape. In 1951, architect Kenneth Saunders advised NPS director Conrad Wirth that the park service could not afford the cost of rehabilitation of the many facilities at parks like Big Bend that the NPS had inherited. Reductions in the budget for park maintenance during the Korean conflict further convinced Saunders of the merits of this policy. Thus Maxwell set out to remove such historic sites as Glenn Springs, and the famed bathhouses at Hot Springs. The park's roads and trails crew, recalled longtime maintenance worker Francisco Grano, would be sent out to remove these buildings. "Waddy Burnham's house [at Government Spring] was very nice," said Grano, "but it was torn down." Local ranchers like Hallie Stillwell long remembered with bitterness this destruction of their memories. Yet Reece Sholley McNatt, widow of chief ranger George Sholley, would recall in 1996 that "the Hot Springs bath house had terrible sanitation." Its proprietor, Maggie Smith, "didn't have a permit," said McNatt, "and didn't keep the tubs clean." Thus "the old buildings had to be destroyed, and Maggie was crosswise with the NPS over this and other issues." [4]

Other resource issues for Maxwell and his staff included the eradication of feral stock to ensure the restoration of a pristine wilderness. Early rangers like Bob Smith, Joe Rumburg, and Stan Sprecher recalled five decades after their employment at Big Bend that they would be sent out by Maxwell to hunt and shoot wild burros and horses. At the same time, hunters would enter the park illegally to shoot wild game, even as the park hired its own hunters to remove predators like mountain lions. Henry "Hank" Schmidt, who came to the park in 1957 as assistant superintendent under George Miller (1956-1960), recalled that "predators would be chased into the park and killed." Lions were plentiful, Schmidt told an interviewer in 1996, and "one woman was pulled off a horse in the Chisos Basin on a day ride by a lion." Restoration of the grasslands denuded in the 1930s and 1940s by overgrazing also occupied much of the staff's time under Maxwell, with the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (SCS) arriving at Big Bend in 1951 to study this issue. But the area along the River Road suffered because the NPS allowed fluorspar mining to proceed in Terlingua and Boquillas to provide raw materials to the steel industry during the Korean war. The park service charged "user fees" to the trucking companies, remembered Roy Pitcock, owner with his brother Louis of the Rosillos Ranch within the boundaries of the park. The park also had purchased soil and water from "Tiny" Phillips, the previous owner of the Rosillos Ranch, for the construction of U.S. Highway 385 from Persimmon Gap to Panther Junction. [5]

When Lemuel "Lon" Garrison succeeded Ross Maxwell as superintendent of Big Bend, the first thing that he noticed in 1952 was the tragedy of decades of overuse. "We had not done right by this land," Garrison would write 36 years later in his memoir, The Making of a Ranger: Forty Years with the National Parks (1988), "but we could give it another chance and it would bloom again in the sense that it would fulfill its appropriate role in the series of microcosms of which our world is made." Garrison, who had come to Big Bend from a six-year tour as assistant superintendent at Grand Canyon National Park, marveled much like Edward Abbey a generation later: "What a beautiful laboratory Big Bend was!" His new park was "a land of strong beauty — often savage and always imposing." Big Bend was still in the midst of "a ten-year drought period" in which "two-hundred-year-old oak trees had died." Garrison also recalled that "beautiful Green Gulch had had one year of recovery from the 2,000 sheep 'Waddy' Burnham was reported to have held there." Tornillo Creek "also showed signs of this abuse," as "it had been beaten down fifty years earlier." Speaking of the historic road network in the park, Garrison claimed that "there had been hundreds of horses, mules, or burros hitched to freight wagons." All of these "had lived off the native vegetation, devastating a strip about five miles wide." [6]

What impressed Garrison as much as the natural resources of Big Bend was the human history still evident in its structures and sites. Gilberto Luna "survived eleven wives, sired thirty children, and was in his late nineties when he finally moved in with his grandchildren in Fort Stockton." The superintendent "had a suggestion of the extent of the farm populations from ruins of old adobes, melted into the ground from which they had been fashioned." One example was "an undated church ruin two miles below Gilberto's home," which "revealed occasional mounds of earth and rock marked by crude and anonymous, obviously human, graves." Garrison also remembered conversations with Bob Pulliam, "owner of the Mariscal Mine down in the deepest part of the park near the Rio Grande." Pulliam, for whose family Pulliam Peak was named, told the superintendent that "park acquisition of the [Mariscal] property included a commitment that he could recover all mining machinery or materials on site." By the time that Garrison had visited the mine, "much of the mining equipment had really vanished, probably into Mexico." [7]

By the mid-1950s, resource management at Big Bend faced the same dilemmas as other parks: the need for more scientific research, the growing visitation of a booming population (both nationwide and in the "Sunbelt"), and the lack of economic support from Congress. Russ Dickenson, a future director of the NPS (1980-1985), came to Big Bend in 1955 to spend a year as its chief ranger. He noted in a 1997 interview that he shared Lon Garrison's sense of wonder at the beauty and mystery of Big Bend. Before traveling to his assignment, Dickenson had visited in Washington with NPS director Conrad Wirth, who regaled Dickenson with tales of his experiences at Big Bend in the 1930s. Once there, Dickenson worked with chief interpreter Harold Broderick to create new programs for visitors. One feature that Dickenson recalled over 40 years later was the acquisition of an old house from a nearby ranch. He and Broderick brought the large, one-room structure to the Chisos campground, where it could seat 25 to 30 people for evening talks, or serve as a shelter in inclement weather. Dickenson also recalled that the prime visitation period in the 1950s coincided with school vacations (May through September). "Visitors were interested in the desert," noted Dickenson, and one of his tasks as chief ranger was to advise new employees "to acquaint themselves with the desert." Every six to seven years, Big Bend witnessed "the giant blossoms of cacti," and Dickenson was fortunate in 1955 to be present for this event. The chief ranger concluded upon his departure the following year that "Big Bend was a compression of ten years of experience into one," and later would consider it "the biggest small park in the NPS system" for its limited visitation, vast acreage, and many natural and cultural resources. [8]

Big Bend in the mid-1950s may have had this effect on a future park service director, but its resource management programs also took second place to the massive infrastructure initiative known as MISSION 66. Richard Sellars wrote with some irony that Lon Garrison would leave Big Bend in 1954 to become "the first chairman of the Mission 66 Steering Committee." The former Big Bend superintendent "recalled that the committee was instructed to 'dream up a contemporary National Park Service,' in effect, and to prepare the parks for an estimated 80 million visitors by 1966." Sellars would remark 50 years after the implementation of MISSION 66 that the program showed "evidence [of] the power that the construction and development professions had attained within the Service, epitomized by the influence of the landscape architects." By comparison, scientific research (never promoted heavily, according to Sellars) yet again waited for its turn in the NPS hierarchy of policies. [9]

For Big Bend, the MISSION 66 work brought much-needed improvement to visitor services and staff facilities. But the park also faced problems of visitor use, most obvious in the late 1950s with the celebrated media coverage of the death of Clifford White. Chuck McCurdy, hired in 1957 as the district ranger for the Maverick district on the park's west side, recalled four decades later how newspapers as far away as Denver sent reporters to cover the search for White and his wife, whom McCurdy called "a secretary for an oil company executive" from Houston. McCurdy and his chief ranger, Monte Fitch, spoke on different occasions in the late 1990s about the rescue mission as if it had just happened. The Whites had stayed in the Chisos Basin, and had hiked the Lost Mine Trail, said Fitch. Then the couple approached the park's gas station attendant to borrow a five-gallon can of gasoline, in the words of Fitch, "to go on a tour." McCurdy recalled seeing them drive by him on the park's west side carrying ocotillo plants in their station wagon. When he stopped them to inquire about the origins of the cacti, Clifford White claimed that "they got them outside the park," and that "they had been told they could harvest on unfenced land." Even though the Whites had "an air-conditioned car," McCurdy warned them of overheating in the intense desert sun. [10]

What happened next surprised even park rangers accustomed to lost visitors. For the next eight to nine days, said McCurdy and Fitch, the staff (already stretched thin by summertime visitation and its demands) scoured the southern reaches of Big Bend in search of the Whites. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) joined the rescue mission, believing that Mrs. White had gone to the river and drowned. More prosaically, Clifford White had driven their car to the Castolon site, passing through a barrier warning of erosion that had closed the River Road. "Big Bend can put someone in trouble right away," Fitch remarked in 1997, noting that "the temperature at Maverick Ranger Station was 122 degrees while the White search was underway." The NPS staff and federal agents confronted temperatures "so hot that horses died and planes couldn't fly in the heat." The park hired Mexican trackers to aid in the search, and Fitch recalled that they "only wanted ice cream to eat." Further complicating matters were the curious visitors who had come to Big Bend "to see the disaster." Finally the searchers came upon White's body, finding him near the Mariscal Mine where he had walked five miles from his abandoned vehicle. His wife had waited in the vehicle for several hours, then hiked towards the Chisos Mountains, where she found a cave with water. McCurdy recalled that "she ate prickly pear, and got the needles on her chest and mouth." [11]

The power of nature at Big Bend ironically hampered the park's efforts in the 1960s to accommodate the new directives of Interior secretary Stewart Udall. Appointed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, and continuing in that capacity under President Lyndon B. Johnson, Udall wanted America's parks to accept ever more visitors and add lands to their boundaries. Superintendents like Stanley Joseph (1960-1963), Perry Brown (1963-1969), and Luther Peterson (1969-1971), would watch as the nation created dozens of new park units under NPS director George Hartzog. In addition, the country witnessed a shift of values prompted by the environmental movement, and capped by passage in 1964 of the Wilderness Act. The goal was to set aside lands for future public enjoyment undamaged by human use. Doug Evans, who replaced Howard Broderick in 1961 as chief naturalist, wrote the first interpretative prospectus for Big Bend, and recalled in 1996 how his work at the park prepared the way for additional preservation of natural resources. In 1956, said Evans, Broderick had "pioneered the program of plants, and also got the Big Bend Natural History Association going." From this base, Evans in his five-year tenure as chief naturalist could develop "contact points at each major area of the park." In addition, Evans "created a small amphitheatre, and also did exhibits . . . and nature trails." [12]

In retrospect, the realities of the Big Bend landscape fit perfectly the goals of Udall and other champions of natural beauty and ecology. In April 1966, the Interior secretary accompanied Lady Bird Johnson on a one-day raft trip through Mariscal Canyon on the Rio Grande; a visit designed, said Doug Evans, to focus national attention on wilderness preservation. Joined by some 90 reporters and photographers, the First Lady came to the Marfa air station on April 2 to spend three days in west Texas, one of which would be devoted to Big Bend. El Paso Natural Gas Company paid the costs of her visit, recalled Evans, who drove to Marfa to escort Lady Bird, Udall, and NPS director George Hartzog to the park. "A cottage in the Chisos was 'redone' for her," Evans remembered, and the raft trip included "35 NPS trainees from the Albright center [at the Grand Canyon] in twelve Navy rafts." Lady Bird "was in the lead boat," said Evans, who paddled for her and Udall, and "she asked to be pulled ahead of the press" to gain some privacy. Evans mused that "the media were 'fish out of water,'" with several rafts capsizing on the ten-mile journey from Talley Ranch to Solis. Garner Hanson, president of National Park Concessioners, Inc. (NPCI), recalled in 1997 how his organization catered the event, and how superintendent Perry Brown "saw the visit as a challenge to preservation." Several Greyhound motor coaches traveled down the rutted dirt road to the Talley "put-in," while Lady Bird's press secretary, Liz Carpenter, wanted a "big bonfire" at the Chisos campground for effect. That evening, recalled Evans, NPCI arranged to have "a fiesta for her at the Rio Grande Village, complete with recorded coyote sounds." All of this graced the nightly television news, and the headlines of the nation's newspapers, not unlike the coverage generated three decades earlier when Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb promoted Big Bend's charm and peril in his own river trip through Santa Elena Canyon. [13]

One of the ironies of the visit in 1966 by Lady Bird Johnson was its focus upon the need for more wilderness designations in the United States. Big Bend appeared to the reporters covering the raft trip to be nothing but wilderness, as several interviewees recalled the difficulties of getting film footage out of the canyon area each day for shipment to the television networks. Yet 1966 also represented another defining moment for resource management within the NPS and other federal organizations: passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). This required public agencies to identify and research the historic significance of structures and neighborhoods, with the goal being protection via listing on the National Register of Historic Places. A young graduate student in history in the 1960s at Texas Tech University, Jerry Rogers, would later become director of the National Landmarks program of the NPS in Washington. In a 1997 interview, Rogers (a native of west Texas and the field superintendent at that time of the NPS's Southwest Support Office in Santa Fe), recalled how Big Bend National Park had fared in matters of cultural resource management before and after passage of the NHPA. "Big Bend was typical of other great scenic national parks," Rogers noted, in that "drawing visitors was more important." For Big Bend, "the great crime was bulldozing San Vicente," a small community of Mexican people on the United States side of the Rio Grande. The legacy of this and other efforts to remove evidence of human habitation at Big Bend bothered Rogers and Curtis Tunnell, director of the state of Texas's office of historic preservation (SHPO). Tunnell complained in public meetings that "the National Park Service gave lip service to archaeological resources [at Big Bend]," said Rogers. It helped Big Bend little that Rogers's supervisor, NPS director George Hartzog, created the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (OAHP). "Then the battle of George Wright and the 1930s biologists to gain equal status with scenery recurred with cultural resource management." [14]

With little chance for extensive work on Big Bend's remaining historic structures, staff time and money in the late 1960s and early 1970s went toward completion of surveys for wilderness designations. Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, Congress had required the park service and other federal resource agencies to submit such designations within ten years. Areas of 5,000 acres or more that had not been opened to public use (the "roadless areas" concept) would be sent to NPS headquarters for adoption into the wilderness program. Richard Sellars noted that "in part because of the opposition of local congressional members to a changing national political climate [the return of conservative leadership under the Nixon and Ford administrations], several large parks containing huge tracts of de facto wilderness never gained the added protection of the Wilderness Act." Among these were "Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Big Bend, in addition to Great Smoky Mountains." Interior secretary Udall had asked the NPS "to analyze specific wildlife management issues by placing the concerns in a broad ecological and philosophical context." The "Leopold Report" of 1963 that had prompted this initiative, said Sellars, "urged that scientific research 'form the basis for all management programs' and that every phase of management come under the 'full jurisdiction of biologically trained personnel of the Park Service.'" [15]

This emphasis on natural resource management came at the same time that other congressional initiatives affected NPS policy system-wide. By 1969 the parks had come under the aegis of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), with its calls for more public involvement in the planning and development process on federal lands (including discussion of "no-build" alternatives). In quick succession the nation witnessed in 1970 the first "Earth Day," followed by formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to monitor the ecological health of the nation's land, air and water resources. The Clean Water Act of 1972 further strengthened the role of government oversight of natural resources, as did the Clean Air Act. Park management from 1970 forward would require attention to these features, not to mention the training, funding, and awareness that these required of park staff. Especially problematic for Big Bend would be the promotion of the concept first articulated in the Leopold Report to restore the "ecological scene" to parks; a reference that Sellars called "the conditions at the time of the first European contact." [16]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>
Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003