Big Bend
Administrative History
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From Good Neighbors to Armed Camps: Mexico, the United States, and Big Bend National Park, 1944-1980 (continued)

Bill Wendt would recall his exposure to the river in 1959 as the Santa Elena sub-district ranger as the start of a career in international park affairs. Upon his arrival at Big Bend, Rod Broyles issued Wendt "a pistol and ammo without law enforcement training." He then acquired along the border what he called "campesino Spanish"; a skill that would serve him well while on duty. "Santa Elena," recalled Wendt in 1996, "was part of the 'ejido system' of colonizing empty areas of Mexico." He realized that "there was just enough land to make farming pay." His duties included "a lot of first aid," as well as patrol with Mexican customs officers "who were rotated out every sixteen days." "Fight victims" received medical care at the Santa Elena sub-district, and Wendt remembered repairing "a Mexican customs official who had shot off his own finger in target practice." "Law enforcement at Santa Elena was lonely," Wendt remembered. He worked with the Greene brothers on river patrols, where "they shot and burned trespass animals in the hoof-and-mouth season." Wendt faced the same issues as his predecessors with candelilla wax. "There was a lot of candelilla trade in the park," he noted, "and it generated cash money." Wendt came to realize that "it is an individual decision by staff to work with the border," and that he had to resolve international issues with little guidance from park administration. [19]

The border that Stan Joseph encountered in his three-year tour as superintendent (1960-1963) reflected two decades of NPS efforts to control trespass stock grazing and candelilla production (both legal before 1944). In a 1996 interview, Joseph would remember that on his arrival "Hugh White [mayor of Alpine and owner of a motel] and others introduced [him] to Glen Garrett of the Texas Governor's Good Neighbor Commission." This group had formed when "lodging and accommodations were denied to Mexicans." While this gesture indicated goodwill among local merchants, "the peace park idea had quieted" by 1960. Whatever discussions had existed in the 1950s to mimic the Glacier-Waterton international peace park would not return for another generation. Local personalities like Paul Forschheimer "wanted a joint educational program between Big Bend and Mexico," recalled Joseph, while the venerable rancher Hallie Stillwell "said that the Hot Springs had to be restored." Then Joseph accidentally learned of the scale and scope of the candelilla wax controversy while visiting with Jim Casner in his automobile dealership. "Casner Motor Company supplied sulphuric acid for the candelilla trade," said Joseph, because "Mexico put a 100 percent tax on the export of candelilla." Mexicans would process the wax in the park, then haul it back by mule south of the border. The day that Joseph met with Casner, the Chevrolet dealer received a telephone call that a rail car in the Alpine railyards was leaking 3,000 gallons of sulphuric acid. Casner had to leave to oversee the cleanup. Joseph later learned that Casner had asked permission to harvest lechuguilla in the park, and had pursued the idea all the way to the office of Interior secretary Douglas McKay (himself a Chevrolet dealer from Oregon), but to no avail. [20]

Superintendent Joseph's exposure to the border itself would remain in his mind long after his departure. Early in his tour, Joseph and his wife crossed over to Boquillas on the tram. "Boquillas was a fluorspar center then," he recalled, and "smugglers crossed by signal lights." When local residents "got the flu, the NPS asked the Lions' Club of Alpine to give inoculations and blankets," as well as "polio shots." Joseph found that Santa Elena "was very similar, but was less developed [than Boquillas] with fewer bars, [and] no fluorspar mining." Santa Elena farmers "pumped water out of the Rio Grande into ditches," said Joseph, while they crossed the river to Castolon to collect their mail. "The contrast between Castolon and Santa Elena was stark;" a situation compounded by the presence nearby of Texas Rangers. The latter "questioned the NPS's jurisdiction in the 'wetback period' [a term for the 1950s concern for immigrants swimming the Rio Grande to avoid detection]." Joseph also recalled that "smuggling was known," and that the Rangers "felt that they had to use force to stop the well-armed mule trains." [21]

Stan Joseph's assessment of the border's role in park operations held true until the end of the 1960s, when the U.S. Congress in 1968 passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. While it would be another decade before the Rio Grande flowing through Big Bend would receive such a designation, the interest in river use by rafters gained momentum with publicity surrounding Lady Bird Johnson's 1966 trip. By decade's end, Jim Milburn, then the director of Big Bend's concessions for NPCI, would join with Glenn Pepper on one of his first float trips on the Rio Grande. Milburn, eventually to become in the late 1990s president of NPCI, recalled in a 1997 interview that Pepper "had an old school bus, and filled his rafts with propane tanks." When Milburn first came to Big Bend in 1963, he saw that "there was no volume of river traffic." Hindering this activity was the fact that "access to the river was bad." Then the rise of environmental consciousness, and the initiative to create protected wilderness areas in the United States, gave devotees of river rafting more reason to promote wild-and-scenic status for Big Bend in the 1970s. Yet that decade also witnessed what might be called the low point of border relations, with the rise of narcotics traffic, more incidents of trespass stock and wax production, and ever-growing migration of Mexicans north of the river to seek employment. [22]

With no small sense of irony, NPCI president Garner Hanson recalled in a 1997 interview that the decade of the 1970s witnessed the apogee of the "wild West" promotion. For NPCI, the park, and tourism officials in Brewster County, the "outlaw, bandido, and cowboy image drew visitors." Even the "wax trade and drugs . . . added to the mystique of Big Bend," recalled the longtime park concessions president. That perspective would attract and repel NPS employees, compounding the ongoing problems of managing a large park unit with limited resources. Rob Arnberger, superintendent at Big Bend from 1990 to 1994, noted in a 1996 interview that he first had traveled to the park in 1973 "on a narcotics detail." As a young law enforcement ranger (and the son of a prominent NPS official), Arnberger knew something of the cultural complexity and environmental challenge posed by Big Bend. Yet Arnberger, like so many of his park service peers in the 1970s, recalled how he thought that he had "entered the macho world of the border" to work with customs agents. "There had been shootings and drug smuggling," and Arnberger thought that he had returned to "the Texas Ranger days." Even though the United States remained ensnared in the conflict far away in Vietnam, Arnberger found at Big Bend "Army units that dug foxholes and waited for drug smugglers." In a way, Big Bend had reverted to the tension and ethnic distrust that had marked the border in the first decades of the twentieth century; only this time the improvement of transportation and communications masked the real issues of poverty, distance, isolation, and violence that would fester as the decade advanced. [23]

In 1971 the NPS selected as superintendent Joe Carithers, whose legacy at Big Bend would be the deterioration of park operations and the collapse of good-neighbor relations with Mexico. Until his removal by Southwest region director John Cook in 1978, Carithers oversaw a park that several of his staff remembered as riddled with "paranoia," in the words of Mike Fleming, who worked from 1981 to 1996 in the park's science and resources management division. Jim Liles, chief ranger at Big Bend from 1977 to 1983, recalled in 1997 that the border's effect upon Carithers was palpable. "Joe Carithers was consumed by the smuggling of drugs," said Liles, as he "had a propensity for the romantic aspects of Big Bend." The controversial superintendent "lived in the past," said Liles. He had "been with the last cavalry unit at Fort Riley [Kansas], and saw himself as 'an old cavalry guy.'" Liles learned that Carithers had admired "Big Bend's role in the 1916 Mexican Revolution, and the arrival of the air corps at Johnson's Ranch." In addition, the superintendent "liked the border raids and the Indian wars." While on duty, said Liles, "Joe was involved in a continual struggle with outlaws." Carithers "wore a gun, and got all excited when customs agents were 'on the chase.'" During his tenure at Big Bend, "Customs took over patrol functions, and hassled people at night." This behavior Liles attributed to the fact that "Joe had little park management experience." He had worked previously for the National Parks and Conservation Association, and then had been selected in the late 1960s by NPS director George Hartzog "to head the NPS's Operations Evaluation office in Washington." [24]

Getting a first-hand look at the level of tension in Big Bend during Carithers's administration was Steve Frye, hired in 1975 as a seasonal law enforcement ranger. Frye would serve one year at Big Bend, leaving for a career that led by the time of his 1996 interview to the position of chief ranger at Glacier National Park. He recalled that "the drug trade was significant in 1975, and the NPS did not solve the drug traffic." In Frye's estimation, "there was a hell of a lot of drugs coming across the border." Stationed at the Castolon ranger district, Frye would learn that "dealers 'leaked' information to rangers about mule trains crossing the river." They then "would cross at another site." While Frye and his fellow rangers made "some major busts of El Caminos [a popular Chevrolet automobile modified for use as a pickup truck] with false beds filled with marijuana and some cocaine," the real concern was that "dealers had 'central distribution points' in Mexico." In shipping their cargo north through the park, the dealers sometimes engaged in arguments "that spilled over into the park." Frye, like ranger Bob Smith a generation before him, would recall that he "drove a youth from Santa Elena to Alpine who had been shot in the stomach for cheating a dealer." His most dramatic moment in border law enforcement, however, occurred when he joined the other Castolon rangers to cross the river into Santa Elena. While there one day, Frye "saw the federales haul someone down the street and shoot him." Their explanation to the terrified citizens was that "he was a drug dealer." This prompted in Frye an "overriding concern" about "how cheap life was." He also recalled that "there was a reward in Mexico for a U.S. law enforcement officer's badge." The amount varied between $100 and $125, which Frye characterized as "a year's income" along the border. He was "not sure that the Mexican outlaws would carry out these threats," as the latter seemed like "a 'cat-and-mouse' game." [25]

In matters of resource protection on the border, Frye heard "a lot about candelilla theft," though he "never made any busts." Another resource utilized by local residents was what Frye called the "sale of bat guano." Finally, Frye engaged in the longstanding Big Bend tradition of impounding trespass stock along the river. He joined "the first round-up on horseback of Mexican cattle in years." The crew included "DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], Customs, and other agents." Frye, sitting in a coffee shop on a July day near the Canadian-U.S. boundary, still could recall vividly a border far to the south, where the search party "swept up the River Road area near Boquillas, and rounded up 100-125 horses, cows, and bulls." From there the NPS took the animals to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's corrals in Presidio, where local Mexican ranchers had to go to reclaim their stock. [26]

This degree of anxiety about drugs, contraband, and trespass stock contributed to a series of incidents in the mid-1970s at Big Bend that led in 1978 to Carithers' dismissal. Jim Liles was told of Carithers' "unwarranted fear . . . that the outside world was dangerous." Both Carithers and his assistant superintendent, Gene Balaz, "feared going down to the river, and into Mexico," said Liles. Rick LoBello, a young ranger in the late 1970s at Big Bend, heard from veteran rangers that "there was concern over terrorist attacks on NPS sites in 1976 during the Bicentennial [the 200th anniversary of America's creation]." LoBello and other staff received training to respond to such situations. Then a tragic incident marred the reputation of Big Bend even more: the shooting on the river of an undergraduate student from Sul Ross State College in a failed drug operation. Jim Liles and Frank Deckert would recall twenty years later that the young man had been arrested by law enforcement officials for making his own illegal purchase. Then the U.S. Customs Office enlisted his aid as part of his plea agreement to help capture drug dealers on the Rio Grande. One night, an undercover Customs agent and the college student, who had no experience in undercover activities, met with drug dealers along the road to San Vicente Crossing in the park. Earlier, other Customs agents had positioned themselves in the brush near the river. However, as the deal was being made, the agents near the river got into a gunfight with horseback riders who appeared in the dark. When the shooting began, in the words of Frank Deckert, "one of the drug dealers spooked, pulled out a pistol and shot and killed the Sul Ross student." Deckert the next day flew to the area by helicopter with Customs agents to take aerial photos as they recreated the crime scene. As if to add insult to injury, recalled Jim Liles, soon after this incident the popular late-night television talk-show host, Johnny Carson, invited onto his "Tonight Show" a "major drug-dealer-turned informant" to reveal secrets of his trade. "Carson asked if he would say where the border was the easiest to cross," Liles remembered, "and the informant said Big Bend National Park." Not surprisingly, said Liles, "all of this made Carithers paranoid." [27]

The superintendent's anxieties reached their peak when stories surfaced of an encounter on the river between NPS rangers (including Joe Carithers) and Mexican herders with trespass stock. Several park employees of the 1970s recalled how the superintendent believed, as Frank Deckert learned in October 1975 from chief ranger Al Trulock, that "the Mexicans had automatic weapons, and that a 'revolution' was imminent." Keith Yarborough echoed this observation, recalling in 1997 that "Carithers had hand grenades and automatic weapons" of his own. The superintendent also liked to travel around the park wearing a sidearm, and Gene Balaz, assistant superintendent at Big Bend from 1976-1978, mentioned a ranger known as "Two-Gun" because he "put extreme pressure on wax camps to run them off." Then Carithers' behavior attracted the attention of NPS officials in the Santa Fe regional office and headquarters in Washington, DC. John Cook, in 1976 an associate director of operations at headquarters, learned of "a shooting of Mexican nationals by Big Bend rangers," and he sent a Washington official to the park to investigate. The following year, when Cook became director of the NPS's Southwest Region (SWR), Carithers shocked SWR officials when he waded out into the Rio Grande, firing his pistol at Mexicans fleeing their trespass stock. Two decades later, Cook would recount in an interview how outraged he and his staff (including Hispanic officials like SWR personnel director Jose Cisneros) became. Cook sent his deputies to Big Bend to investigate, and then flew to the park with Cisneros in 1978, where they "removed all supervisory personnel except [chief naturalist] Frank Deckert [who would return to Big Bend in 2000 as park superintendent]." Carithers, whose career in the NPS (and his connection to Big Bend) had begun in the 1960s while working for the NPCA, was then offered a "desk job" in Santa Fe. He refused, and left the park service soon thereafter. [28]

For John Cook, the regional staff, and park employees, the departure of Joe Carithers did not end the difficulties that the border posed. Jose Cisneros, who would return to Big Bend in 1994 as its first Hispanic superintendent (and also the first native Texan to hold that position), remarked rather acidly that "Big Bend in the 1970s was a 'plantation,' with Anglo leadership and Mexican-American employees living in trailers." Cisneros agreed that "there were problems with drug interdiction," but believed that "Big Bend was a 'virtual armed camp.'" Rick LoBello remembered how Mexicans came to the park's visitors' center for their permisos (authorizations to cross the river), and how "this caused some tensions" with the Anglo staff. But for Gene Balaz, Carithers's temporary replacement as superintendent, stopping the drug traffic consumed most of his time. "Dope deals were being done in park campgrounds," recalled Balaz, while "backcountry roads and the River Road had been the route for carnuba wax smugglers." In addition, "marijuana came across [the river] on horseback." Since the Southwest region, in Balaz's estimation, "offered little support," his park "had to go it alone." Balaz coordinated an "interagency interdiction force," using officers from the newly established DEA, even though Balaz (a seasoned park ranger) considered them "primarily office people." He was surprised that "the Border Patrol did not want to deal with drugs," and thus accepted the Customs Service's offer of "eight officers . . . to put pressure on transfer points." Balaz noted that "the interdiction force needed manufactured housing, utilities, and a radio network." Beyond that, the team required a "working relationship with the National Park Service;" all of which Balaz extended to them, with the result that "drug incidents fell 75 percent after one year of action." [29]

Needless to say, the new superintendent, Robert Haraden, came to Big Bend in 1978 facing a host of issues related to the border. Stopping in Santa Fe to meet regional director John Cook, Haraden would remember two decades later that Cook "wanted to reduce the law enforcement image." For the regional office, Big Bend's rangers "came on too strong, and there was a shootout at the park." Cook wanted Haraden to rebuild Big Bend's infrastructure that had suffered during the Carithers superintendency, yet continue the campaigns against "drugs, cattle, 'wetbacks,' etc." But the issue that surfaced even as Haraden acquainted himself with Big Bend was the designation of the park's stretch of the Rio Grande as a "wild and scenic river." Discussions had begun on this designation in the last six months of Gene Balaz's tenure as acting superintendent, and accelerated as Haraden took command of the park. Jim Liles recalled how his first major task upon arrival at Big Bend in 1977 was to respond to "a notice from the Texas governor's office to start the Wild and Scenic River program." U.S. Representative Bob Krueger (D-TX) had been a major sponsor of the designation, while "the Texas Explorers Club pushed protection of the lower canyons [of the Rio Grande]." From Liles' perspective, "the whole WSR issue was political." He believed that "Krueger was persuaded by river constituents [landowners] to shelve the [1978] wilderness proposal for Big Bend in exchange for not opposing the WSR." Aiding in this strategy, said Liles, was the realization that "the governor would support the WSR if the wilderness designation were dropped." Liles attended what several park officials and local residents recalled as a "bad public meeting" in Marathon, where NPS regional planning chief Doug Faris and others learned of the bitter reaction that echoed the late 1970s land-use movement known as the "Sagebrush Rebellion." [30]

When Bob Haraden left Big Bend in 1980 to become superintendent of Glacier National Park, he would lament that "it became a disappointment when the park service did not buy land away from the river." There would be "no place to camp along the wild and scenic river," even thought "the WSR idea was to preserve unique rivers." Then Haraden recalled a revealing feature about border relations in the 1970s: "There were no negotiations with Mexico." Haraden recalled that "there had been talk of a 'peace' or 'companion' park with Mexico," and he had attended several meetings with Mexican officials on this matter. But by 1980, the border with Mexico meant to the United States a zone of conflict more like the early twentieth century, and the faith of Franklin Roosevelt and Lazaro Cardenas 40 years earlier to make their two nations more friendly was nothing but a dream. [31]

lodge lobby
Figure 22: NPCI Chisos Mountains Lodge Lobby (NPSCI Photo, 1960s)

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003