By Rick LoBello,
El Paso Group Executive Committee
The El Paso Sierra Club Group and the Greater Big Bend Coalition are petitioning U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and President Obama to establish an international park on the Rio Grande.
The proposed park boundaries include Big Bend National Park and protected wildlife areas in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila.
A new website, greaterbigbend.org, contains a link to the change.org petition drafted by our coalition and additional information on the international park project. Most visitors to Big Bend National Park — and park enthusiasts nationwide — have no idea that an international park on the Rio Grande was first proposed by Congress in February 1935. On Nov. 24, 1935, environmental officials from Mexico and the United States met in El Paso and signed the first binational agreement to create an international park.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho in 1944 expressing his opinion that Big Bend National Park (established in 1944) would remain incomplete until “both sides of the Rio Grande form one great international park.” In 1946, President Harry S. Truman wrote to President Camacho on “behalf of the late President Roosevelt” to continue the international park campaign.
International parks are not unknown to the National Park Service and North America. The US and Canada established the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in 1932, combining Glacier National Park (Montana) and the Waterton Park (Alberta). While both nations manage their respective parks separately, the guiding principle is that shared ecosystems — divided only by arbitrary political boundaries — should be conserved as a single, unified preserve.
The coalition agreed to the following proposal for the size and scope of the park at a meeting on September 3.
The Greater Big Bend Coalition calls upon the U.S. and Mexico governments to designate lands currently protected by the National Park Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife and Comisíon Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas as one giant U.S. Mexico International Park. Both countries would retain their national sovereignty over all lands within the international park area and each land-management agency would continue to manage lands as authorized by each government.
The combined area would be managed using the successful model of cooperation at Waterton Glacier International Park on the U.S.-Canada border with each protected area managed and protected under its respective national legislative frameworks. Guiding principles would be established relating to natural and cultural resource management, visitor use and interpretation, science and research and relations with peoples living in the area, reflecting strong cooperation among the property managers. Management plans and their associated goals and objectives should be periodically reviewed and updated with all stakeholders.
The Boquillas International Crossing between the Big Bend National Park and Boquillas, Coahuila, should be the sole crossing within the national park, and no bridge should be built in Big Bend National Park. International bridges built or reopened in the future, such as La Linda Bridge north of Big Bend National Park, should be considered.
The next step to establish this now 80-year-plus proposal for both countries would be for both countries to draft legislation calling for the creation of the international park or for the presidents of the United States and Mexico to jointly declare the area as an International Park with the support of the land-management agencies involved. Legislation may not be required since the lands that could be included already have protected status. The International designation could be a symbolic gesture made by presidential orders in the U.S. and Mexico.
Each of the eight protected areas proposed to be included as part of the International Park has a distinctive climate, physiographic setting, mountain-desert interface and significant scenic values with abundant and diverse flora and fauna.
- Big Bend National Park, Texas, 801,163 acres
- Maderas del Carmen Protected Area, Coahuila, 520,000 acres
- Ocampo Natural Protected Area, Coahuila area, 826,000 acres,
- Cañón de Santa Elena Protected Area, Chihuahua, 511,508 acres
- Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas, 311,000 acres
- Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, Texas 54,000 acres
- Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River (196-mile portion of Rio Grande)
- Monumento Río Bravo del Norte in México (300 -portion of Rio Grande).
Total Size of Proposed Big Bend International Park 3,023,671 acres / 4,724 square miles of contiguous parks and protected areas. For comparison, Waterton Glacier International Park is 1,130,788 acres (1,766 square miles).
Juan E. Bezaury Creel of the Nature Conservancy in Mexico City said “I believe that the stars are aligning themselves for the International Park proposal for next December to an extent they won’t probably be for a long time.” A window of opportunity to move the proposal forward could take place at the Convention on Biodiversity´s 13th Conference of Parties this December.
The plan would be to have the two countries agree to a binational statement within the context of COP-13. Since Mexico does not have any “parks” (a legal protected area category in Mexico) in the region, but does have 4 protected areas (3 flora and fauna protection areas and one natural monument but no parks), Bezaury supports asking both governments to agree to a “Big Bend — Río Bravo Binational Natural Area” designation.
GBBC has contacted Big Bend National Superintendent Cindy Ott-Jones asking for her help.