The Grand Dream of an International Park With Mexico Meets a Complicated Reality


Many of the most iconic images of Big Bend National Park feature the jagged outline of the Sierra del Carmen, a towering range of pine- and fir-studded mountains in the Mexican state of Coahuila. These isolated peaks possess an almost magnetic mystique—nearly everyone I’ve spoken to who has spent time in this part of West Texas talks about gazing across the border and imagining what it must be like to stand among the tall trees and cool wind, looking out in the opposite direction at the desert below.

Rick LoBello first came to Big Bend in 1974 and spent the next six years working as a park ranger, looking up at the Carmens and dreaming about their secrets. Then, in 1988, he joined a delegation invited to discuss prospects for binational conservation. After the Americans crossed the river to meet the governor of Coahuila, the two groups ascended the sierra. “I got to a high point where I could look over and see the Chisos Mountains and Big Bend,” LoBello recalls, “and I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is even more beautiful than the Texas side. This has got to be a national park someday.’ ” The Mexicans and Americans camped together on a mountaintop, and LoBello watched as the governor sat with Big Bend’s superintendent over a table strewn with maps, discussing the potential for protection and collaboration. It seemed, he tells me, like witnessing history in the making.

Ever since, LoBello has dedicated his career to the idea of a vast binational preserve spanning the Rio Grande, using his positions at the El Paso Zoo, Rotary International, and various wilderness coalitions to promote it. The dream is a longstanding one: When President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated Big Bend in 1944, he declared that it would be incomplete until “one great international park” reached across the border, uniting the region’s deep-cut canyons and towering sky islands, its desert grasslands and teeming forests. In recent years, talk of cross-boundary conservation has again bubbled up as a kind of hopeful antidote to the environmental devastation wrought elsewhere on the border. “Forget Trump’s Border Wall,” read a 2019 New York Times op-ed headline, “Let’s Build F.D.R.’s International Park.”

The Chihuahuan ecosystems that converge here contain a wealth of endangered flora and fauna, with Big Bend alone possessing more bird diversity than almost any other national park in the United States—more, in fact, than many states. Aside from offering holistic management possibilities, LoBello believes a transboundary park would send a powerful message to the world, serving as “a permanent monument and symbol of peace,” a place where people from both nations could come to better understand and appreciate a landscape that knows no boundaries.

Despite the political attention Big Bend has garnered, its remote location has long made it one of the country’s least-visited national parks. I spent much of my childhood in another of West Texas’s rarely seen parks, the Guadalupe Mountains, where my mother worked as an interpretive park ranger and instilled in me a lifelong fascination with desert landscapes and the unique cultural terrain of the U.S.–Mexico borderlands. But even as someone relatively familiar with the region, it was only recently that I learned of the long-simmering idea to create a binational park in Big Bend. The more I discovered, the more I longed to visit the places that might someday be incorporated into a transboundary park and to understand if this nearly century-old idea still made sense today.

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he binational model that has inspired conservationists in Big Bend for nearly a century was born on the opposite edge of the country. In 1932 Canada and the United States inaugurated Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park as a gesture of transborder harmony in the aftermath of World War I. This soon motivated the U.S. and Mexican governments to explore something similar along the Rio Grande. A joint commission was formed in 1936, but days after concluding a landmark expedition through the proposed parklands, two of its most influential members died in a car crash, establishing a pattern of tragedy that has continued since. With Roosevelt’s death in 1945, the proposal lost its most powerful champion, and progress stalled for decades.

In the 1990s, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the creation of Mexico’s Santa Elena and Maderas del Carmen protected areas again raised the prospects of an international park, but 9/11 soon brought them crashing down again. Hope was briefly reignited in 2010, when a joint statement from Presidents Barack Obama and Felipe Calderón announced support for the area’s eventual designation as “a natural area of binational interest.” By the end of the year, however, Obama’s party had lost power in Congress and Mexico’s drug war had reached a new bloody peak, consuming the rest of Calderón’s agenda. The arrival of President Donald Trump in 2017 marked a new low point in cross-border collaboration, but the president’s much vaunted border wall spared Big Bend. Today, with a new administration in office, supporters have grown hopeful that the idea of a binational park might soon be back on the table.

The failure to establish a framework for binational conservation here has given rise to a patchwork of protected lands that are today managed by five different federal, state, and private entities, including a key preservation corridor established by the Mexican corporation CEMEX in 2001. Between the two countries, more than 3 million contiguous acres have been set aside for protection, comprising a binational area almost as large as Connecticut.

My journey to these sprawling parklands begins in Big Bend, where I pay a $30 entrance fee to join the ranks of its more than 300,000 yearly visitors. The park’s superintendent, Bob Krumenaker, has agreed to meet me at a viewpoint perched above the Rio Grande, where the megalithic stone mouth of Santa Elena Canyon looms in the west like a gateway to an ancient kingdom.

Krumenaker, wearing a broad-brimmed mesh hat, begins our conversation by gesturing at blackened mesquite trunks in the distance and explaining how, in 2019, a trash fire in Mexico grew out of control and jumped the river’s banks. It quickly engulfed the historic buildings of Castolon, a settlement that served as an Army outpost and frontier trading hub before the establishment of the park. “We had never seen anything like that before,” Krumenaker says, describing the blaze. In no time, the old adobe buildings that had for more than a century served as a place of respite for soldiers, merchants, ranchers, and countless park visitors were completely hollowed out.

The help that arrived from both sides of the border included firefighters from Boquillas del Carmen, a village 40 miles east on the other side of the river. While the park had long counted on cross-border support to manage fires, in the aftermath of the Castolon blaze Krumenaker and his staff expanded agreements to deepen those ties. This proved useful when the Boquillas crew returned earlier this year to fight one of the park’s biggest fires in decades. Firefighters from both nations were able to save the habitat of the Colima Warbler, a species whose entire U.S. range is confined to a few backcountry canyons high in the Chisos Mountains.

In Krumenaker’s view, these shared successes illustrate how practical partnerships can arise from day-to-day management needs, reinforcing the idea that, as he puts it, “we’re both residents of a common community.” The grand vision of a unified international park, he admits, is a distant consideration as he and his staff navigate the on-the-ground practicalities of conservation. He reminds me that Mexico, which had no protected land adjacent to Big Bend in the Roosevelt era, now officially protects more acres in this region than the United States does. In this sense, he says, perhaps a significant piece of the binational dream has already been achieved. But while American conservationists once assumed that protection across the border would resemble our notions of a national park, the intervening decades saw Mexico develop a conservation model all its own—one I had grown eager to see for myself.

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drive with Javier Ochoa just after dawn through the village of Boquillas, passing one brightly painted home after another. As regional deputy director of Mexico’s ­National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, known by its Spanish acronym, CONANP, Ochoa oversees three of the four protected areas that converge here: Maderas del Carmen, Ocampo, and Río Bravo del Norte Natural Monument. He and his coworkers are well known among the town’s 200 residents, and early risers wave as we drive past.

Two days earlier, I gazed at this exact spot from an overlook on the other side of the Rio Grande. While residents have long waded across the river here to sell keepsakes to American tourists, Boquillas was designated as an official port of entry in 2013 as a result of Obama and Calderón’s joint statement. A small customs house and hand-rowed ferry have served as the town’s lifeblood ever since, bringing 10,000 to 20,000 paying tourists across the river each year for day trips and guided tours of nearby canyons, caves, and hot springs. But the arrival of the pandemic shuttered the crossing along with a hotel, a cantina, and other businesses catering to visitors. For the past year and a half, the village has been shut out as Big Bend receives record visitation. Officials reopened the crossing in November, but on my visit I was required to make a circuitous 12-hour detour to reach the other side.

When I ask Ochoa about the tourism prospects of a binational park, he admits there are significant infrastructure challenges to receiving those interested in anything beyond a brief visit. There are few trails and campgrounds, no interpretive or law enforcement rangers, and the roads in and out of the area are rough and unpaved, making it largely inaccessible even to visitors from Mexico.

Before the pandemic, CONANP was involved in organizing a small ecotourism cooperative to support local guides. Working with U.S. tourists, one guide told me, gave many longtime residents a new perspective on Boquillas, helping them more deeply appreciate the natural splendor they had previously taken for granted. But American visitors also arrive with different expectations about what a protected area should be. “They don’t understand why there are people here, why there are cattle grazing,” Ochoa tells me. “Some of them get mad. Some of them are confused, because they think it’s a national park like on the other side, but it’s not.”

Under the U.S. model of park management, the people living in what became Big Bend were forced to sell their land and leave in the 1940s. “In the beginning they wiped out all signs of civilization,” recalled the daughter of one displaced rancher in an archival interview. “They didn’t want anything to look like man had ever lived there.” Across the Rio Grande, CONANP’s approach has been fundamentally different. While the missions of both agencies include the preservation of natural resources, the NPS emphasizes “enjoyment” and “outdoor recreation” while CONANP stresses “environmental services,” “social welfare,” and “sustainable development.” Ochoa’s principal role, he says, is to be an ambassador to the many small communities sprinkled throughout the protected areas, using cooperation, persuasion, and community trust to balance the needs of local economies with the priorities of conservation.

As Ochoa and I leave Boquillas, I consider the inherent power imbalance that has long plagued relationships between the United States and Mexico, contemplating the danger that America’s conservation model might come to dominate the Mexican one. But if the binational idea should ever come to fruition, Ochoa’s model of providing tools for local people to live in better relationship with the land strikes me as a blueprint to be emulated rather than replaced.

After a grueling 40 minutes on a rutted dirt road, we arrive in Las Norias, one of the many communal ranching settlements known as ejidos that dot these protected areas. Ochoa has brought me to the foothills of the Sierra del Carmen to meet Guadalupe Hernández Ureste, a woman who embodies the kind of transformation CONANP has long hoped to foster among those living here.

Hernández comes to life when I ask about her involvement with the agency—far from being evicted when this land came under federal protection, she and other community members were recruited to help protect the area’s natural resources. Hernández explains how she was hired to help monitor Golden Eagles. The first time she saw one, she says, she was so awed by its immensity that she staggered backward into a cactus, covering herself in spines. She laughs before turning serious, describing her previous life as a housewife. “I used to spend all day making tortillas,” she says. “But from that day on, I told myself I wouldn’t be ordered around the house anymore, because this is where I wanted to be.” Ochoa smiles and reminds us that the Golden Eagle is Mexico’s national symbol, the mythical bird devouring a snake on the country’s flag. Hernández nods, gazing up toward the eagle’s home in the mountains above. “I didn’t even need my binoculars,” she adds, still lost in the moment.

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he crown jewel of the Big Bend region lies in the highest reaches of the Sierra del Carmen, an area that has long served as a stronghold for the diverse animal and plant life that radiates outward from the mountains. The bulk of this wilderness zone lies within the El Carmen Nature Reserve, an island inside of CONANP’s Maderas del Carmen protected area that is privately owned and managed by CEMEX, a multinational cement manufacturer headquartered in Mexico. Distinct from Big Bend, tourists are rarely permitted here, and the reserve is devoid of the settlements scattered throughout CONANP’s protected areas. In the early 2000s, CEMEX began acquiring land from local property owners who ultimately agreed to part with holdings that had been depleted by ranching, mining, fur trapping, and more than half a century of industrial logging.

Whether the El Carmen reserve is part of a corporate greenwashing strategy or a meaningful attempt by CEMEX to offset its environmental degradation is a matter of debate, but for the past two decades it has served as the flagship project of the company’s worldwide conservation initiatives. With its recent acquisition of a sliver of adjoining property on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, CEMEX now oversees a transboundary conservation initiative in miniature. The reserve’s role in a potential binational park, however, remains unclear. The most apparent historical parallel is perhaps that of the Rockefellers, whose oil wealth funded the purchase of vast swaths of land that were eventually donated to the U.S. national park system for public preservation—but CEMEX has not announced any such plans.

My guide through the Carmens is Jonas A. Delgadillo Villalobos, the reserve’s soft-spoken manager, who has agreed to bring me from its desert lowlands to the densely wooded mountaintops. Driving across the rolling plains, Delgadillo explains how settlers conquered and absorbed the Lipan Apache and other groups indigenous to the area during a centuries-long genocide. As he speaks of the places where their language and traditions live on, I am struck by how our continent’s grand narratives of conservation have almost always obscured similar histories of erasure. After several minutes of silence, Delgadillo tells me that he himself is a descendent of the Northern Tepehuanos of the Sierra Madre, describing his grandmother’s move down from the mountains more than a century ago to live in the towns and villages erected by colonizers.

As we continue our crawl up the mountain, Delgadillo details how he and his team have restored native grasses and reintroduced ecosystem-regulating species like pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, and bison. He tells me of the grassland-loving birds that are beginning to proliferate once again, including the Loggerhead Shrike and the Eastern Meadowlark, with its call that, to him, sounds like someone singing “tortilla con chile.” The recovery here has also bolstered conservation efforts in the surrounding protected areas. Delgadillo offers the example of the Mexican black bear, a species thought to have vanished from Texas before numbers began to rebound as development slowed in the Carmens, enabling the omnivores to launch tentative cross-border explorations in the late 1980s. Today, he says, “the reserve is practically theirs,” and serves as a bastion fueling the repopulation of their prior range.

We travel through a seemingly endless cloud of butterflies before finally arriving in a lichen-covered relic forest of juniper, pine, and fir. We pass bear-scratched trunks oozing with sap, ford quick-flowing creeks edged with mushrooms, and stop to watch as Wild Turkeys and a covey of Montezuma Quail burst from the brush and vanish again into the dark woods. In a gold-hued meadow, Delgadillo ushers me from the truck to an old corral where we watch a pair of Yellow-eyed Juncos, a species almost never seen in Texas, silently flit onto a nearby branch. These, he whispers, are the ojito de lumbre, birds with little eyes of fire. 

That night Delgadillo and I sleep in the high cabins that occasionally house international researchers. Lying atop my cot listening to mice skitter across the rough-hewn floors, I wonder if this is the same area where Rick LoBello stayed all those years ago, hoping he was witnessing a historic dissolution of borders. Today some see a binational park as one of the few symbols powerful enough to counter the terrifying potency of a border wall.

But the reality of the borderlands has always subverted imposed bifurcations—it is a place where multiple ways of seeing, speaking, and understanding have long complemented one another, where a single way of doing things rarely endures. It is a place, too, where outside symbols are often refigured, where walls of steel are dwarfed by those of stone, where the destructive power of fire provides foundations for new forms of cooperation, and where the eagle serves as a reminder not of nation-building myths but of a woman’s power to gaze upward and find a home in the wilderness outside her doors.

The next morning, Delgadillo wakes me before daybreak and drives us through the forest to a lookout point high in the sierra. We arrive just as the day’s first light begins to grow in the sky, and gaze out together as soft-lit canyons and rippled alluvial valleys emerge from the darkness below. Delgadillo gestures to an unseen road in the distance, telling me that it leads to the ghost town of La Linda on the other end of the mountains, where a long-defunct international bridge has been decaying for decades above the Rio Grande. Then he points to the northwest. Straight down the spine of these mountains, he tells me, is Big Bend. As the sun breaks the horizon, I ask what he thinks of when he gazes in the direction of Texas, what he imagines when he looks out across the line. He smiles and answers me without pausing. “I don’t need to imagine it,” he says, “because it’s the same. It’s exactly the same as right here.”

This story originally ran in the Winter 2021 issue as “A Land Beyond Borders.”​ To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.

 



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