Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

Preservation

Civilian Conservation Corps

A Troubled Economy
By 1930, many people who had enjoyed the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties found themselves in soup lines and tattered clothes. Sputtering Model Ts rumbled down dusty roads, carrying passengers and their few possessions toward dreams of a better tomorrow. The stock market crash had devastated the nation's economy and left many in dire straits. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president by a landslide in 1932 with his promise of a "new deal" for the American people. Within days of his inauguration, FDR called Congress into special session to work on emergency legislation. An alphabet soup of agencies and programs was created. Roosevelt kept his promise and the New Deal was born.

Roosevelt's Tree Army
One of these programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), designed to reduce unemployment while also conserving natural resources. The CCC changed the lives of several million people, along with Big Bend National Park. Nicknamed "Roosevelt's Tree Army," the CCC was operated through the cooperative efforts of four departments. The Department of Labor oversaw the selection of enrollees, the Army ran the camps, and the Interior and Agriculture departments provided work projects.

Initially, unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25 and from families on relief could apply. They enlisted for six months, with an option to reenlist for up to two years. The "CCC boys" worked for $30 a month, $25 of which was sent to their families. Eventually, "Local Experienced Men" (LEMs) and World War I veterans could enroll. Although a few work camps were established for women, most CCC enrollees were men.

The CCC in Big Bend
If you have driven, hiked, or slept in the Chisos Mountains, you have experienced CCC history. In May 1933, Texas Canyons State Park was established; it was later renamed Big Bend State Park. Roads and trails were needed for the new park, and the CCC provided an ideal workforce. A year after the park was established, 200 young men, 80 percent of whom were Hispanic, arrived to work in the Chisos Mountains. The CCC's first job was to set up camp and develop a reliable water supply. The CCC boys faced many challenges, living in tents 85 miles from the nearest town, and facing extreme temperatures and weather. Eventually barracks replaced tents in the area of today's Basin Campground.

In the early 1930s, the CCC built an all-weather access road into the Chisos Mountains Basin. They surveyed and built the seven-mile road using only picks, shovels, rakes, and a dump truck, which they loaded by hand. They scraped, dug, and blasted 10,000 truck loads of earth and rock and constructed 17 stone culverts, still in use today along the Basin road. In 1937 the camp was relocated 175 miles north to Balmorhea State Park, where the CCC built the "world's largest spring-fed swimming pool."

A second CCC camp was established in Big Bend in 1940. This group built the Lost Mine Trail, a store, and four stone and adobe cottages still used as lodging today. These CCC boys surveyed the park boundary and established trail and facility locations. Plans to build a large resort hacienda and hospital in the Basin were abandoned with the onset of World War II. The camp closed in March 1942, signalling the end of an era in Big Bend. In June 1944, partially as a result of CCC development, Big Bend became a national park.

Camp Life
If you think Big Bend is isolated today, imagine what it must have been like in the 1930s, before air conditioned comfort and paved roads. Many CCC boys were away from their families for the first time. Because the camps were run by the Army, they had typical barracks and a mess hall. Legend has it that those complaining about food quality had to climb a steep hill before the next meal. Located directly north of the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, the hill is still known as "Appetite Peak." The camp also offered many recreational opportunities. There was a museum, woodworking shop, photo darkroom, and movies were shown twice a month. In 1935, one of the barracks was converted to a classroom and the CCC began to provide education in addition to employment.

The Legacy
Nationwide, the CCC operated 4,500 camps. More than three million people enrolled between 1933 and 1942. The CCC advanced natural resource conservation by decades, and provided education, training,and experience for a generation of young men and women. Since then, millions of visitors to Big Bend have enjoyed the work of the CCCs.

Drive to the Chisos Mountains, hike the trails, and remember the young men who worked there many years ago.

To Learn More:

  • Welsh, Michael. Landscape of Ghosts, River of Dreams: An Administrative History of Big Bend National Park. National Park Service, 2002.
  • Cohen, Stan. The Tree Army : A Pictorial History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942. Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1980.
  • Steely, James Wright. Parks for Texas: Enduring Landscapes of the New Deal. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.
  • Short, Viola M. CCC: West Texas District, 1933-1942. Deming, NM: JorVeTay Publishing Co., 1998.
  • McClelland, Linda Flint. Building the National Parks: Historic Landscape Design and Construction. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
  • Bowers, W. R. "The CCC, Big Bend, and Me." The Journal of Big Bend Studies. Volume 7; January 1995, pages 71-88.
  • Baker, Rollin. "Life in the Big bend CCC Camp-Summer 1937." The Journal of Big Bend Studies. Volume 7; January 1995, pages 89-102.

Where does the air come from?

Air quality in this area varies significantly by season, with the summer season typically having the poorest visibility and winter season the best. Summer winds are from the southeast while winter winds are from the north and west. Nearly half of Big Bend's visibility reduction is due to sulfates. During the summer, air masses arriving in this region from the southeast bring the highest concentrations of sulfates and the poorest visibility conditions.

Where is Today's Air Coming From?

Using back-trajectory analysis, researchers can back-track prevailing wind patterns and trace the origin of pollutants. A typical summer wind pattern for Big Bend may begin two days earlier in East Texas, circulate into Louisiana, dip south along the Gulf Coast, migrate west into Mexico, and finally blow toward the northwest into this area. This wind pattern may collect, transport, and deliver such pollutants as sulfates, organic carbons, nitrates, and wind blown soil particles.

Nearly half of Big Bend's visibility reduction is due to sulfates. Data suggest that sulfur emissions from nearby Texas and Mexican coal-fired power plants and industrial processes help create the white haze that often diminishes or obscures the scenic landscapes in Big Bend National Park.

Our Partners

Big Bend Natural History Association
Established in 1956, as a private, non-profit organization, the goal of the Big Bend Natural History Association (BBNHA) is to educate the public and increase their understanding and appreciation of the Big Bend Area and what it represents in terms of our historical and natural heritage. BBNHA champions the mission of the National Park Service of interpreting the scenic, scientific, and historic values of Big Bend and encourages research related to those values. The Association conducts seminars and publishes, prints, or otherwise provides books, maps, and interpretive materials on the Big Bend region. Proceeds fund exhibits, films, interpretive programs, seminars, museum activities, and research.

Forever Resorts
Forever Resorts is the sole concessions contractor at Big Bend. The concessionaire's services include operating a lodge, a restaurant, gift shops, general merchandise sales, service stations, and an RV park.
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Friends of Big Bend National Park
Founded in 1996, the Friends of Big Bend National Park is a private not-for-profit organization with a mission to support, promote, and raise funds for Big Bend National Park in partnership with the National Park Service and other supporters who value the unique qualities of this national resource on the Rio Grande. The Friends of Big Bend National Park has funded a range of critical projects, including wildlife research programs, the purchase of equipment to monitor air and water quality, and the construction and renovation of Park infrastructure.
 

Science & Resource Management

Scientific research carried out in Big Bend and the other national parks benefits a wide range of people. The public benefits from the insights that provide a better understanding of the natural world. Park managers use research to make science-based decisions about managing park resources, and scientists use information to further their own research questions. Interest in conducting research at a park is a measure of the scientific significance of park resources, and with over 100 annual permits, Big Bend National Park's research program is among the most active in the National Park System.

Volunteer Pass

Volunteer Pass - Free to those who have accumulated 500 volunteer hours.
This annual pass is for volunteers acquiring 500 service hours on a cumulative basis (beginning January 1, 2007). It provides access to, and use of, Federal recreation sites that charge an Entrance or Standard Amenity Fee for a year, beginning from the date of award. The pass admits the pass holder and passengers in a non-commercial vehicle at per vehicle fee areas and pass holder + 3 adults, not to exceed 4 adults, at per person fee areas (children under 16 are admitted free). Contact the park volunteer coordinator) at 432 477-1195 to learn about volunteer opportunities in Big Bend National Park.

Join Our Friends

Founded in 1996, the Friends of Big Bend National Park is a private not-for-profit organization with a mission to support, promote, and raise funds for Big Bend National Park in partnership with the National Park Service and other supporters who value the unique qualities of this national resource on the Rio Grande. The Friends of Big Bend National Park has funded a range of critical projects, including wildlife research programs, the purchase of equipment to monitor air and water quality, and the construction and renovation of Park infrastructure.

For more information, visit the friends website, or write:
Friends of Big Bend National Park
PO Box 200
Big Bend National Park, Texas 79834

SCA Interns

The SCA, or Student Conservation Association is America’s largest national resource conservation organization. SCA provides volunteers of all backgrounds and educational levels with meaningful conservation service internships and volunteer opportunities in our National Parks, National Forests, and other public lands.

Each year over 3,000 volunteers perform 1.5 million hours of service in all 50 states to protect vital habitats, threatened wildlife, and other at-risk resources in our nation’s parks, forests and urban green spaces. This unique experience instills an ethic of conservation and inspires lifelong stewardship that benefits our members, our society, and our environment.

Today, nearly 45,000 Alumni continue to practice the conservation ethic they first encountered through SCA as teachers, resource managers, park rangers, business people and in their personal lives.

The SCAs at Big Bend are generally Conservation Internships. Typically, Big Bend employs 4-5 SCA students each fall and spring season. 

Student Conservation Association

The Student Conservation Association offers positions in many park areas. While not a salaried position, you will receive compensation in the form of a stipend, moving expenses or mileage reimbursement and a monetary award which can be used for paying off old school loans or paying for additional classes. To learn more, visit the

Student Conservation Association's website

, or call (603) 543-1700.

Fire Management Plan

The park now manages fire as a critically important natural process that is allowed to resume its original role in crafting and influencing the plant and wildlife communities of the national park. The task is to manage the natural process of fire in ways that avoid negative impacts on resources and do not threaten human life and property.

Any fire started by accident or by natural causes such as lightning is designated a wildland fire. Big Bend averages ten unplanned fires during the prime fire season, March through July. Each wildland fire is intensively monitored by park staff members who decide on a daily basis whether the fire should be put out.

A prescribed fire is any fire intentionally ignited by management to meet specific objectives such as reduction of flammable materials around developed areas. Each of these fires has a written prescription, a detailed plan on the type of weather, staffing, and other conditions which must be met before the fire can be set. If conditions change and the fire is no longer within prescription, it will be immediately extinguished.

For example, strong winds are common in Big Bend. A prescribed fire is postponed or suppressed if high winds are forecast for the park region. The National Park Service is also concerned about smoke and how it impacts human health and air visibility. Winds sometimes shift direction after a prescribed fire is started. If those winds bring large amounts of smoke to areas of high human use, the fire is put out.

Big Bend's Fire Management Officer sets up a schedule for prescribed burns throughout the park. The cost of using a prescribed fire to reduce an overload of flammable material can be as low as $48/acre. Putting out a wildfire with excessive amounts of dead wood could easily top $800/acre. Thus, a well-planned program of prescribed burns could cost only 1/16th the price of traditional firefighting.

In some sections of the park we may apply prescribed fire as a tool to eliminate or reduce exotic species such as tamarisk and buffel grass and to encourage native species like mesquite trees and desert grasses. Fire-adapted native plants germinate or sprout immediately after a fire and may replace exotic vegetation. For example, the roots of mesquite are rarely killed in a fire. Even if the entire above-ground portion of the tree is consumed by flames the plant can sent new shoots up from the surviving roots.

 

Biosphere Reserve

Big Bend, Jornada, and Mapimi: The Chihuahuan Desert Biosphere Reserve
The “biosphere” is that veneer of our Earth’s crust, waters and atmosphere that supports life. It reaches from the deepest ocean floor 12 miles upward to the tops of the highest mountains and contains 193 distinct biogeographical zones or ecosystems. One of these is the vast Chihuahuan Desert of northern Mexico, southern Texas, and New Mexico. It is a biogeographical zone rich in geologic history and natural lifeforms. It is also an area exposed to a multitude of issues impacting its resources and people. Within its boundaries there are three special “biosphere reserves,” Big Bend, Jornada, and Mapimi, where answers to these pressures are being sought.

Man and the Biosphere Program
In the late 1960s, a biosphere reserve program was conceived by the United Nations Educational, Scientific And Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one solution to the seemingly overwhelming environmental pressures confronting the world. The reserves would conserve samples of the world’s ecosystems such as a tropical forest, prairie grassland, coral reef, river system, or desert. In 1971 the Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB) was started with the intention to test and outline how humans can strike a balance among the apparently conflicting issues of conserving biological diversity, promoting economic and social development, and maintaining associated cultural values.

Scientists from 83 nations supervise the MAB program involving over 325 reserves, including 56 in the United States. Individual Biosphere Reserves remain under the sovereign jurisdiction of the countries in which they are situated. A proposed reserve is nominated by its national government and must meet a minimum set of criteria. In each country, a resident committee defines and organizes national projects while working groups and expert panels coordinate core programs and scientific methodology.

Individual Biosphere Reserves remain under the sovereign jurisdiction of the countries in which they are situated.

A Model Biosphere Reserve
The MAB model is an elegantly simple concept for accomplishing sustained use. Ideally, a reserve is composed of three main parts:

  1. A central “core” area which serves as a refugium for plant and animal communities and their genetic resources. A core area has secure legal protection and permits scientific research on how biological diversity can be sustained.
  2. A “buffer zone” surrounding the core area which may include experimental research and rehabilitation, and accommodate education, tourism and recreational facilities. Manipulative management practices are permitted to enhance production while conserving natural processes.
  3. A “transition” area surrounding the other zones where concepts developed in the reserve are applied to achieve sustainable balances between the use of natural resources to meet human needs and their conservation for the future of the entire region.

Although conceived as a series of concentric rings, the three zones can be implemented in many different ways to accommodate regional geographic conditions and constraints. Since the early 1980s, U. S. MAB has nominated multi-site Biosphere Reserves to strengthen regional cooperation in implementing reserve concepts. Examples include the Champlain-Adirondack, the Crown of the Continent, the Land Between the Lakes, the New Jersey Pinelands, the Virginia Coast, and the Chihuahuan Desert Biosphere Reserves.

The Chihuahuan Desert Biosphere Reserve
The Chihuahuan Desert Biogeographical Zone contains one multi-site Biosphere Reserve. Big Bend National Park in Texas and the Agricultural Research Service’s La Jornada Experimental Range in New Mexico were designated by UNESCO in 1976. Mapimi, nominated in 1977, is located in the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango and is administered by Mexico’s Institute of Ecology. The activities in each Biosphere Reserve are complimentary so together, Big Bend, Jornada, and Mapimi form a “regional” reserve in the true sense of the MAB model. Big Bend serves as a “core area” would in a singular Biosphere Reserve: all of the natural and cultural resources are fully protected for the future by mandates of the National Park Service. As the conservation core area, Big Bend provides baseline information from inventory and monitoring. This data can then be used to assess the effects of human activities. Big Bend remains one of the most pristine samples of America’s Chihuahuan Desert.

The field research area at Jornada serves as the Chihuahuan Desert Biosphere Reserve’s “buffer zone”. Work focuses on long-term experimental research and field application, primarily for agricultural use. The goal is to develop technologies that meet human needs and achieve sustainable natural communities. This type of manipulation cannot be conducted in the core area.

Mapimi serves as the “transition area” for the Chihuahuan Desert Biosphere Reserve but also includes its own core and buffer zones and is managed cooperatively by scientists, policy makers, landowners, and ejidatarios. Mapimi involves local residents in agriculture conservation, incorporates regional socio-economic problems into the reserve’s research, and employs a general land use plan for the entire area. Involving local residents in research, environmental education, and sustained uses is called the “Mexican modality” for Biosphere Reserves for which Mapimi is the prototype. The Mapimi program more comprehensively integrates Biosphere Reserve functions than the U. S. reserves.

The Future
Understanding and acceptance of conserving representative samples of the world’s ecosystems gave momentum for establishing national parks, forests, refuges and preserves worldwide. Today the challenge continues as to how protected areas such as Biosphere Reserves can contribute to the needs of future generations. In 1995, the International Conference on Biosphere Reserves held in Seville, Spain, confirmed that Biosphere Reserves have a vital role to play at the global level by providing for people who live and work in and around them to attain a balanced relationship with the natural world. Reserves explore how to meet the needs of society by showing the way to a sustainable future.

Big Bend Recycles!

We think of national parks as areas that are completely protected from human impacts. Yet the very act of providing access and services impacts the park's resources, as roads, power lines, water and sewage systems, visitor centers, and other infrastructure needs leave their mark on the land. Park managers try to mitigate these impacts as much as possible, particularly when it comes to the trash we generate.

Everything thrown away in Big Bend National Park ends up in the park's landfill. Space in this landfill is limited, and when it eventually fills, the park has two options. It can either dig a new landfill in the park, destroying pristine desert land that we are obligated to protect, or contract with the city of Alpine, one-hundred miles away, to dispose of our trash in their landfill, at great expense. Park experts estimate that without recycling, the current park landfill might fill in ten years. If current recycling efforts continue, however, the landfill should last at least sixty years. For this reason, the park has embraced recycling as a means of prolonging the life of our existing landfill.

Recycling in the Park began in the early 1990s as a grassroots effort run by volunteers. Today, it is one of the finest recycling programs found in the National Park Service (NPS). Barrels and bins at campgrounds, visitor centers, and the employee housing area provide visitors, staff, and residents the opportunity to recycle glass, aluminum and steel cans, paper, cardboard, and some plastics. These materials are taken to regional recycling centers in Alpine or Odessa. Forever Resorts, Inc., the park concessionaire, recycles all of their cardboard and aluminum cans, as well.

One of the unique features of the program is the partnership with the park concessioner in its overall operation. They collect and sort the recyclables generated by their business, bring them to the recycling center and also donate 32 hours of labor a week in the center. The park then hauls all materials to Odessa, Texas which is over 200 miles away. Between the two partners the park recycled close to 40 tons of recyclable materials in 2004.

While the park receives money for the materials it recycles, it does not cover the cost of the recycling program. The benefit, instead, comes from knowing that through recycling, the NPS mission of preserving and protecting the environment at Big Bend is being accomplished.

Endangered Species

We humans may be too successful. In expanding over the earth, we have extinguished many forms of life and threatened the existence of still others, greatly accelerating the natural rate of extinction. This weakens the system on which all life depends and impoverishes the quality of our life. Fortunately, many countries and groups are taking steps to stop this loss. The National Park Service's role is to provide undisturbed habitat in the United States where all species, including endangered ones, can continue to exist, subject only to the forces of nature. There have been successes, in parks and elsewhere, and this is a symbol of hope. For it signifies that we can stop the worldwide slide of extinction that we started.

The effort to halt human-caused extinctions in the United States is guided by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. This act defines an "endangered species" as any plant or animal species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A "threatened species" is one that is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The goal of the act is to restore all federally listed endangered threatened species to the point where they are again viable, self-sustaining members of ecological communities.

The major federal legislation protecting endangered species is the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Following the Federal Government's lead, Texas passed its own endangered species laws later that same year. In general, species that are federally listed as endangered or threatened are also listed by states. However, a species listed by a state may not be listed federally. This is the case with the black bear (Ursus americanus) which is uncommon in the park. Only federal legislation, however, mandates the protection of critical habitat of endangered species, often the key to recovery. In Big Bend National Park, ALL habitats are protected, benefiting all species irrespective of their status.

Extinct from the park for more than 40 years, black bears migrated from northern Mexico mountains to reestablish a small population within the park during the late 1980s. Although the Chisos Mountains are the most likely place in Texas to see a black bear, a key to their success will be managing the recreational habits of people, namely where and how food and garbage are stored.

The Mexican Long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris nivalis) occurs in the U.S. only in Big Bend where a single colony resides in the Chisos Mountains. Their diet consists of flower pollen and nectar and their migration between the park and Latin America is timed to coincide with the blooming of specific plants, including the century plant (Agave havardiana).

One problem for bats in general is their bad reputation as vampires and carriers of rabies, often leading to their mass destruction. An additional problem is the harvesting of agaves, without re-vegetation, for the production of tequila. Any loss in this food source is especially critical considering the mammal's high metabolic rate during migration and while roosting in cool caves. Once populations decrease, recovery is difficult because each fertile female only produces one offspring each year. In Big Bend, their numbers appear to fluctuate year to year, but current census techniques may be inaccurate and the true population status of these bats is unknown. Better census techniques must be developed to better interpret the status of these bats.

A number of plants and animals in Big Bend National Park are listed federally for protection. Among them are the black-capped vireo, Mexican long-nosed bat, Big Bend gambusia, Rio Grande silvery minnow, and Chisos hedgehog cactus.

Along with these are also species that are listed as threatened or endangered in the state of Texas, by Texas Parks and Wildlife. This state list includes the above species along with the American black bear and the Texas horned lizard.

Fire

Fire in the Desert
The lower elevation desert contains mosaics of shrubs and grasses, and mixes of both depending on landform. Conditions prior to grazing can only be inferred. Mule train owners cut Chino grama, and perhaps tobosagrass to feed their animals.

Early settlers such as J.O. Langford described grasses as abundant "knee deep to a horse…only the tallest of the desert plants stood out above it." Others referred to periodic abundant grass and although these ranchers lacked scientist's trained eyes, they knew grass turned cows into money. Overgrazing led to sheet and rill erosion, channel cutting and conversion to more drought tolerant shrubs rather than perennial grasses. Recent research estimated it takes from 25-40 years for overgrazed sites to recover comparable vegetation, with recovery highly dependent on moisture.

That fire is the primary shaper of these ecosystems is debated. Above average precipitation in the growing season and availability of seed sources may lead to greater establishment of grasses. Fire is expected to be infrequent in these low biomass/density areas where landform shapes moisture conditions.

The fire history data and precipitation records from 1948 to 2003, suggest that there is strong relationship between the amount of area burned in Big Bend National Park and the adjacent surrounding area and the amount of precipitation received in preceding years. Grass is the primary carrier of fire at the park and the amount of grass increases with increasing precipitation. In drought years grass production is low and any grass grown in a preceding wet period will decrease thus limiting fire spread. However, during wetter periods more grass is produced and the ability of fire to spread increases. The drought of the 1950s and the most recent drought of the late 1990s resulted in limited burned area.

Fire in the Chisos Mountains
Preliminary research in the Chisos Mountains conservatively indicates that lightning-caused fires burned through the high woodland forests about once every 13 years. Studies in other mountainous parts of the Southwest suggest that many areas experienced fires as often as every five years. The last sizable fire in the Chisos was in 1903. Lack of fire is attributed to grazing (from 1880s to 1940s), drought (in 1890s and 1950s especially) and suppression (since grazing) which promoted shrub growth over grasses.

A regular cycle of fires in the Chisos consumed the buildup of dead wood and brush, killed off diseased and insect-ridden trees, and worked to thin the forest. One result of fire's impact on the ecosystem was the beautiful oak-piñon forest of the higher reaches of the Chisos.

The oak and piñon trees offered abundant food (acorns and pine nuts) for wildlife species such as black bears. Grasses that flourished in fire-maintained meadows and beneath open stands of trees provided highly nutritional food for white tail deer. The high density of deer enabled mountain lions to thrive in the mountains.

Impacts of Fire Suppression

Impacts of Fire Suppression
The interrelationships between fire, plants, and animals in the Big Bend region began to drastically change in 1934. That year, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp was established in the Chisos Basin. The CCC crew leaders, like nearly everyone else in the country, believed that all fires were bad and had to be immediately suppressed.

The CCC boys did their assigned job well. They vigorously attacked each new fire and put most of them out before they burned more than a few acres. When Big Bend became a national park in 1944, crews of National Park Service firefighters continued the tradition begun by the CCC and courageously fought all fires that started in the park.

The successful suppression of most fires when they were still small had drastic long-term consequences that early park rangers failed to anticipate. Dead vegetation, which once would have burned up in regular, periodic fires, built up to extremely dangerous levels. Overstocked forests were far more susceptible to insects, diseases, and catastrophic fires.

Since dense canopies blocked sunlight from striking the forest floor, few herbs and shrubs survived in the understory. Lack of periodic fires reduced the vigor and quantity of meadow grasses available to deer. Due to slow decomposition, nutrients locked up in dead wood were recycled at a far slower pace than when fires burned through the forest. Due to fire suppression, Big Bend was becoming a very different ecosystem than what it had been prior to the CCC era.

In the early 1990s Big Bend experienced several of the largest fires ever known for the area. Six decades of fire suppression created excessively high fuel levels which made it much more dangerous and expensive to put out new fires.

Managing Fire

The park now manages fire as a critically important natural process that is allowed to resume its original role in crafting and influencing the plant and wildlife communities of the national park. The task is to manage the natural process of fire in ways that avoid negative impacts on resources and do not threaten human life and property.

Wildland Fire
Any fire started by accident or by natural causes such as lightning is designated a wildland fire. Big Bend averages ten unplanned fires during the prime fire season, March through July. Each wildland fire is intensively monitored by park staff members who decide on a daily basis whether the fire should be put out.

Prescribed Fire
A prescribed fire is any fire intentionally ignited by management to meet specific objectives such as reduction of flammable materials around developed areas. Each of these fires has a written prescription, a detailed plan on the type of weather, staffing, and other conditions which must be met before the fire can be set. If conditions change and the fire is no longer within prescription, it will be immediately extinguished.

For example, strong winds are common in Big Bend. A prescribed fire is postponed or suppressed if high winds are forecast for the park region. The National Park Service is also concerned about smoke and how it impacts human health and air visibility. Winds sometimes shift direction after a prescribed fire is started. If those winds bring large amounts of smoke to areas of high human use, the fire is put out.

The cost of using a prescribed fire to reduce an overload of flammable material can be as low as $48/acre. Putting out a wildfire with excessive amounts of dead wood could easily top $800/acre. Thus, a well-planned program of prescribed burns could cost only 1/16th the price of traditional firefighting.

In some sections of the park we may apply prescribed fire as a tool to eliminate or reduce exotic species such as tamarisk and buffel grass and to encourage native species like mesquite trees and desert grasses. Fire-adapted native plants germinate or sprout immediately after a fire and may replace exotic vegetation. For example, the roots of mesquite are rarely killed in a fire. Even if the entire above-ground portion of the tree is consumed by flames the plant can sent new shoots up from the surviving roots.

Restoring Fire in Big Bend
We will always have fires in Big Bend. We have learned that our original policy of total fire suppression not only made drastic changes in the local ecosystem, it also led to a hazardous buildup of dead wood and brush.

The new policies and attitudes towards fire management will restore and reinvigorate Big Bend's plant and animal communities to more natural conditions. Proper fire management will also enable us to more easily contain future fires that threaten human life, property, and precious resources.

Los Diablos

An International Partnership
Big Bend National Park’s Fire Management program has benefited for sixteen years from the assistance of Mexican Nationals, living in villages immediately across the Rio Grande from the park. Nearly 40 men participate in a wildland firefighting program that began during 1990 and expanded in 1997. The remoteness of the park from other firefighting resources in the United States created the need to find resources nearby.The firefighters are assigned to hand crews known as Los Diablos. This program has served as an example of cooperation between agencies of the two countries.

In 2002, a “breakout” year, the Los Diablos Program responded to wildland fire resource orders providing 116 firefighters while assisting on eight wildland fires/severity incidents covering 103 days. With assistance from Department of Homeland Security, the Customs and Border Protection Agency, the Diablos are eligible for parole into the United States on an annual basis to assist any emergency firefighting effort in the company of Big Bend National Park staff.

 

Partners in Protection

On November 7, 1994, President Carlos Salinas de Gotari of the Republic of Mexico issued the following decrees:

"Because it is in the public interest, the region known as 'Maderas del Carmen' is declared to be a Protected Natural Area with the status of Protected Area of Flora and Fauna...located in the state of Coahuila..."

"Because it is in the public interest, the region known as 'Cañón de Santa Elena' is declared to be a Protected Natural Area with the status of Protected Area of Flora and Fauna...located in the state of Chihuahua..."

With these words, President Salinas realized a dream that had been shared by people on both sides of the United States/Mexico border for many years. Long before the border region came into political focus, residents clearly understood that their shared ancestry, history, and economics often blurred the existence of the international boundary. The shared dream of people along the Rio Grande was a protected area that would preserve the land on both sides of the international border.

Big Bend National Park had good reason to celebrate the establishment of Mexico's protected areas. Big Bend National Park shares the border with the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila and is responsible for managing thirteen percent of the entire border between the United States and Mexico. With its mission of protecting natural and cultural resources for future generations, Big Bend National Park welcomed the protection of the resources south of the Rio Grande.

From the beginning, the idea for a protected area in the Big Bend region was viewed in an international context. In 1933, the Alpine, Texas, Chamber of Commerce proposed an international park on the United States/Mexico border and commissioned a landscape architect to conduct studies and prepare plans.

On February 16, 1935, U.S. Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas wrote to President Roosevelt proposing an international park in the Big Bend region. On June 20, 1935, Congress authorized the creation of a Big Bend National Park. The park was officially established on June 12, 1944, after the state of Texas acquired the property and transferred it to the National Park Service. However, Big Bend National Park was only part of the larger plan for an international peace park. It would be up to Mexico to establish a park south of the border.

On June 22, 1935, only two days after Big Bend National Park had been authorized by Congress, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes asked Secretary of State Cordell Hull to contact Mexican officials and solicit their support for an international peace park. In the fall of 1935, two meetings were held in El Paso, Texas, regarding the international park. Mexican and United States officials appointed a joint commission to investigate the proposal and recommend boundaries. The studies conducted by the commission revealed that the Mexican scenery, wildlife, and vegetation were equal, if not superior to, those on the American side. This was a fact recognized not only by government agencies, but by many others working in the environmental field in Mexico. Many non-governmental organizations such as Protección de Fauna (Protection of Wildlife) of Saltillo, Coahuila, fought for protection of the Sierra del Carmen. Individuals and organizations also worked for protection of the Santa Elena Canyon area in Chihuahua.

While official dialogue regarding an international park continued over the decades, numerous obstacles forestalled the establishment of the protected area in Mexico. In Mexico's governmental system, elected officials are limited to one six-year term in any office. Since newly elected candidates had little incentive to continue projects left by the previous administration, the establishment of the protected area had to be accomplished within a single term of office. Cultural differences, distrust, private land interests, economics, and more demanding domestic and international issues such as World War II also delayed the establishment of a protected area in Mexico.

But the unique natural beauty of the land south of Big Bend National Park could not be ignored. The mountains south of the Rio Grande contain an even greater diversity of flora and fauna than those north of the border. While only ten square miles of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park lie above 5,500 ft., over 100 square miles of the Maderas del Carmen lie above that elevation. Animal life, like the plant life, topography, and geology, is similar on both sides of the border, although the Mexican black bear and certain other mammals and birds are present in greater numbers in Mexico. Wild turkeys, rabbits, coyotes, gray fox, bobcats, ringtails, and skunks are all found in these ecosystems. White-winged doves, mourning doves, and quail are found among the over 450 species of birds that make their home in this part of the Chihuahuan Desert. The sheer value of these natural resources would help to drive the eventual establishment of the two protected areas in Northern Mexico. Since the establishment of the Maderas del Carmen Protected Area for Flora and Fauna in Coahuila and the Santa Elena Canyon Protected Area for Flora and Fauna in Chihuahua, the two states in Mexico have developed management plans for each area. Each state has hired a director and a few staff members. Big Bend National Park and the National Park Service U.S.-Mexico Affairs Office have collaborated with Mexican officials to share research and experience in managing a protected area in this ecosystem. Although in their infancy, the Mexican protected areas south of Big Bend have a bright future.

Since the 1990s, the discussion has changed from the concept of an international peace park implying cooperative management under a United States National Park Service model to the concept of "sister parks" or "bi-national parks." Each area will be administered under its own management plan while also providing many opportunities for joint management of shared ecosystems and resources. What will be the future relationship of these neighboring protected areas on the United States/Mexico border? Only time will reveal the exact outcome. No matter what the future brings, the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem along this part of the international border now enjoys the environmental protection afforded by two countries that share the common goal of protecting the natural resources of this unique region.

Centennial Initiative

On August 25, 2006—the 90th anniversary of the National Park Service—Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne launched the National Park Centennial Initiative to prepare national parks for another century of conservation, preservation and enjoyment. Since then the National Park Service asked citizens, park partners, experts and other stakeholders what they envisioned for a second century of national parks.

A nationwide series of more than 40 listening sessions produced more than 6,000 comments that helped to shape five centennial goals. The goals and vision were presented to President Bush and to the American people on May 31st in a report called The Future of America's National Parks.

Every national park staff took their lead from this report and created local centennial strategies to describe their vision and desired accomplishments by 2016. This is just the first year, and there are many great things to come as the National Park Service prepares to celebrate 100 years!

 

Leave No Trace

Be a steward of the land; during your visit to Big Bend, do everything you can to minimize your impact on the desert landscape.


Plan ahead and prepare
Big Bend is a land of extremes. Plan on high desert temperatures in the summer with little to no shade; in the winter freezing temperatures are possible in the Chisos Mountains. Schedule your visit to avoid peak season. Visit in small groups. Split larger parties into groups of 4-6. Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, and gravel. Protect riparian areas by camping at least 100 yards from springs, creek beds, and tinajas. Good campsites are found, not made. While on the trail, walk in single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy. Keep campsites small. Focus on areas where vegetation is absent.

Dispose of Waste Properly
Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter. Deposit solid human waste in cat-holes dug 6 to 8 inches deep at least 1/4 mile from water, camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished. Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.

Leave What You Find
Preserve the past. Examine, but do not touch, cultural or historic structures and artifacts. Leave rocks, wildflowers and other natural objects as you find them. Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species. Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.

Minimize Campfire Impacts
Campfires are not allowed in Big Bend National Park. In order to cook foods you may use a backpacking stove, portable fuel stove or the barbeque grills in your campsite.

Respect Wildlife
Observe Big Bend's wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them. Never feed wild animals. Feeding wild animals damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers. Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely. Pets are not allowed in the backcountry or on trails. Pets should be on leash and under supervision at all times.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience. Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail. Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock. Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors. Let nature's sound prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.

Volunteer

Each year over 200 volunteers contribute approximately 45,000 hours of service to Big Bend National Park. Some service groups come for a few days, other volunteers stay for months. Some are students, others are retirees looking for adventure during their "golden years." Some maintain and/or patrol trails while others work as campground hosts or as visitor center personnel. But regardless of age or background, these folks share a desire to make a positive contribution to the preservation and management of Big Bend National Park. Volunteers are a valuable and valued part of our operation and our community.

While we have far more applicants than positions, we are always looking for enthusiastic and energetic people. Competition for positions is highest during the winter months. Keep in mind that housing in Big Bend National Park is in short supply. Your chances of being selected as a volunteer are increased if you are able to provide your own trailer or recreational vehicle to live in.

Volunteers generally work two to three months, depending on the nature of work to be performed and the park's needs. The park may provide trailer or recreational vehicle campsites with full hookups or dormitory housing and utilities. Some funds are available to reimburse volunteers for costs such as obtaining a uniform and purchasing propane. Stipends are not available.

For more information regarding Big Bend National Park volunteer program, please contact the Park Volunteer Coordinator by phone (432.477.1195).

Applications
A VIP application is required for all volunteer positions. Some positions usually require a time commitment, training, and background check. Training is provided unless otherwise noted. Apply online at: www.volunteer.gov/gov, or download the application [32k PDF File] and mail to:
Volunteer Coordinator
Big Bend National Park
PO Box 129
Big Bend National Park, Texas 79834
432.477.1195

Join the Park Volunteer Team
Be a part of one of a great team and make a difference! The National Park Service is an equal opportunity employer.

Cooperating Association

The Big Bend Natural History Association (BBNHA) was established in 1956 as a private, non-profit organization. The Association's goal is to educate the public and increase their understanding and appreciation of the Big Bend Area and what it represents in terms of our historical and natural heritage. BBNHA champions the mission of the National Park Service of interpreting of the scenic, scientific, and historic values of Big Bend and encourages research related to those values. The Association conducts seminars and publishes, prints, or otherwise provides books, maps, and interpretive materials on the Big Bend region. Proceeds fund exhibits, films, interpretive programs, seminars, museum activities, and research.

Among the Association's past and present projects are the following:

  • Operate book sales outlets in Big Bend National Park and Amistad National Recreation Area
  • Publish trail guides, brochures and assist The Big Bend Paisano park newspaper
  • Sponsor an on-going Seminar program
  • Provide annual grants for research projects and administer grants and gifts received for the park
  • Support the park's volunteer, Junior Ranger, and educational outreach programs

Monitoring Air Quality

Parks and the Clean Air Act
The goal of the 1970 Clean Air Act is safe and acceptable ambient air quality. The Act directs that "Primary" air standards be set to protect public health. "Secondary" standards protect the national welfare including resources and values found in the national parks.

The Act seeks to "prevent the significant deterioration" of air quality, particularly in areas of special natural, scenic, or historic values. These regions are classified as "class I areas" and include many western national parks, one of which is Big Bend.

By enacting clean air legislation, Congress expressed the national desire to preserve the scenic values we have come to expect in our national parks.

In spite of Big Bend's remote location and presumed immunity to such urban problems as air pollution, noticeable changes in the park's air quality appeared during the 1970s. In response to this impending threat, park managers began an air monitoring program in 1978. After years of data collection and analysis, researchers are now able to interpret the transport and transformation of pollutants that contribute to the park's reduced visibility.

Monitoring Program
Big Bend's monitoring program includes many data collection systems:

1. Transmissometer - a device that sends a light beam across the desert to a collection monitor for 10 minutes each hour, measuring the amount of light blocked, absorbed, or deflected by air pollution.

2. Aerosol Sampler - a "vacuum cleaner" inhales air for 24 hours twice per week. Filters are analyzed for substances such as sulfates, nitrates, organic carbon, and soil.

3. Nephelometer - Fires a measured beam of light through a sample of ambient air to determine how much light is scattered due to pollution.

4. Automated Camera System - a permanently mounted camera that takes photos of the same distant scene at 9:00 am, 12 noon, and 3:00 pm each day, providing a daily account of visibility. One camera posts a picture to the Park's website every 15 minutes.

5. Precipitation Chemistry Analysis - part of a nationwide system which monitors changes in the chemistry and acid content of precipitation. Big Bend has participated in this program since 1980.

6. Ozone Monitor - a device that measures ozone in the atmosphere on a continuous basis.

Fire Management

Most of us grew up watching Smokey Bear commercials that stressed how destructive fires were to forests and wildlife. Thanks to recent research in fire ecology we are now realizing that many plant and animal species actually thrive when fires regularly burn through their habitat. We also know that in places like Big Bend National Park, fire is a normal part of a healthy natural environment. Based on that understanding, the National Park Service, like most land management agencies, has radically changed its policy on fire management and fire suppression.

Restoring Fire in Big Bend
We will always have fires in Big Bend. We have learned that our original policy of total fire suppression not only made drastic changes in the local ecosystem, it also led to a hazardous buildup of dead wood and brush.

The new policies and attitudes towards fire management will restore and reinvigorate Big Bend's plant and animal communities to more natural conditions. Proper fire management will also enable us to more easily contain future fires that threaten human life, property, and precious resources.

Environmental Factors

There is a certain something that pulls us to places like Big Bend National Park. Whether it is viewing your first night sky, experiencing a float down the river, enjoying a scenic overlook, or simply being here, memories of Big Bend and its environment are oftentimes the strongest.

Unfortunately a number of issues are negatively affecting many of these special experiences. In the coming years, we hope that interest from the visiting public and concern for the longterm stability of park resources will shape how this park is managed.

Exotic Animal Management

The National Park Service is developing an Exotic Animal Management Plan to guide protection of park resources from the impacts of non-native wildlife at Big Bend.

Federal regulation, Executive Orders and NPS Policies require National Parks to prevent impacts by exotic species to natural and cultural resources.

NPS Policies direct that exotic species…"will be managed - up to and including eradication - if control is prudent and feasible and the exotic species interferes with natural processes and the perpetuation of natural features, native species or natural habitats."

This planning process includes production of an environmental assessment that analyzes exotic animal management alternatives for their environmental and other effects.

Input from the public and other interested parties is critical to determining the appropriate course of action. We invite you to read the material relating to the plan, attend a public scoping meeting, contact park staff with questions, and submit your comments.

When does trash become history?

Each year, park visitors bring in things that they think are important and want to "show a ranger" what they found. Each year, some well-intentioned visitor will "clean up a trash pile" and deposit it on our doorstep. The question continues to arise whether or not piles of rusty tin cans and broken bottles are important artifacts.

First, these items really are government property. Even the stuff in our landfill is government property. The Code of Federal regulations is quite specific about protecting government property and park resources in general from disturbance of any kind. In that sense, they are important and our law enforcement responsibility is to deal with each case independently according to its severity.

Only someone trained in identifying the age of items in a trash pile is really able to distinguish between something significant and something that belongs in the landfill. I have looked over numerous piles of cans, bottles, broken pottery, wire and miscellaneous metal over the past twenty plus years and have yet to find something in the pile that can't tell me how old the stuff is, or more importantly, learn something about the people who lived on the site from the things they left behind. The importance is the context from which the objects came. If we lose the context, then we probably do have just a pile of trash.

Some examples are provided in the following pages to illustrate these points. A pile of cans collected from the Solis vicinity contained some unique cone-top soda pop cans that were only produced by a single bottling company during a very short three-year period in the 1950s. Knowing where these cans were found gave us about a ten-year period of occupation for the ruin nearby. Knowing the context of this trash pile turned out to be important historical and archeological information.

Without that information, we cannot effectively assess the importance of the find. After all, one day, our trash will be considered artifacts representing how we dealt with our environment.