Across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park, Mexico is taking a vastly different approach to land conservationand we might just learn something from it.
By Amy Leinbach Marquis
Big Bend National Park is the pure definition of unexpected. As you drive south from Marathon, Texas, the Chihuahuan Desert suddenly swells into a cluster of giant peaks ahead in the distance. Twenty minutes later you’re climbing into the Chisos Mountains, where woodlands sway with Emory oaks, weeping junipers, and pinyon pines. Mountain lions reveal themselves on a surprisingly regular basis. At dusk, tarantulas tiptoe across the asphalt in clusters of furry brown legs and eyes that reflect car headlights. Scorpions glow green under pocket-sized black lights that you can purchase from a nearby rafting outfitter.
But at the base of Casa Grande Peak, mystery falls away to a familiar scene: A lodge. A restaurant. A parking lot. A trailhead. Rangers in full-brimmed hats. It’s all part of a tidy little package we know as America’s national park experience.
Even beyond the pavement, where the desert experience is entirely unscripted, visitors take comfort in these touchstones: People will always have access to this land. Congress will always provide some amount of funding. And federal law will always keep certain protections in place. This is the very definition of our national parks—a formula celebrated as our nation’s best idea, and exported all over the world with great success.
But gaze across the river into Mexico, where the landscape mirrors—if not outshines—the Chisos Mountains, and you’re witnessing the result of a dramatically different conservation model. Here, land is owned by those who live on it: wealthy ranchers, poor villagers, and Cemex—an international cement company with a conscience. Although these areas are protected by the federal government, Mexicans have never relied solely on state and federal conservation initiatives to protect the land.
“I’ve learned that our concept of a national park—federal funding, a good number of staff, and federal ownership of the land—is a product of our social system, governmental system, and economy,” says Raymond Skiles, acting chief of science and resource management at Big Bend. “Just across the border, there isn’t the same kind of history or context.”
The Rio Grande, which marks the international border, separates the Chisos Mountains from the Sierra del Carmen—both known as “sky islands” for stunning pockets of biodiversity that rise up to 9,600 feet above sea level. Strung together with Santa Elena Canyon and Serranias del Burro, they provide a critical wildlife corridor for species like black bears, desert bighorn sheep, and a variety of migrating birds.
Despite these crown jewels, both Mexico and the United States have a history of being hard on the land. Heavy mining and logging practices in the early 1900s left their mark on the Sierra del Carmen, just as sheep did on the grasslands of the Chisos. Perhaps more detrimental, however, was Mexico’s Robin Hood-like land reform that reached its height in the 1970s, as the government broke up the region’s largest cattle ranches and converted them into communal land, or ejidos. Some poor city dwellers relocated to Coahuila to graze livestock, but without the knowledge or resources to practice sustainable ranching, they wiped out abundant game like mule deer and wild turkey, and lush native grasslands deteriorated into bare earth.
“Can you imagine a taxi driver from Mexico City moving to a place as harsh and wild as Coahuila?” asks Bonnie McKinney, a former wildlife diversity specialist at Black Gap Wildlife Management Area in Texas, east of Big Bend. “This is desert country, and these people had to make a living off the land. You can’t blame them for using up resources when they were just trying to survive.”
Guillermo Osuna, whose family history in northern Mexico dates back to World War II , was one of the ranchers who lost significant acreage to ejidos. “What belonged to all really belonged to nobody,” he says. “No one took care of the land. No one protected it.”
In the early 1990s, President Carlos Salinas recognized that the communal land model had failed, so he gave farmers the option to rent or sell their property. Most residents had already moved on to find better-paying jobs in the city, but the few that remained began forming larger, more economical ranches out of deserted ejidos. By reconnecting these barren plots, landowners opened the door for restoring the region.
Salinas’ amendment introduced another positive change involving an unexpected ally: Corporations were allowed to own agricultural land for the first time in Mexico’s history. In 2000 a soft-spoken but persistent conservation photographer named Patricio Robles Gil used his images to convince Lorenzo Zambrano, CEO of Cemex, to help preserve Mexico’s biodiversity. The corporation has since purchased 400,000 acres in the region, creating a private wildlife preserve—the first of its kind in Mexico.
To help get the project on its feet, McKinney and her husband—a former wildlife technician with Texas Parks and Wildlife—left Texas for El Carmen in 2001. They led a massive species inventory, blackbear tracking projects, and bighorn-sheep reintroductions with the help of local biologists, conservationists, and eight villagers that Cemex hired and trained as full-time staff.
“Eight or nine years ago, these guys were hunting year-round and using up the natural resources,” McKinney says. “Now they’ve switched roles completely, helping to restore the land and wildlife. This is probably the first time they’ve had a steady paycheck.” At the same time, Osuna helped rally a group of ranchers in Coahuila to make conservation as important as cattle. The first step was simple: Learn to tolerate predators. Instead of shooting Mexican black bears, the ranchers put up with the occasional loss of calves. Their compassion paid off. After a 40-year absence, black bears were roaming north into Big Bend again.
At the end of his term in 1994, President Salinas made one bold, final move: declaring Sierra del Carmen and Santa Elena federally protected areas. But federal protection in Mexico looks different than it does in the United States. Such designations play out more like conservation easements, where the government doesn’t own the land but has some control over what happens on it. Private landowners must agree to restrict development and other activities that could harm the environment.
By American standards, this was a big step toward creating the international park President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned when he established Big Bend in 1944. But Mexicans reacted differently. Their government’s conservation initiatives have a reputation for being too restrictive, overly bureaucratic, or just plain ineffective, so ranchers like Osuna are skeptical.
“My greatest fear is that we would return to socialist ideas that have proven disastrous for conservation and our resources,” he says. “The best way to avoid this is to prove that well-managed private lands are good for conservation.”
But how sustainable is that model without solid federal backing? Will the children of today’s ranchers carry on their family’s legacy, or will they abandon wilderness for city life? And despite support from northern Coahuila ranchers, will all of the region’s landowners see the value in wildlife conservation?
Tyrus Fain, president of the Rio Grande Institute in Marathon, Texas, thinks the movement to keep the Carmens closed to the public is a mistake. “Without public support, all you have is elite ranchers hiding behind weak laws,” he says. Ecotourism guided by conservation, he claims, is a viable solution—so Fain, along with Mexican ranchers and conservationists who share his view, has been working to restore and reopen an old mining bridge at La Linda, just outside Big Bend. This would replace the crossing that existed between the park and Boquillas before Homeland Security shut down the Mexican border in May 2002.
But some people fear that the bridge could open up convenient pathways for illegal immigrants and drug cartels or even develop into a busy international trade corridor, threatening what has so far been a relatively calm part of the border. The Park Service isn’t opposed to reopening the border but would rather see it happen at Boquillas to avoid developing major roads that might encourage illegal activities.
“We need a system that will allow park visitors to get into Mexico and appreciate the resources in an environmentally friendly manner, without huge amounts of infrastructure,” says David Elkowitz, Big Bend’s chiefof interpretation.
This is where conservation photographer Robles Gil offers an appealing solution for the Mexican side. His vision stems from successful ecotourism models in Iceland and South Africa’s Kruger National Park, where visitors spend their days exploring the wilderness, and at night, tap into a system of local landowners who offer their homes as bed-and-breakfasts. Tourist dollars go directly into the hands of the private landowners who do their part to manage the land.
“It would be a different experience than Big Bend—maybe more exotic, maybe more expensive,” Robles Gil says. “That kind of money could help these places.” As long as money’s flowing in, he says, landowners will be more inclined to make conservation a priority.
“I’m inspired by America’s national parks,” says Robles Gil, whose childhood memories include visits to Yellowstone and Yosemite. “You see a lot of wildlife, and that’s amazing, especially when you’re a kid. El Carmen can be that place. We brought back the desert sheep, black bear, and pronghorn. We can still bring back the wolf, grizzly, and jaguar. Imagine, eleven megafauna in one place, in Mexico.”
From hikers itching for a Mexican adventure, to tourists craving a margarita in a charming border town, to die-hard wilderness advocates fighting development, people will always have their own vision for this place. But such complexities tend to fall away when you realize that both sides simply want to protect the land they love.
Big Bend’s Raymond Skiles adds to that vision: Reopen the park’s historic rowboat crossing at Boquillas with a Customs and Immigration presence and limited crossings. But he’s careful not to weigh in too heavily. “At the border, there’s a long history of powerful American interests getting in the driver’s seat,” he says. “So we need to understand that we have our traditional concept, and Mexicans have theirs. And we need to make sure that through our influence, help, and participation, Mexico has the liberty to develop something their people buy into and see as their own.”
Ask any “old-time” visitor or park ranger about what Big Bend was like before 9/11, and they’ll launch into sentimental stories about the days when they could visit their Mexican neighbors with ease. There were baseball games in Mexico and cookouts in Big Bend. Park staff and Mexican villagers could enjoya few beers together in Boquillas after a long, hard day. “When the border closed,” says Tim Beck, a park firefighter, “it was like somebody just divided our town in half.”
Without the influx of U.S. tourists to feed the border towns’ economies, life south of the river crumbled. Many residents abandoned their homes for jobs in the city. Those who stayed behind struggle daily to make ends meet.
The Park Service is doing what it can to change that. With help from groups like the Rio Grande Institute and World Wildlife Fund, it’s employing Mexican villagers in conservation projects like eradicating the invasive salt cedar and giant cane that are overtaking the river (special U.S. government-issued cards allow workers to cross into riparian areas on both sides of the river). Big Bend also hires and trains Mexican firefighters, called diablos, who enter the country with special permits to battle wildfires in Big Bend and on other public lands. An art co-op established in part by Martha King, wife of former park superintendent John King, imports local Boquillas crafts for sale in the park and gateway communities; the project, along with private donations, raised enough money to install a solar-powered generator and windpowered well pump in Boquillas.
But these stories are increasingly drowned out in the noise of a post-9/11 world. Instead, Americans are flooded with questions about national security, especially on our borders. Construction of a giant steel fence in Texas threatens to cut through a school campus, bulldoze private homes, and cut off people and wildlife from their primary water source.
“When we get to the point where reason can prevail, a lot of these conservation initiatives we’ve been working toward are going to happen,” says Big Bend’s superintendent, Bill Wellman. “From just about every standpoint—from national security to protecting resources—you’re better off having friends on the other side of the river rather than enemies.”