Big Bend National Park in Texas features broad expanses of Chihuahuan Desert shrubland and grassland interspersed with smaller areas of high-elevation woodland in the Chisos Mountains, near the center of the park. Riparian and wetland areas hugging the Rio Grande and associated with springs throughout the park represent geographically small but ecologically valuable contributions to the park, while deep canyons along the river are among the park's most striking features.
The black bear, mountain lion, and javelina, along with bats, turtles, frogs, toads, and 450 species of birds, either reside in the park or use park resources. The area's rich and varied human history is clearly evident through widespread archaeological and historical sites.
In February 2012, Big Bend National Park was designated a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association, becoming only the second U.S. national park and one of ten parks in the world to earn the distinction. (The first U.S. national park, Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, was designated as the world’s first Dark-Sky Park in 2007.) Big Bend is thought to have one of the darkest measured skies in the lower 48 states and is located within 150 miles of the McDonald Observatory, a leading center for astronomical research.
Like most of the parks of the National Park System, the national parks of Texas face serious challenges as we move toward the National Park Centennial Year of 2016. These include the need to acquire adjoining, threatened lands, air and water pollution, under-funding and under-staffing, inappropriate use of off-road vehicles, and the challenges of Texas’s location on an international border.
In addition, according to an assessment by the Center for the State of the Parks in 2003, while Big Bend may appear pristine, historical land uses have caused the loss of several native species, considerable soil erosion, and a general decline in the condition of both natural and cultural resources. Insufficient funds prevent the Park Service from hiring staff needed to preserve historic structures, archival documents, and other cultural resources. Air and water pollution stemming from outside the park and ever-growing demands for water from the Rio Grande are seriously degrading visibility and water resources within the park. The results? Diminished visitor experiences and widespread effects on all species that rely on the river for survival.
Air pollution is among the most serious threats to national parks. The National Park Service has established the NPS air quality webcam network to show “live” digital images of more than a dozen parks. Click here to see current air conditions at Big Bend National Park.