PARKS:

75 years on, effort to create U.S.-Mexico park hampered by security concerns

It's an idea that's been in the making for three-quarters of a century, but the creation of an international park along the U.S.-Mexico border is still nothing more than a notion.

The latest obstacle: security concerns stemming from the recent surge in violence in Mexico and the border region.

While proponents of the park say its creation would enhance security along the border, even they acknowledge that violence south of the border has made the concept of an international park a more difficult sell.

"I have to admit the timing is not appropriate, given what's happening in Mexico, but I'm optimistic we'll get past this in time," said Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas), who introduced a resolution in Congress last year supporting the park's creation.

The proposed plan would take advantage of national parks and protected areas already designated in southwestern Texas's Big Bend region, including Big Bend National Park, and the El Carmen region in Mexico, but the Interior Department says the designation would not interfere with each country's existing legislation, border security and rights. More than 268 river miles and 3 million acres of contiguous parks and protected areas on both sides of the border would be included under the plan, protecting 14 percent of the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

Big Bend National Park is the largest protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert in the United States, but its location along the Mexican border presents unusual management challenges. For example, because the Rio Grande serves as an international boundary, the Park Service has authority only to the center of the deepest river channel -- the rest of the river lies within Mexico's jurisdiction.

Many familiar with the region consider the Mexican wildlands to be even more spectacular than those on the U.S. side of the border. The mountains south of the Rio Grande, which rise to 9,600 feet, contain a more diverse array of plants and animals than those on the U.S. side. And more than 100 square miles of the Maderas del Carmen reach above 5,500 feet, while only 10 square miles of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park reach such heights.

"It's a terrain not separated by the river but part of the river," said Rodriguez, whose district includes Big Bend. "It's only separated politically."

There is a precedent for the creation of a park crossing international boundaries. The world's first peace park was established in 1932 with the creation of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park on the U.S.-Canada border, which comprises Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana and Waterton National Park in Alberta. The parks work together on many issues, but they retain political, administrative and financial independence from one another.

Security concerns

But the Canadian border does not present the same security issues that the Mexican border does. And with the recent uptick in violence in the border region, security concerns continue to plague the park idea.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), for one, has expressed concerns about the concept.

"The Senator would not be supportive of any undertaking that could compromise border security, so she would need to have a clear understanding of how border crossings and other security interests would be protected," Hutchison spokeswoman Courtney Sanders wrote in an e-mail.

House Republicans, led by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, have also mounted a campaign in recent months to elevate border security concerns, which they argue have been compromised by federal efforts to preserve landscapes and species. Bishop has introduced legislation in the House that would mandate that the Interior and Agriculture departments not "impede, prohibit, or restrict activities" by the Homeland Security Department to secure and control the border (Land Letter, May 13).

"The Border Patrol is not being allowed do their job," Bishop said during a news conference in Washington, D.C., in April. "That has to change."

But proponents argue that creating an international park would actually enhance border security and breathe new life into the area's economy. On the Mexican side of the border, in particular, a lack of infrastructure and the closure of border crossings after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have hampered tourism.

Rodriguez said having a border crossing allowing access to the protected areas on both sides of the border would help authorities keep better tabs on illegal activities. "If you close the door, you don't know what's happening on the other side," he said. "It becomes actually more dangerous."

And Rick LoBello, a conservationist in El Paso who is a longtime supporter of the international park concept, said he did not expect illegal activities would increase with the creation of an international park. "The misconception is that with an international park at Big Bend, there would suddenly be a massive movement of people crossing the border and bringing drugs in. That's fictitious."

Even so, there are already plans to beef up border security in Big Bend. The Park Service is building eight new buildings in the park to house Border Patrol agents, allowing the agency to quadruple the number of agents officially assigned to the area.

"That will give us an expanded presence in the park," said Customs and Border Patrol spokesman Bill Brooks.

Brooks said there is not much illegal immigration through the park, but drugs do occasionally come through the area. Since May 25, agents have taken down two 2,000-pound loads of marijuana that made their way through the park, he said.

"The park is no better and no worse than anywhere else in the Marfa Sector," he said, referring to the 510-mile border area patrolled by agents based out of Marfa, Texas.

Those sentiments were echoed by Ronnie Dodson, sheriff of Brewster County, which includes Big Bend National Park. "They ain't put nobody in my jail in a long, long, long time," he said, referring to park officials.

"Out in this area, we haven't seen the violence that some other towns have," he added. Brewster County, with 13,000 residents in an area of 6,204 square miles, is one of the most sparsely populated parts of the country.

A long history

The idea of an international park incorporating Big Bend National Park and the protected areas in the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua was first put forward by President Franklin Roosevelt and then-Mexican president Manuel Ávila Camacho in 1935. Although meetings on the idea were held throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, the start of World War II brought other priorities.

After Big Bend National Park was established in 1944, protecting more than 800,000 acres in southwest Texas, the two presidents exchanged letters in which they shared a common vision of conserving the shared ecosystems on both sides of the Rio Grande.

"I do not believe that this undertaking in the Big Bend will be complete until the entire park area in this region on both sides of the Rio Grande forms one great international park," Roosevelt wrote in a letter to Camancho, referring to the establishment of Big Bend National Park.

But it would be up to Mexico to complete that vision. However, many obstacles stood in the way of establishing protected areas in Mexico, including cultural differences, distrust, private land interests, economics and politics.

It was not until 1994 that Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gotari established the Cañon de Santa Elena and Maderas del Carmen protected areas in Chihuahua and Coahuila. The designations marked a critical step toward the creation of an international park, but the designations still left a chunk of unprotected land across the border from Big Bend.

The idea seemed to get new life last year with the June 2009 designation of Ocampo Protected Area by Mexican President Felipe Calderón. The designation completed a critical piece of the vision of forming a contiguous set of protected areas across from Big Bend National Park and other protected areas on the U.S. side of the border, including the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, Big Bend Ranch State Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area.

The designation was followed by the introduction of Rodriguez's resolution supporting an international park. The resolution put the international park project back on the U.S. agenda, and it was quickly followed by an announcement from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Mexican Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Juan Elvira that the two countries would develop a plan to enhance coordination in the Big Bend and El Carmen area of the border.

The joint announcement marked the renewal of a bilateral process to develop one of the most significant conservation initiatives considered by Mexico and the United States at the border.

In March, the proposal seemed to be gaining ground again, with a visit by Salazar to Big Bend, during which he again expressed support for the potential establishment of a Big Bend/Rio Bravo International Park.

"Our two nations could and should engage in an even higher level of cooperation to conserve this remarkable area and its wildlife while providing more opportunities for visitors to enjoy it," he said in a statement, noting that it would help the two countries address issues such as water and air quality, invasive species and wildland fire.

And the proposal seemed to take another step forward last month when President Obama and Mexican President Calderón issued a joint statement recognizing that "increased cooperation" in protecting the lands would make the border area more secure and help to protect the region's fragile ecosystem. The presidents also expressed support for designating Big Bend-Rio Bravo as a "natural area of binational interest."

Reason for hope?

But there is still much uncertainty about what an international park would entail. Suzanne Dixon, Texas director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said there is a lot of anticipation about the Interior Department moving forward with an official proposal.

"We can all talk about what it should look like, but it hasn't come out yet," she said. "We're wondering is it going to be this year? Next year?"

One thing holding up movement on the proposal currently is the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Interior Department spokesman Hugh Vickery said a lot of the department's work has been put on the backburner because so many resources are being devoted to the spill. "I think the oil spill right now is the major thing on our plate," he said.

Additionally, he noted that there are still legal issues surrounding the park's creation that need to be worked out. "There's still problems that have to be resolved about how this would be officially done," he said.

And NPS spokesman Rick Frost shied away from the idea of an international park entirely, saying the focus instead is on increased cooperation between the two countries. "I don't think anybody yet is calling it an international park," he said.

The lack of movement on the park concept has prompted some concerns from supporters of the plan, who fear the recent announcements by the Obama administration indicating support for the international park may not pan out. "I don't know what to think about Salazar and how serious about it he is," said LoBello.

"It's kind of sad," he continued. "Here this project is over 70 years old and up until 10 to 20 years ago, the main problem was Mexico was distrustful of us and now that they trust us the problem in making it happen is on our side of border. I still have some hope but my hope level is not as high as it was."

Gable is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.