Big Bend history in peril

Map.BigBendInternationalPark

Jason Abrams

IMPERILED NARRATIVE:  THE HISTORY OF U.S.-MEXICO PARK RELATIONS IN BIG BEND, TEXAS, 1944-1963

 

ABSTRACT:  This essay outlines the need for an accurate, working administrative history of relations between the National Park Service and counterpart agencies in Mexico.  The National Park Service cannot properly formulate current policies and decisions regarding U.S.-Mexico park relations without the ability to consult a thorough, accurate record of past decisions regarding the establishment of an international park on the Rio Grande, including Big Bend National Park and contiguous protected areas in the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua.  At present, the National Park Service has no administrative history regarding nearly two decades of relations with Mexico—from the establishment of Big Bend National Park in 1944 through the closure of the program in December 1963. This oversight directly impacts the Service’s ability to formulate policy regarding current binational park issues, including a proposed border wall paralleling the Rio Grande.   The author contends that establishing the international park is a permanent solution to decades of conflict and uncertainly regarding conservation along the border in the Big Bend region.

 

A NARRATIVE IN PERIL:  THE HISTORY OF U.S-MEXICO PARK RELATIONS

According to National Park Service Administrative History: A Guide (2004), the National Park Service has a fundamental responsibility to preserve and analyze its own history and obligation to maintain a thorough, accurate record of its policies, decisions, and activities.  This administrative history program is vital because current policies and decisions cannot be formulated properly without reference to past experience.  By learning more about problems their predecessors faced, managers at all levels are better informed about contemporary issues and thus bring greater awareness to their policy and program decisions.[1]

One fundamental goal of the Administrative History program is to obtain an accurate, thorough, and well-written account of the origin and evolution of each unit of the National Park Service.  However, the National Park Service lacks any Administrative History covering U.S.-Mexico park relations.  No written work or agency history establishes a working timeline of events related to this continuing relationship with Mexico.  It is counterproductive for the National Park Service to formulate policies while ignoring courses of action pursued by previous administrations.  A comprehensive understanding of these precedents (and past obstacles) allows current National Park Service staff to make informed decisions regarding cooperation with Mexico.  With a border wall currently under consideration for Big Bend National Park, reference to past experiences is imperative.

This essay illustrates the dire need for a working timeline of US-Mexico cooperation in Big Bend National Park and the neighboring states of Coahuila and Chihuahua—from the establishment of Big Bend National Park in 1944 through the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963.  How did the National Park Service deal with obstacles to U.S.-Mexican park relations from 1944 through 1963?  Without an administrative history and working timeline, this question is impossible for park service staff to answer.  Key historical events and precedents remain unknown to park administrators, the National Park Service’s Office of International Affairs, and the National Park Service history program.

THE US-MEXICO BIG BEND INTERNATIONAL PARK

The primary intent for establishing a U.S.-Mexico international park in Big Bend, Texas and contiguous lands in the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua remains unaltered since the first binational meeting in El Paso, Texas on November 24, 1935.  Both nations agreed that a shared ecosystem—divided only by an arbitrary political boundary—should be preserved as a single park unit administered by Mexico and the United States.  This binational conservation concept emerged in 1932 with the joint establishment of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park on the Montana-Canada border.  While both nations retain autonomy regarding park administration and management practices, the success of Waterton-Glacier depends on ongoing cooperation between Canadian and US park officials.  In 1944, the National Park Service established Big Bend National Park but the US-Mexico international park remained unconsummated.  This “post-establishment” history (1944-1963) is perhaps the most applicable to modern border park management issues.

Unlike the history of Waterton-Glacier, the narrative of US-Mexico park relations is largely forgotten, misunderstood or unpublished.  Most histories claim that the movement to establish a Big Bend International Park ended after WWII, or reemerged sporadically through 1954.  This is inaccurate.  Records of the Department of State and the National Park Service’s Washington Service Office document a campaign that was not officially discontinued until December 1963—nearly a decade after the campaign allegedly ceased.  The campaign to establish the park during the 1950’s and 1960’s can be viewed as a series of sporadic initiatives, or an ongoing movement punctuated by delays due to economics, politics, and mutual suspicion.  Regardless of interpretations, it is impossible to examine US-Mexico park relations without consulting the record.

2015:  HISTORICAL OVERSIGHTS AT BOQUILLAS, MEXICO

At the April 10, 2015 signing of the US-Mexico Wildlife Protection Agreement in Boquillas, Mexico, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell celebrated “the latest steps in the long and productive history of bilateral cooperation in the conservation of natural and cultural resources between the United States and Mexico” (emphasis added).  She quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in October 1944 informed President of Mexico Manuel Avila Camacho that “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.” [2]

Unknown to Secretary Jewell, Roosevelt was not the only President in the 1940’s to write President Camacho regarding an international park in Big Bend.   In April 1946, President Harry S. Truman informed Camacho that ““this international park…was very close to the heart of the late Mr. Roosevelt—as it is to mine.”   Truman felt the international park project was “of inestimable value to our citizens on both sides of the border” and “would remain a living symbol of the growing friendship between our peoples.”  In his reply to Truman, Camacho agreed that creating the international park was “mutually advantageous” for the people of both nations.[3]  Yet even in 2015, Truman’s words remained unknown—even to the current Secretary of the Interior.

Words of former Secretaries of the Interior regarding the Big Bend International Park also remain unpublished.  In December 1963, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall informed his counterpart in Mexico that “we have looked forward for many years to the day when the magnificent scenery on both sides of the Rio Grande could be dedicated to the enjoyment of the citizens of both our countries as a lasting symbol of friendship.”[4]  Ironically, these same sentiments were expressed 52 years later at Boquillas by Secretary Jewell.  It is difficult to celebrate a “long and productive history” of US-Mexico park relations that is virtually unknown to National Park Service historians and, by extension, the Secretary of the Interior herself.

The unexamined correspondences of former presidents, Secretaries of the Interior, and directors of the National Park Service are not mere omissions of minutia.  The vast majority of these records remain ignored and languish in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration at College Park, Maryland.  The National Park Service has rarely compiled data from these sources and this massive oversight leaves a narrative—and a binational conservation effort—in peril. Without the ability to consult an administrative history of US-Mexico park relations, Secretary Jewell was unable to quote her predecessors or even acknowledge that the international park movement endured through the early 1960’s.

2017: A WALL IN BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK?

Why is this history important?  Without knowledge of prior obstacles, successes and failures, the National Park Service is unaware of key precedents dating to the Truman era that might influence current decisions and viewpoints.  Establishing the international park is a permanent solution to decades of conflict and uncertainly regarding conservation along the border in the Big Bend region, and the international park itself constitutes a permanent moratorium regarding border construction that affects wildlife, regional aesthetics, and the livelihood of local residents.  Records demonstrate that most obstacles to international park establishment are—in theory—surmountable with patience and diligence.  Another lesson is that patience and diligence are not enough.

Regarding the prospect of establishing the international park, Jewell stated in 2015 at Boquillas that “we are on the cusp of making that happen.” [5]  Are we?  In 2013, the Boquillas Port of Entry in Big Bend—closed in 2002 following the events of 9/11—was reopened.  Yet in January 2017, President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order regarding Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements.  One of these “improvements” includes a border wall along the Rio Grande, effectively separating Big Bend from the states of Chihuahua and Coahuila.  This border wall is the latest threat to binational cooperation in Big Bend.  A wall (or fence) paralleling the Rio Grande will defeat the social and ecological progress of binational conservation efforts along the US-Mexico border.

What has the National Park Service learned from the first 20 years of US-Mexico cooperation following the establishment of Big Bend National Park in 1944?  Virtually nothing because the vast majority of relevant documents remain unexamined.   Records of the National Archives are difficult to navigate and can only be examined page-by-page, one box at a time. Without ready access to these files, the National Park Service is virtually operating blind when evaluating courses of action regarding establishment of the international park.  Until the National Park Service publishes a thorough, accurate record of its former policies, decisions, and activities related to Mexico, current policies and decisions will never be formulated properly via reference to past experiences.

[1] National Park Service Administrative History: A Guide. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service (2004).  Retrieved January 20, 2014 at https://www.National Park Service.gov/parkhistory/hisNational Park Service/NATIONAL PARK SERVICEHistory/guide.pdf

[2] Press release, Department of the Interior, April 10, 2015. “Secretaries Jewell and Guerra Celebrate the Binational Big Bend-Rio Bravo Conservation Partnership Two Year Anniversary of Boquillas Port of Entry.” Retrieved April 12, 2015 at https://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/secretaries-jewell-guerra-celebrate-the-binational-big-bend-rio-bravo-conservation-partnership-two-year-anniversary-of-boquillas-port-of-entry

[3] President Harry S. Truman to President of Mexico Manuel Avila Camacho, April 18, 1946.  Camacho to Truman, May 22, 1946.  Central Files, Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD

[4] Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall to Mexican Secretary of the Department of Agriculture Julian Rodriguez Adame, December 16, 1963  L62 Files, Big Bend International Park, Records of the National Park Service, Record Group 79; National Archives at College Park, MD.

[5] Press release, Department of the Interior, April 10, 2015. “Secretaries Jewell and Guerra Celebrate the Binational Big Bend-Rio Bravo Conservation Partnership Two Year Anniversary of Boquillas Port of Entry.”