Protecting the Greater Big Bend Region and the Northern Chihuahuan Desert
by Rick LoBello
For nearly a 100 years conservationists living and working in the Greater Big Bend -Chihuahuan Desert region of Mexico and the United States have dedicated their lives to protecting large areas of habitat in West Texas, Southern New Mexico and Northern Mexico. To help ensure that large areas of habitat remain both protected and connected by wildlife corridors, it is important that stakeholders in the region come together to develop and implement strategic plans focused on protecting the desert’s biodiversity including fragile wetlands, lowland desert areas, arroyos and mountain sides. In this report I will address current issues, challenges and recent successes in protecting the Greater Big Bend Region.
All around the country and the world there are beautiful landscapes and eco-regions. During my lifetime I have been fortunate to have been able to visit and experience many of them, from the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East to the savannas of Kenya, the Virunga Volcanoes of Rwanda, parts of China and Southeast Asia and nearly all of North America.
Every place I have visited has its unique communities of animals and plants, geology and cultures. It is here in the Greater Big Bend Region of the Chihuahuan Desert that most of us call home, where we work and live our lives, that so many of us have come to know and love a very special place. With it’s amazingly display of biodiversity, so important to the global ecosystem and the future of humanity, we are inspired to do our part to help protect the earth for future generations.
Like many of you I love the Greater Big Bend Region of the Chihuahuan Desert and want to do all I can to help hold all the pieces together, which is one of the reasons why so many of us are involved with organizations that help bring together educators and researchers, all for the same cause, to preserve and protect nature.
The Chihuahuan Desert is a hotspot for conservation in the Southwest US and northern Mexico. Efforts to protect this eco-region go back to the early part of the last century when in 1912 President William Howard Taft signed an Presidential Executive Order creating the Jornada Range Reserve in southern New Mexico, later renamed the Jornada Experimental Range.
Thirteen years later in 1923 the U.S. National Park Service began what would be a 54 year effort to protect other large tracts of Chihuahuan Desert. Carlsbad Cave National Monument, later to be called Carlsbad Caverns National Park, was established by President Calvin Coolidge who signed a proclamation on October 25, 1923. White Sands National Monument was established ten years later in 1933 and on February 16, 1935 Texas Senator Morris Sheppard wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggesting a park of international scope in the Big Bend area. Although the park of international scope did not make it off the planning table, Big Bend National Park was established on June 12, 1944. Twenty-two years later Guadalupe Mountains National Park was established in 1966 and today, there is a new hope, a new window of opportunity to finally see the now 85 year old dream of a giant US Mexico international protected area finally see the light of day.
Other government agencies at both the State and Federal level have also played a role in protecting Chihuahuan Desert habitat including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service, the State of New Mexico and the State of Texas.
In Mexico where 68% of the Chihuahuan Desert is located conservation efforts have included designations in 1992 of the Maderas del Carmen Protected Area in northern Coahuila across from the southeastern side of Big Bend National Park, the Santa Elena Canyon Protected areas in northern Chihuahua across from the southwestern boundary of Big Bend National Park and the Ocampo Flora and Fauna Protected Area in the state of Coahuila created by a degree of President Felipe Calderon in 2009. Other notable conservation efforts have helped to protect Cuatro Cienagas Biosphere Reserve in Coahuila and Mapimi Biosphere Reserve in Durango.
It is important to note that habitat protection in Mexico mainly involves large areas of private land in contrast to the federally and state owned lands in the United States. According to the World Wildlife Fund within the border protected areas across from Big Bend National Park in areas like the Maderas del Carmen, 64% of the land is under the Ejido Property System, 34% is owned by CEMEX and only 2% along the Rio Grande is owned by the Mexican federal government. Jurgen Hoth of the World Wildlife Fund stated at a Big Bend National Park sponsored meeting this past September in Alpine, Texas that Ejidos “are a good example of land managers and Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas CONANP working together” in protecting large areas of Chihuahuan Desert.
Here in the Greater Big Bend Region of El Paso there are two major efforts underway to further help protect this ecoregion. I would say they are two of the biggest issues that must soon be resolved in protecting large tracts of unprotected desert on public lands.
In the heart of the City of El Paso rise the Franklin Mountains. Texas Parks and Wildlife protects the heart of the range as part of the country’s largest urban park, Franklin Mountains State Park. One of the greatest challenges in protecting the park and its biodiversity is the ongoing destruction of the desert by urban sprawl developments in the surrounding lowland desert. Over the past 100 years nearly the entire foothills area of the mountain range has been developed from the historic Rio Grande near the downtown area and the border with Mexico for nearly 10 miles north towards New Mexico on both the east and west side of the range.
From 2011 to 2015 the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition and Jim Tolbert of El Paso Naturally launched several grassroots efforts to protect Public Service Board public lands as natural open space along the west side of the range along Trans Mountain Road and the Fort Bliss Castner Range in northeast El Paso. On October 6, 2010 the El Paso City Council voted to direct city staff to rezone 900 acres near the boundary of Franklin Mountains State Park so that they cannot be developed.
In 2015 a petition called for further protections of public lands. Over 6000 people in El Paso signed a petition that read “WE THE PEOPLE want preserved, in its natural state and in perpetuity, all of the undeveloped land owned by the City of El Paso on the western side of the Franklin Mountains that is north of Transmountain Road, east of the EPNG Pipeline Road and south of the New Mexico/El Paso boundary and on the eastern side of the Franklin Mountains that is north of Transmountain, west of Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and south of the New Mexico/El Paso boundary”.
As a result of the 2015 petition the Public Service Board formed a citizens Preservation and Conservation Planning Committee. The group identified the following important expectations for the plan:
1. A plan is needed that can be approved by all stakeholder agencies.
2. The plan should establish the value of preserving land compared to developing it.
3. The benefits of the plan should address economic and quality of life considerations.
4. The plan should guide future development, including conditions of sale and be used as a model for future land development for all undeveloped public lands in El Paso and El Paso County.
The plan will be available for public review later this year on the Frontera Land Alliance website.
Another major effort to protect lands in the Franklin Mountains was launched in 2015 when Congressman Beto O’Rourke, the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Alliance and Frontera Land Alliance spear headed an effort to create Castner Range National Monument. Over 35,000 people signed letters to President Obama asking that he designate a second National Monument in the Greater Big Bend Region just south of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico.
President Obama considered the proposal, but failed to take action before he left office this past January. More recently President Trump has ordered the review all designations of national monuments greater than 100,000 acres created since 1996 including Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. On April 28, 2017 NPR reported “But if, after the review, Trump also decides to bypass Congress and act by executive order to shrink or even nullify any of the monuments, a court challenge is all but guaranteed. “The Antiquities Act expressly authorizes the President to create a national monument, but it does not authorize a later President to revoke or modify a national monument,” says Prof. Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond School of Law.
If current efforts to protect the lower elevations of the Franklin Mountains fail, the City of El Paso will be hard pressed to live up to an important goal in its Sustainability Plan adopted on September 15, 2009 to “achieve international recognition for successful preservation of our Chihuahuan desert heritage for all time” and many species that depend on these lowland areas will be displaced or die when their habitat is destroyed.
Most biologists familiar with the Chihuahuan Desert understand the importance of protecting all elevations of the eco-region, not just the rugged mountain slopes and peaks. In El Paso many people believe that as long as you protect the mountain vistas and have a park like Franklin Mountains State Park protecting 37 square miles of the higher elevations, protection of lower elevations is not a high priority. This misconception if far from the truth since many desert species of animals and plants survive only in lower elevations while others with large home ranges need habitat at more than one elevation. For example, in the City of El Paso burrowing owls appear to be declining in numbers because of all the new housing developments being constructed across the city. These owls require low elevation areas where they can nest underground in abandoned burrows dug by mammals or if soil conditions allow in burrows they dig themselves. Golden Eagles also need lower elevation habitats where they can hunt for prey species like jackrabbits.
Achieving successful preservation of the Chihuahuan Desert within city limits and the surrounding region with the help of researchers and conservation educators will require the commitment of a wide range of stakeholders including City and County land management authorities, Texas and New Mexico state governments, private landowners and the surrounding community.
Not far from El Paso to the northeast the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the Southwest Environmental Center are helping to promote the creation of Otero National Monument southeast New Mexico east of Las Cruces. Otero Mesa represents the largest and wildest Chihuahuan desert grassland remaining on public lands in the US. In a letter to President Barack Obama, past New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson called for national monument designation using the Antiquities Act of 1906 which gives the president has the authority to create national monuments. During his two terms as Governor Richards has worked to protect the 1.2 million-acre Chihuahuan Desert grassland from oil and gas exploration.
This area is home to a tremendous diversity of Chihuahuan Desert species including many species that no longer survive in El Paso like prairie dogs and pronghorns. If the prairie dog colonies that live on Otero can survive, this grassland habitat is a potential reintroduction site for endangered black-footed ferrets.
Both the City of El Paso and El Paso County elected representatives continue to show their support for protecting the Chihuahuan Desert not just locally but regionally. On October 20, 2009 the El Paso City Council voted to support a bill introduced in Congress in September introduced by Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall to designate 259,000 in Dona Ana County in southern New Mexico as wilderness and another 100,000 acres in the Organ, Potrillo and Robledo mountains as national conservation areas.
US Mexico International Park
A giant international park project first proposed in the 1930s and last endorsed by high level officials in Washington, D.C. in 1946, received a hopeful sign of new life on July 29, 2009 when Congressman Ciro Rodriquez of Texas introduced H.Res.695 – “supporting an international park between Big Bend National Park in the United States and the protected areas of the Coahuila and Chihuahua States across the border in Mexico.” The non-binding resolution resolves, ”that the House of Representatives supports an international park between Bend National Park in the United States and the protected areas of the Coahuila and Chihuahua States across the border in Mexico; and Requests that the President in conjunction with the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Interior, and State discuss with Mexico and study the probability of designating an international park.”
On a visit to the proposed park area in 1936 then Assistant Director of the National Park Service Conrad Wither said that the proposed Big Bend International Park would be one of the biggest developments ever undertaken by the National Park Service and would be “one of the greatest recreational and educational ventures ever undertaken by the National Park Service. The benefits to the people of Mexico and the United States will be almost unlimited.”
In a letter to General Manual Avila Camacho, President of the United Mexican States President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote that “I do not believe that this undertaking in the Big Bend (referring to the establishment of Big Bend National Park in 1944) will be complete until the entire park area in this region on both sides of the Rio Grande forms one great international park.” When in 1946 following the death of Roosevelt, President Truman tried to move the project forward in his own letter to President Camacho, support for the project in Washington soon faded when Camacho’s term ended later that same year.
On May 19, 2010 when they met in the White House, President Barack Obama and President Felipe Calderón reaffirmed the strategic partnership between the United States and Mexico and underscored their commitment to improve the lives of all citizens in both our countries, building upon our deep ties, and working with mutual respect and mutual responsibility across a broad arc of issues.
The Presidents discussed a wide range of bilateral, hemispheric, and global issues that affect our two countries and reaffirmed the shared values that guide our approaches to economic competitiveness, environmental conservation, clean energy, climate change, nuclear non proliferation, and the safety, social and economic well-being, and security of our citizens.
In noting the long history of bilateral cooperation in the conservation of natural and cultural resources they recognized that Big Bend National Park and Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River in the United States and the Protected Areas of Maderas del Carmen, Cañon de Santa Elena, Ocampo, and Río Bravo del Norte in Mexico together comprise one of the largest and most significant ecological complexes in North America. In doing so, they recognized that increased cooperation in these protected areas would restrict development and enhance security in the region and within this fragile desert ecosystem.
To preserve this region of extraordinary biological diversity, they expressed their support for the United States Department of Interior and the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources of the United Mexican States to work through appropriate national processes to recognize and designate Big Bend – Rio Bravo as a natural area of binational interest. The Presidents underscored their commitment to manage the region in a way that enhances security and protects these areas for wildlife preservation, ecosystem restoration, climate change adaptation, wildland fire management, and invasive species control.
On September 22, 2010 Big Bend National Park sponsored a public meeting at Sul Ross State University in Alpine to explore ideas for increased cooperation between the park and the nearby Mexican protected areas, including the Maderas del Carmen, Ocampo, Rio Bravo del Norte, and Canon de Santa Elena. The park is seeking public input, comments, and ideas and encourages the public to send comments and input by email addressed to the Park Superintendent.
To help continue efforts to create an international park in the Big Bend a new organization called the Greater Big Bend Coalition was formed in 2015. The Greater Big Bend Coalition (GBBC) is a conservation organization working to protect the desert lands, rivers, mountains and wildlife of the Greater Big Bend Ecosystem of New Mexico, Texas and related lands in northern Mexico. The region stretches across the US/Mexico border and includes nearly 8000 square miles of lands in parks and other protected areas. The vision of the group is as follows: Major stakeholders and the general public representing private and public lands are working together with the support of government agencies in the US and Mexico to preserve and protect the northern Chihuahuan Desert within the Greater Big Bend region.
The greatest challenge we have today in protecting the Greater Big Bend Region and Chihuahuan Desert is to find ways to encourage the people who live in the region to value the desert and mountains as an important part of their quality of life and as a natural resource important to their own survival. Since moving to El Paso seventeen years ago I have learned that the vast majority of the people who live here are largely disconnected from the natural resources of the desert. Most have an “out of sight out of mind” mentality when thinking about it.
On a brighter note In 2016 El Paso experienced what is hoped to be a new conservation movement largely as a result of efforts to create a Castner Range National Monument. In addition to the over 35,000 signatures on letters to President Obama, hundreds of people attended a public meeting organized by Congressman O’Rourke this past November in support of the monument proposal. To help this movement continue and grow we must find ways to bridge the gap with people of all ages focusing in on students who will be tomorrow’s leaders.
As part of our efforts we also must find more ways to work with private landowners to get them involved in protecting Chihuahuan Desert habitat. For example, north of Marathon, Texas there is a prairie dog town on private land that helps to protect an animal that has lost 98% of its former range in the United States that could someday help to save a critically endangered species like the black-footed ferret.
A good example of how private land owners are being engaged in helping to protect our desert is the work of the Nature Conservancy. A short two hour’s drive from El Paso in the Davis Mountains the Nature Conservancy is helping to protect the 32,000 acre Davis Mountains Preserve with conservation easements on 65,830 adjoining private properties including Mount Livermore, the third highest peak in Texas. We need to do more in working with private landowners including efforts in support of protecting and restoring habitats within large urban areas like El Paso and Las Cruces, New Mexico.
In El Paso the Frontera Land Alliance in helping to lead the way in working with private landowners.
Researchers and educators need to continue to work closely with each other and work together on strategic plans to protect the Chihuahuan Desert that will not only further protect our environment, but help others to come to the realization that they too need to be involved. Step one in any effort has to be building relationships of trust. If stakeholders and advocates do not trust each other it’s hard to move any effort forward. To that end I recommend the following actions:
- Support Greater Big Bend Region / Chihuahuan Desert Conservation programs sponsored by grassroots organizations and NGOs like the Greater Big Bend Coalition, Sierra Club, Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition, Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition, Frontera Land Alliance, World Wildlife Fund, New Mexico Wilderness Society, and Southwest Environmental Center. If you are a current member or future member make sure that the organization you are a part of has clearly defined goals and a goal that focuses on building relationships of trust between members.
- Get involved with federal government strategic planning efforts to help protect the Greater Big Bend Region. A program and network called Landscape Conservation Cooperatives is addressing threats to our environment that are amplified by rapidly changing climate. Each cooperative focuses on strategic conservation efforts at the landscape level. It is hoped that Landscape Conservation Cooperatives will help to further protect migrations routes and large areas of wildlife habitat including important wildlife corridors. You can learn more about at lccnetwork.org.We must learn to share the planet with the millions of different species that we are connected with in so many ways, most of them uncounted. Let us embrace diligent and hard work because we love the Chihuahuan Desert. If the world becomes an unsafe place for the animals and plants that live here, it certainly will not be a safe place for humanity.The words of Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great”, summarize what we must do in perfect fashion. “With threats to our environment increasing dramatically every day, doing good work is no longer acceptable. We need to be doing great work. Greatness is not the result of circumstance, but of diligent work. We must embrace the discipline of greatness by adopting a culture of discipline, one that worries about the details.”
1 Schladen, Marty. Franklins growth in zoning dispute. El Paso Times, pp. 1 and 9a, October 31, 2010.
2. Sterreich, Elva K. Richardson to Obama: Otero Mesa needs protection. Alamogordo Daily News, November 6, 2010.
3. James, P. C., and R. H. M. Espie. 1997. Current status of the Burrowing Owl in North America: an agency survey. Pages 3-5 in J. Lincer and K. Steenhof, editors. The Burrowing Owl, its biology and management including the Proceedings of the First International Burrowing Owl Symposium.