By Stephen Capra
For the past week we have made our home in the backcountry of Big Bend National Park. Coming to Big Bend has been part of an effort that began more than 10 years ago. Over that time we have been involved (this includes my years as Executive Director of NMWA) in restoration projects, wilderness for the park and supporting the creation of an International Peace Park.
While my former group no longer has interest, it has remained very important to our thinking at Bold Visions. On a trip some years back I stopped into a quilt shop, there I met a woman with a beehive weave of hair that was pure gray. She told me of the history of the area, the fact that no one ever perceived a border with Mexico. Ranching and dances spanned the border and intermarriage was the norm. All of this changed when 9/11 occurred. In an instant, the border between Big Bend National Park and the Mexican community of Boquillas was closed.
Boquillas is an isolated community, 100 miles via dirt road from the next town in Mexico to the south. Yet it is divided from the park by 20 yards of the Rio Grande. When the border was shut, this community (which is wholly dependent on tourism,) was devastated. The border remained shut until late in 2014. Then upon the completion of an elaborate border crossing, the border was opened, but only 5 days a week.
For the past year we have worked on a new vision, something we refer to as cross border conservation. Big Bend National Park is 811,000 acres in size. On the Mexican side, more than 3.5 million acres of land has been declared National Park. But the differences are striking. In Big Bend there are more than 165 rangers, in Mexico 7. While Big Bend is completely owned by the Government and no cattle despoil the land, in Mexico only 500,000 acres is secured and cattle free, the rest is communally owned and cattle, donkeys and other domestic animals continue to destroy habitat.
In Boquillas, the community has power for limited hours every day; they cut down mesquite trees to cook.
Education for children in Big Bend is college, for Boquillas, often the cutoff is 14. With that in mind we applied and received a very small seed grant. Last week we began working on a project that we feel is important and represents an opportunity to tear down the walls of ignorance that many politicians today are promoting.
Our goal is to bring students in the schools of Big Bend and neighboring Terlingua, together with students in Boquillas, to begin working on restoration and research projects in the Park and in Boquillas.
The students will embark on improving the lands and waters, by growing native plants in their schools for the restoration projects, by working with park botanists and educators and designing research projects that will expose them to the magic and wonder of our parks and the world of conservation and working to improve the community of Boquillas and surrounding lands.
But most importantly, we can help in our own small way; help generate a spirit of cooperation and inclusion between these neighboring communities divided only by national boundaries, but sharing the same spectacular, but fragile environment. (Please watch the above videos.)
Big Bend National park was created by a campaign waged in the 30’s and 40’s; one of the key aspects was asking school children to donate their pennies to help create the park. They did and the money was raised to purchase the land and in the midst of World War II with great uncertainty in the air, a President turned away from the battlefield to declare to our nation the creation of a new National Park.
We will return next month to Big Bend with Earth Day co-founder Arturo Sandoval, who runs the Center of Southwest Culture, an organization that has worked with Mexican public schools for thirty years. We will also have our staff biologist Steve West, who taught High School biology for 30 years in Presidio Texas and Carlsbad New Mexico. Steve has also done research in Big Bend for 20 years. We have met with the school in Terlingua and they are excited about the prospects for their students, likewise the Park has made clear their interest and willingness to help.
As I was finishing a meeting with the superintendent of Terlingua schools, Bobbi Jones, she told me, “It’s funny, the park and the desert here is a magical place, and some of our students enjoy the park, but others have never been.” The park boundary is just one mile from their school.
Projects such as this are by nature complex; our goal is to make it simple and something that students want to be a part of. For a week we camped on a bluff that stared into the heart of the Sierra del Carmen, a stunning limestone formation that defines Mexico in all its majesty. One day in the not so distant future, we would like to envision that those parks will be part of any visit to this area and perhaps some of the youth we work with in the coming year will be a ranger or researcher that helps to protect and enhance the beauty and diversity of this wild desert wilderness.