Big Bend National Park covers a total area of 801,163 acres within Brewster County. Undeveloped areas of BBNP are a haven for wildlife. The Park is a refuge for 75 species of mammals, 67 species of reptiles and amphibians, and over 450 species of birds. Federally protected species include the black-capped vireo, the Mexican Long-nosed bat, and the Big Bend gambusia.
Additionally, approximately 7,792 acres have been designated as critical habitat for the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo. These undeveloped areas of BBNP contain the most representative example of the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem in the United States. There is ecological connectivity to the Maderas del Carmen and the Canon de Santa Elena and Ocampo Protected Areas containing vast amounts of flora and fauna in Mexico. Together they constitute one of the largest transboundary protected areas in North America.
In 1978, the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service formally submitted a recommendation to Congress that it designate 583,000 acres as wilderness deemed to meet the criteria under the Wilderness Act of 1964. However, the designation was not approved, and since more than 40 years have passed since the formal recommendation, the 1978 acreage now serves as a starting place for an updated recommendation.
Initial discussion about forming a group of Big Bend National Park supporters who recognized the advantages conferred by wilderness designation began in April 2021. The group of core team members and volunteers gradually expanded to 8, aided by consultation with senior park staff. Initial steps included developing and prioritizing contact lists of individuals, businesses, and organizations for outreach by team members. In June 2021, it was decided to name the organization and website Keep Big Bend Wild (KBBW).
Project Description & History
Keep Big Bend Wild (KBBW) is a collaborative effort by people who are dedicated to preserving the wild character of Big Bend National Park (BBNP) for future generations. KBBW believes that the best way to ensure that the undeveloped areas of the park, which harbor rich natural and cultural resources, remain unimpaired for future generations is for these areas to be designated as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. KBBW’s ultimate objective is Congressional approval of eligible wilderness within BBNP as determined by the National Park Service, consistent with the criteria established by the Wilderness Act, and informed by public input.
The U.S. Border Patrol has a substation located in BBNP, where agents who live in the park work cooperatively with the national park rangers. Border Patrol agents focus on their border security mission and work alongside NPS law enforcement rangers. Field staff of both agencies cooperate on a daily basis to protect multiple national interests at Big Bend – which include conservation, public enjoyment, visitor safety, and security of the nation’s borders.
The stated goals of KBBW are to preserve the wild nature of BBNP’s currently undeveloped areas to benefit the public and natural communities, to maintain administrative and visitor support services in currently developed areas, to continue to maintain visitor access to the park and the Rio Grande River, to continue to provide recreational and educational opportunities, to ensure that BBNP continues as a source of economic opportunity for local communities and businesses, to continue to cooperate and collaborate with all people and entities protect Big Bend, and to affirm that both the mission of the National Park Service and the mission of the U.S Border Patrol are essential, complementary, and compatible.
The undeveloped areas of BBNP that are eligible for wilderness status are lands that provide valuable wildlife habitat: the Chihuahuan Desert, the Chisos Mountains, and the Terlingua and Tornillos Creeks watersheds. They furnish diverse scenic landscapes, habitats, and wildlife that attract photographers, recreationists, wildlife watchers, and plant enthusiasts. Wilderness areas at Big Bend provide opportunities for natural history and cultural history tourism with minimum environmental impact while positively impacting the local economy. The recreation and educational opportunities are the basis for a healthy tourism economy in Brewster and surrounding counties.
Keep Big Bend Wild communicates with local tribes as well as the U.S. Border Control to ensure their mission is accepted and protects the environment and those that inhabit it. KBBW has conducted outreach to tribes affiliated with Big Bend National Park. They have notified in writing of the KBBW effort and there has been additional communication with tribes that have responded. Additionally, KBBW lists over 80 businesses, municipal and county entities, elected officials, local individuals, and former Big Bend National Park superintendents as supporters of KBBW’s mission.
I heard the Big Bend backcountry is already managed as Wilderness. Is that true?
Yes, that is true. Much of the park has long been managed as wilderness, despite not being designated as such by Congress. National Park Service internal policy mandates that until Congress acts, formally recommended lands will be kept in a condition that remains eligible for congressional action – not damaged or developed in ways that would preclude Congress’s authority to act as they choose. Wilderness designation is important because agency policy can change, and if that happens before Congress acts, it is possible that vast areas of Big Bend could be opened for additional infrastructure development. That would change the character and experience of the park forever.
If Congress acts to designate wilderness at Big Bend National Park, would the wilderness boundaries be the same as the 1978 recommendation to Congress?
While the 1978 recommendation is still the official map and would be the basis for an updated map, the designated wilderness boundaries are unlikely to be exactly the same. Keep Big Bend Wild is committed to excluding all roads and developed areas from the wilderness. Although Keep Big Bend Wild will suggest a map, Congress would ultimately determine the mapped wilderness boundaries.