Naked City

Big Bend: 'A park in peril'

Lovers of Big Bend National Park may owe an apology to our neighbors south of the border. Or maybe half of an apology.

As scenic vistas at the park have steadily worsened in recent years, the tendency has been to blame unregulated air pollution from factories on the Mexican side of the border. But according to the new park superintendent, visiting Austin last week to address a fundraiser for Friends of Big Bend National Park, a soon-to-be-released study of the source of that pollution also points fingers elsewhere – at industries in Texas' Rio Grande Valley and as far north as the Ohio River Valley. Superintendent John King said that the data he has seen indicates that Mexican industry accounts for only about 30% of the "visibility degradation."

King, who has been in office seven months, made his comments on the heels of a disturbing "State of the Parks" report in November by the National Parks Conservation Commission, which concluded that Big Bend's natural resources are endangered and likely to be more so. The report listed Big Bend's cultural resources and stewardship capacity (i.e., funding) both as poor and not likely to get better in the next decade. In the past, Friends of Big Bend has tried to close the gap by raising money to buy equipment needed to track environmental concerns for the park's 801,000-acre corner of Chihuahuan Desert. On the legislative front, King praised recent efforts of U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio, whose massive district includes the park, to provide more money for campgrounds.

On the subject of water flow in the Rio Grande, which forms the southern border of the park, King said that despite Mexican government assurances of increased releases upstream, "I've not noticed a significant change in river levels." And he noted that informal crossings from the park to the Mexican side of the border, now ended due to U.S. national security concerns, are unlikely to resume any time in the near future. In fact, King said, the Mexican communities across the river from the park, whose inhabitants depend on income from tourist crossings, have already begun to depopulate.

Overall, the superintendent said, "Big Bend is a park in peril."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Big Bend National Park, John King, Friends of Big Bend, National Parks Conservation Commission, Henry Bonilla

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