VisitBigBend.com , the go-to website for all you need to know about visiting the Big Bend of southwest Texas, recently enlisted me to do a Top Ten for visitors headed to that faraway part of the state I like to think of as the Texas of the Imagination.
from the Friday, April 29 edition of the New York Times and Texas Tribune:
photo by Alberto Tomas (Beto) Halpern/Associated Press
Wildfires overran parts of Fort Davis, Tex., in early April, destroying more than 60 homes in West Texas and killing livestock and horses.
By JOE NICK PATOSKI
Published: April 28, 2011
These are strange days in Texas. A severe drought gripping the entire state, unseasonably high temperatures, unusually low humidity and exceptionally gusty winds have created a perfect storm for wildfires, which have erupted statewide like never before. Horrible images of homes burned to the ground, property destroyed, and livestock, wildlife and human fatalities are impossible to escape.
The Texas Tribune
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Unfortunately, the greatest chronicler of such dire conditions — the person everyone in Texas turned to for perspective — is no longer with us to make sense of it all. It’s fair to ask, rhetorically: What would Elmer Kelton say?
Mr. Kelton was the farm and ranch editor for The San Angelo Standard-Times from 1948 to 1963. He was also the longtime associate editor of Livestock Weekly and the author of several dozen western novels. His finest work, “The Time It Never Rained,” published in 1973, focused on the historic seven-year drought of the 1950s as told through Charlie Flagg, the hard-headed, independent-minded protagonist.
If anyone knew about drought, wildfires and making a living from running livestock on the range west of the 98th meridian, it was Mr. Kelton. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2009. But his son, Steve Kelton, is alive and well and living in San Angelo.
Steve Kelton, who now edits Livestock Weekly, remembers clearly that his father considered the period of time spent covering the 1950s drought for the San Angelo newspaper the most traumatic in his life. “I’d long since run out of new ways to say ‘dry,’ ” the father had told the son.
What would the elder Mr. Kelton write about today’s news? That there is an upside — a silver lining. “Dad was always a firm believer that nothing was black and white, nothing was all good or all bad,” Steve Kelton said.
“Fire can be good for brush control, if it’s a good, hot fire; these should be pretty effective in that regard,” he said in droll understatement, referring to the so-called Wildcat fires that have raged over 159,000 acres north of San Angelo in the west-central part of the state, threatening to engulf the towns of Robert Lee, Tennyson and Bronte.
Indeed, for all its obvious negatives, fire was part of the life cycle of the arid western range long before humans settled the region and tried to tame the land, instinctively suppressing wildfires whenever possible. Today, when conditions are right, many landowners intentionally burn their property because, as Steve Kelton noted, “it will improve things.”
He cited the destruction of nuisance species like prickly pear, mesquite and ashe juniper — a k a cedar — and brushy undercover that compete with native grasses. “There are a lot of caveats to that,” Mr. Kelton added. “You have to have rain, but if it comes all at once, you lose all the topsoil.”
But if the rain falls gradually, the first land that will green up and spring back to life is that which burned. “A really hot fire brings out woody vegetation that deer, birds, and even goats and sheep like to eat,” Mr. Kelton said. “Their seed needs fire to germinate.”
He made the same observation about the Texas rangeland that critics have made about forest management in the American West: the human tendency to suppress fire at first sight has created a buildup of dry tinder that makes any wildfire that manages to break out “bigger than they ought to be,” Mr. Kelton said. “But we also have the technology and the people on the ground to fight them, so we’ve got a trade-off.
“During the 1990s and the early 2000s, we went 13 years with a really severe drought out here,” he said. “Then it rained.” The country was left so depleted, he said, that there were no cattle or sheep left to eat the grasses that sprang up; so in 2006, the worst year for wildfires in Texas on record until this year, “when it burned, it burned extra hot.”
Despite the horrific loss of property, livestock and wildlife this year, the longer view finds something to look forward to in the wake of the destruction.
“This is survivor country,” Mr. Kelton said. “It puts on its best clothes when it rains after a long drought.”
Joe Nick Patoski is the author of “Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy” (Texas A&M Press).
by Joe Nick Patoski
For most of their lives, senior editor Joe Nick Patoski and freelance photographer Laurence Parent have explored and chronicled the mountains of the Trans-Pecos. In this excerpt from their forthcoming book, Texas Mountains, they show and tell where their love of the outdoors is at its peak.
I GOT HOOKED ON THE TEXAS MOUNTAINS at the age of six, when I climbed to the top of a small hill adjacent to the Chisos Basin lodge in Big Bend National Park, rode on horseback to the Window, and peered over what seemed then to be the edge of the world. I became fixated on the idea that there was actually a place called the Christmas Mountains; it was visible through the Window’s massive slickrock aperture, beyond the park’s northwestern border.
The relationship continued through my youth, when I discovered that there wasn’t a more enchanting city view in Texas than the twinkling lights of El Paso and Juárez at night, seen from Scenic Drive on Mount Franklin. I climbed the pilgrims’ path to the top of Mount Christo del Rey and straddled the line between Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua. As an adult, I’ve touched the roof of Texas atop Guadalupe Peak, perched on the edge of the South Rim of the Chisos in Big Bend on a brilliantly clear day when objects two hundred miles distant were visiblethe biggest view in the whole worldand watched a comet from the top of Mount Locke at McDonald Observatory, illuminated by more stars than the eye can comprehend in the darkest skies in America.
These mountains are located in the Trans-Pecos part of Texas, which stretches for some 250 miles east to west and extends about 200 miles north to southabout the size of South Carolina. It is the most sparsely populated part of the state. Save for the city of El Paso, where more than half a million people live, no more than 30,000 residents live here. “Wide-open spaces” is not just some catchphrase in this part of the state. They really do exist. Within the boundaries of the Trans-Pecos sprawl the thirty-odd named ranges of Texas. The Trans-Pecos is a region so expansive that several of its counties are bigger than entire states. This is the Texas of dreams.
The easternmost ranges, the Housetops and Spencers, flank U.S. 90 twenty miles east of Marathon like two sentinels. The Glass Mountains, the first range of significant height and breadth, swell up more than a mile above sea level between Marathon, Fort Stockton, and Alpine. From there all the way to the state and the international boundaries to the northwest, west, and southwest, mountains dominate the landscape. Some consider the Texas mountains to be the southern extension of the Rocky Mountains, tumbling out of Colorado and New Mexico. But only the Davis Mountains, the wettest and one of the highest ranges in the state, and the Guadalupes, the highest range of all, with the four tallest peaks in Texas, really resemble their Colorado neighbors.
These are not easy mountains to love. They lack the altitude and drama of either the Sierra Nevadas or the Rockies. The tallest mountain in Texas, the 8,751-foot Guadalupe Peak, would hardly rate a glance on the other side of the New Mexico line. They are located in one of the least accessible places in the continental United States, far from most population centers. As a result, few people even know they are here. Even though Interstate 10 cuts through several ranges, most travelers keep their eyes glued to the road and have no idea what they’re passing through. The two most impressive ranges in the state, the Guadalupes and the Chisos, are protected as national parks, but most of the other ranges in the Trans-Pecos and the Big Bend remain unknown and unseen because they’re off-limits. Unlike other western states, where federal lands sometimes comprise more than half of a given state’s land area, Texas is mostly private property, mountains included.
This is a harsh country. Annual rainfall averages barely ten inches a year, and a severe drought persisted for almost a decade at the close of the twentieth century. Each of the four seasons has its own hellish peculiarity. The blistering winds of early spring are brutal. An ovenlike heat can set in as early as March. The soothing midsummer monsoons of July, August, and September, which can green up the countryside overnight, can bring killer floods with them too.
When the monsoons don’t comewhich happens more and more frequently these daysthe furnace effect down on the desert floor of the Big Bend becomes so severe that every living thing, it seems, either burns, dies, or withers away. But even when that kind of heat is on, up on the Marfa Highlands or in the Davises and the Guadalupes, in August it’s chilly enough at night to sleep with a blanket. The coolest summer nights in Texas are in the Texas mountains. Starting in mid-November, blue northers blast in the bitterest cold, dropping temperatures as much as fifty degrees in as little as an hour and occasionally leaving a dusting of snow on the mountaintops, stirring visions of the Rockies or the Alps if only for a day or two. Yet the same season can also bring temperatures above 100 degrees to the lower desert.
For the people who love these mountains, such realities are really blessings that have kept away the crowds. After all, who wants to share the stands of quaking aspen found in the Davis range, the maples of the Guadalupes and the Sierra Vieja, and the small slivers of greened-up high country that flourish on the mountaintops and in crevices and crannies, far from public view? If you’re blowing through at 70 miles per hour on the interstate or peering out the window of a jet plane at 30,000 feet, you won’t get it. Those of us who do get it like that just fine. We know, as I have learned, that there is much more than meets the eye. These mountains just require a little more patience and a whole lot more effort.
Many of the Texas rangesthe Guadalupes, the Delawares, the Huecos, and the Franklinsare largely devoid of vegetative cover because of a dearth of moisture. Because they are so naked, they expose thousands and millions of years in their layers and folds and are a playground for geologists. Within the Texas mountains are geological features and formations found nowhere else on the planet: a stone freak show of weird globs, jagged spires, gravity-defying balancing acts, marbled swirls, scoops of melted ice cream, and dribbled sand castles that wildly vary from extraterrestrial to lunar in appearance. In spite of their apparent desolation, the mountains harbor a huge variety of plant and animal species. The area is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest and highest desert in North America. Here life flourishes in surprising places: on a remote cloud-catching ridgeline or under a rare canopy of shade in hidden canyons fed by springs and waterfalls.
Even though they are not the highest mountains around, these ranges offer some of the most striking panoramas anywhere. Range after range fades to the vanishing point, each separated from the next by vast desert floors that go on forever. From the top of Mount Livermore in the Davis Mountains, the highest peak in the second-highest range in Texas, mountain landmarks are clearly visible in every direction: the rectangular hump of Chinati Peak to the south; the long ridgeline of the Sierra Viejas bulging out of the flats to the south and toward the west, fading into the Van Horns, the Apaches, the Eagles, the Beaches, the Baylors, and the Sierra Diablos. Beyond them all is the lone sentinel of Sierra Blanca, marking the route to El Paso and the Pacific.
The last time I was in the Chisos Basin, I noticed that little hill by the lodge again. Forty-three years had passed since I first scaled it. For much of that time, the little hill didn’t seem that big. It was but another example of how things shrink and diminish when you grow up. Lately though, it has started looking more like a mountain to me again, just like it did when I was a kid. Just like it does to kids scurrying up its rocks today, I’ll bet.
Big Bend is Better Than Ever
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Laurence Parent
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a frequent one, here’s the latest scoop on how to drive the back roads, run the Rio Grande, and discover secret hikes you won’t find on the map, plus other ways to get the most out of your trip to Texas’ greatest treasure.
DEEP IN A FAR SOUTHWESTERN corner of Texas, where the wild things outnumber the people and the Rio Grande makes a grand detour around exquisitely rugged terrain, lies Big Bend National Park. Encompassing more than 800,000 acres–1,250 square miles–of desert and mountains, the spread is so remote, surreal, and sprawling that the eye loses perspective: Is that mountain in front of you two miles away or twenty? Established in 1944 by Congress, the park may appear to be a vast wasteland to a first-time visitor. But more life flourishes here than you can imagine: 75 species of mammals, including black bear, 67 species of amphibians and reptiles, more than 450 species of birds, and at least 1,200 identified species of plants, a list that is still being expanded. And just about every one of these living things can either stick, sting, or bite you.
Isolation is one of Big Bend’s greatest appeals. Leave your cell phone behind; it won’t work here unless you climb to the top of Emory Peak, elevation 7,825 feet–and the last 25 involve scrambling up an extremely steep slope. Walk into the desert a few hundred feet and you will find yourself wrapped in solitude and silence. Big Bend is still the Wild West, the place where you will discover just how big Texas can be.
Big Bend is our park. About two thirds of the 330,000 visitors each year are Texans. The number ought to be higher: Every Texan should go to Big Bend at least once as an essential step to achieving total Texanhood. The park is so big, however, that–whether you are a newcomer or a veteran–you will have a lot of questions about what to see and do. Fortunately, I know the answers.
How does Big Bend compare with the best national parks? It ranks alongside Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon as one of this nation’s great wildernesses, with scenery that no other national park can match-a vast swath of Chihuahuan Desert; its own mountain range, the Chisos; forests of pine, oak, maple, and fir; a river that has carved out three sheer canyons more than a thousand feet deep; colorful badlands; an even more colorful history, featuring banditos, murders, military maneuvers, ranching, and mining; and in international border that you can cross without going through checkpoints.
I’ve never been to Big Bend. What can I see in a weekend? A long weekend, I hope. You can get a feel for the place in two days. Just stick to the pavement and a couple of improved dirt roads. Plan to spend one day on the east side of the park and the other on the west side. Paved roads lead from the park headquarters at Panther Junction around the Chisos and down to the Rio Grande on both sides of the park. Of the two routes into the park, one from the north via Persimmon Gap and the other from the west via the settlement of Study (pronounced “Stoo-dee”) Butte, the northern route is shorter and better, with good roadside interpretive exhibits about the desert.
The tilted, scalloped swirl of rocks at Ernst Tinaja. Photograph by Laurence Parent
Begin your exploration of the park by taking the Dagger Flat Auto Trail, a seven-mile drive over a dirt road that is suitable for a sedan. Pick up a pamphlet for 50 cents from a metal stand on the side of the road and watch for the nineteen numbered signs that explain the plants of the Chihuahuan Desert–ubiquitous creosote bushes, ground-hugging lechuguilla, and as the elevation gradually increases, sharp-toothed sotol. As you approach the mountains, the road swings northward behind a ridgeline, and you enter a forest of giant dagger yuccas, many of which stand seven to eight feet tall.
The visitors center at Panther Junction is situated against the north face of the Chisos. Inside, a giant relief map of the park will give you a sense of the topography and the road network. Outside, a short walking path identifies a number of desert plants.
Continue down the east side of the park until you reach the spur to Dugout Wells, once the site of the schoolhouse for the ranching families who lived here. An easy high-desert hike, about half a mile round-trip, winds through desert scrub to an oasis. As you resume your drive, the elevation drops on the way to the Rio Grande, and the desert loses its lushness. The ruins of Hot Springs Resort, built by a dreamer named J. 0. Langford in 1910, are at the end of a two-mile dirt road, and a quarter-mile hike leads to the springs themselves. Sit on the foundation of the bathhouse and enjoy the healing waters. Pictographs painted in red on the low-hanging rock along the path are testament to previous Indian occupation of the springs.
Past Rio Grande Village, a popular campground with a store where you can get snacks, prefab sandwiches, and drinks, the road ends at a parking area for Boquillas Canyon of the Rio Grande. Here you can hike into the canyon along a trail about three quarters of a mile long that climbs and descends a hill. Now it’s time to retrace your route to Panther Junction and head west to the Chisos Basin. The turnoff, three miles west of the park headquarters, heads U I) Green Gulch through open Chihuahuan Desert to an elevation of 5,679 feet before dropping a couple of hundred feet into the basin. This sheltered area is the most scenic spot in the park that is reachable byroad, an elevated grassland plain ringed by the peaks of the Chisos on all sides, rising 2,000 feet above the basin. To the west opens a giant V-shaped gash in the mountains called the Window, a drainage for storm runoff from the basin.
Take the Window View Trail, which is level, paved, and short (one third of a mile) to appreciate the grandeur surrounding you. The most noticeable features are flat-topped Casa Grande, elevation 7,325 feet, and the rock spires of Pulliam Ridge. These are remnants of magma that penetrated through volcanic strata eons ago. When the less resistant rock eroded, the spires were left. The basin has the only lodging and restaurant facilities in the park-both at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, a no-frills motel. Next to the lodge is a well-stocked store, a good place to get groceries, film, flashlights, and first-aid sundries. The lodge is usually booked well in advance for the spring but is available in summer and after New Year’s.
For day two, head west on the main park road to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a thirty-mile paved road that winds down to Santa Elena Canyon. Unlike the east side of the park, where the formations are largely limestone, the west side of the park is wilder and strewn with surprises-reflective of volcanic activity that tossed around rocks and boulders millions of years ago. The road climbs and drops as it passes by strange formations like Mule Ears Peak and butte-topped Cerro Castellan. Highlights worth pulling over for include the ruins of the Sam Nail Ranch, once the home of an exceptionally wise steward who eked out a decent living off the land without ruining it; Tuff Canyon, where white globules of extruded lava compose one bizarre scenario; and Castolon, in the shadows of the Sierra Ponce in Mexico, where a former military barracks has been refashioned into a convenience store.
The Chisos Mountains, viewed from Lost Mine Trail at first light. Photograph by Laurence Parent
From here the road parallels the river upstream for eight miles to Santa Elena Canyon. Don’t miss the three-quarters-of-a-mile-long trail into the canyon; if you take only one hike in Big Bend, this is it. You will have to cross Terlingua Creek, which could be dry, sandy, muddy, or wet, so come prepared with old walking shoes. The stunning beauty of sheer 1,500-foot walls hovering above the Rio Grande is as dramatic and ,grandiose a vista as you’ll encounter at close range in the American West. Head out of Santa Elena on Old Maverick Road, a thirteen-mile improved dirt route through eroded badlands that is a shortcut to the park’s western entrance and Study Butte. Ordinary passenger cars should have no difficulty here. Hightail it to the Terlingua ghost town, seven miles west of Study Butte, and participate in one of the Big Bend’s great social events-sitting on the porch in front of the Terlingua Trading Company, shooting the breeze, and sipping a cool one while watching the setting sun bathe the Chisos Mountains in ever-changing shades of golden light.
If I want to see the backcountry, do I need an SW with four-wheel drive? Most of the 157 miles of unpaved roads inside the park can be driven in a high-clearance vehicle without four-wheel drive. Some back roads are suitable for a carefully driven passenger car. Four-wheel drive is likely to be necessary only after a major rain. Road conditions are posted at the park visitors centers; it pays to read them before heading off the pavement. If you have any doubt, ask a ranger. And make sure you’re carrying plenty of water and a fully inflated spare tire. Just remember, if anything goes wrong, you will be marooned in the desert, separated from the nearest heavily traveled road by miles of unfamiliar and dangerous terrain, and your cell phone is useless.
The three most popular back roads in the park are the Glenn Spring and Old Ore roads, on the east side of the park, and River Road, on the south side. River Road is the longest, most remote drive in the park, stretching east to west for 51 miles, from near Hot Springs to near Castolon. This all-day drive is filled with side routes and historic sites such as the works of the former Mariscal mercury mine. A little bit of everything passes for a roadbed–fine sand, rough gravel, packed dirt, hardened mud, pure bedrock–but despite several bumpy stretches, I never had to engage the four-wheel drive on my last trip. River Road is best enjoyed driving west to east to catch the play of sunlight on the banded limestone face of the Sierra Del Carmen in Mexico in the afternoon and soak your feet in the Hot Springs at the end of a long day’s journey.
Glenn Spring Road is much shorter (around ten miles) and easier than River Road. It leaves the pavement on the eastern side of the Chisos and heads west and south to the site of a candelilla wax factory and settlement that was raided by Mexican banditos in 1916, leaving four Americans dead. A scattering of lumber from an old corral is about all that’s left of Glenn Spring. The other attraction of Glenn Spring Road is the Pine Canyon spur, a six-mile route out of the desert into the more thickly vegetated lower slopes of the Chisos. Look back and see just how high you’ve climbed. Then you can hike the steep two-mile trail up the canyon, where you will find Arizona pine and bigtooth maple before ending at the bottom of a seasonal waterfall that is one of the more sublime places in the park.
Old Ore Road, a historic route once used to haul quicksilver from the river to Marathon, stretches for 26 miles on the eastern side of the park between the Dagger Flat road and Rio Grande Village. The northern part of the loose-gravel track is flatter and straighter, the southern half considerably rougher with more climbs, drops, twists, and turns. If you’re going to attempt to drive the entire road, budget at least four hours, including stops. Or you can enter from the south and drive five miles to the campsite number one spur road leading to Ernst Tinaja, one of the most photographed sites in Big Bend. A tilted, scalloped swirl of rocks carved out of a canyon by periodic flooding, with a water hole at the bottom, the tinaja is a half-mile walk from the parking area along a dry wash.
Can I get on the Rio Grande? There’s no better way to appreciate Big Bend than to traverse its three great canyons. Unfortunately, the Rio Grande is suffering from a 25-year decline because of demand for its water upstream in Texas, so it’s adios to those fancy guided raft trips with gourmet chefs and string quartets. Accomplished paddlers can still do the canyons in canoes or kayaks. The current is so close to nonexistent that outfitters are recommending that paddlers start at the east end of Santa Elena Canyon and go upstream three miles to Fern Canyon before turning back, a trip that can still take a good half a day or longer, with some dragging required in shallow spots. But by hooking up with Jack Kinslow–like me, an advanced paddler, who I met in Terlingua–I was able to do the entire nineteen-mile run through Santa Elena Canyon over the course of a long day. Despite encountering a few stretches where we had to drag our canoe, the most stunning, jaw-dropping scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on in Texas made it worthwhile. Next time, I’ll paddle the first ten miles from the put-in at Lajitas to the canyon entrance, then camp overnight before finishing the rest of the trip. You haven’t seen Big Bend until you’ve paddled Santa Elena.
Seldom-seen Cattail Falls, near Oak Creek Springs.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
It’s a shorter ten-mile paddle through Mariscal, the least visited of the park’s three canyons. But the logistics are considerably trickier, since the put-in at the Talley campground and the take-out at the Solis campground are two hours or more from the nearest pavement via River Road. I managed to run Mariscal in a single day by hiring a shuttle and a guide, but the wiser (though more expensive) approach is to camp out at Talley overnight. The guide tipped me onto the Hippie Hermit Cave at the end of Tight Squeeze rapid, a point of interest marked by a peace sign etched into a boulder on the Mexican side. We hiked up the canyon slope, rummaged around, and found a rock shelter that had once been occupied by “Yogan from Broken Knife, Texas.” Boquillas Canyon has enough water to float, its flow recharged by the hot springs around the Mexican village of Boquillas. But even strong paddlers will have a tough time doing the winding 33-mile course in two full days.
How do I get to Mexico, and what can I do there? Two villages are across from main areas of the park–Boquillas del Carmen, on the east side, and Santa Elena, on the west side. To go to Boquillas del Carmen, look for the turnoff after the tunnel on the paved road to Boquillas Canyon, park your car, walk a hundred yards down a path to the river, and pay the man in the battered little aluminum rowboat $2 a person for a roundtrip ferry ride to another country. It’s about a mile walk into the village of 125 inhabitants, though for a few dollars more, you can ride a burro or hitch a ride in the back of a pickup into town. The only cafe is Falcon’s, where a buck buys either three bean burritos or three cheese taquitos, which you can wash down with cold soda or beer. A curio shop is next door, a cantina a little farther down the dusty path, and the Buzzard’s Roost bed-and-breakfast, celebrated in Robert Earl Keen’s “Gringo Honeymoon,” at the end of the road. Boquillas has no electricity or phone service, but it does have the quaintness of a spaghetti western movie set. A hot springs is on the Mexico side less than a mile upstream from the crossing. Boquillas is the only restaurant option on the east side of the park. Otherwise, order box lunches at the Chisos Mountains Lodge restaurant the previous night or see what’s available at the convenience store at Rio Grande Village.
West of Castolon, a sign on the road to Santa Elena Canyon marks the turnoff to the Mexican village of Santa Elena. Once again, park your car and look for a man in a battered boat. He will row you across for $2 a person round-trip. The community of 250 on the opposite bank lacks the quaintness of Boquillas but compensates with amenities such as electricity, a paved sidewalk on one side of the main dirt road, a small museum inside the local primary school, and a concrete plaza of which Soviet architects would have been proud. You have your choice of three cafes, each with a more extensive menu than was offered in Boquillas, with entrees priced around $5 a plate. The green-chile enchiladas at El Ca–on were as good as it gets on either side of the river. The fare at Maria Elena’s, down the street, has more fire because she uses jalape–os instead of the milder chiles verdes. Horses on the Mexican side can be rented at the river crossing for $5 to $30 an hour, depending on what the market will bear. Like Boquillas, Santa Elena lacks telephones, medical facilities, and a border checkpoint.
I’ve driven all over the park on my previous trips, and I’ve done all the short walks. What are the best hikes for someone who doesn’t jog or work out at the gym every day? If you’re unsure of your capability, start in the Chisos Basin. It’s cooler because of the higher elevation and the trails are relatively flat. Two good trails are the 1.6-mile Basin Loop, which climbs around 350 feet-enough for a splendid view through the Window to the desert far below-before returning to the basin, or the 5.2-mile Window Trail. This is a great sunset hike, and you can shave off more than a mile of the distance and around half of the eight-hundred-foot drop in elevation by starting at the campground rather than by the lodge.
For a more substantial test, try the popular Lost Mine Trail, which begins at mile mark 5 on the basin road at 5,679 feet. Chances are you won’t find the legendary silver mine that gives the trail its name, but if you do the two-mile roundtrip up to the first saddle, you will discover the most accessible high-country vista in Big Bend. If you’re up for more, continue for 1.4 more miles along a ridgeline passing by Texas madrone, gnarly oaks, and pi–on pines en route to a promontory at 6,850 feet. From trail’s end you can see Pine Canyon, Juniper Canyon, and the East Rim of the Chisos. (Warning: The eastern side of the upper Chisos complex, including Casa Grande, the upper part of the Lost Mine Trail, and the Southeast Rim, is now closed and will not reopen to hikers until mid-July, after the nesting season for the rare peregrine falcons who reside here in summer months.)
Chisos Mountains on the western edge of the basin.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
The desert offers two easy walking hikes. One is a mile round-trip through flat, brushy terrain from a parking area to the Burro Mesa Pouroff This is a good introduction to how empty and isolated the desert is. Another is the Grapevine Hills trail, reachable by the unpaved Grapevine Hills Road. The 2.2-mile walk through a valley full of granite boulders follows a sandy wash, then climbs slightly to a pass. The payoff, about a hunched yards ahead, is a balanced-rock formation that seems to defy the laws of physics.
Hiking is the ideal way to see Big Bend, but it is also the best way to understand how dangerous Big Bend can be. People die here. Always carry plenty of water and wear hats and clothing that offer protection from the sun, especially when hiking on the desert. Hiking in the high country carries its own set of risks. Signs warning about black bears and mountain lions, both of which occupy the high country, should be taken seriously. Three years ago a woman and her three young girls were stalked by a mountain lion for about fifteen minutes near the waterfall in Pine Canyon. Talk to a ranger before attempting a hike that you think may test your capabilities or your knowledge of how to deal with life-threatening situations.
I’ve been to Big Bend many times, and I’ve already done everything you have suggested. Isn’t there something more? The South Rim of the Chisos, at the lip of a 2,500-foot drop to the desert floor, has the best view in Texas: a panorama of the entire Big Bend where the eye can easily follow the Rio Grande emerging from Santa Elena Canyon, going through Mariscal Canyon, and on to Boquillas Canyon, where it disappears. This strenuous day hike is at least thirteen miles byway of Laguna Meadow, longer if you choose to return byway of other high Chisos trails, such as Boot Canyon and Pinnacles.
You say you’ve done that too? Okay, try the Mariscal Canyon Rim hike. It’s 6.6 miles round-trip from the road to the Talley campsites, with a steep last mile or so before you reach the overlooks for the canyon. This hike is closed during peregrine falcon nesting season and inadvisable for the rest of the summer because there is no shade. Watch out for crumbling rock near the rim.
A little-known trek to Mesa de Anguila, in the westernmost corner of the park near Lajitas, will reward you with a view into the start of Santa Elena Canyon. This vaguely marked fourteen-mile round-trip hike passes through rough open country with a network of trails and is not for inexperienced hikers. Check in at the front desk of the Lajitas resort for a free shuttle through the golf course to the trailhead-and make sure you’re packing plenty of water.
Any hike in the Dead Horse Mountains will put you to the test. All are far from roads and without water. Park literature warns that you need a good working knowledge of a map and a compass and that trails “disappear, reappear, cross other trails, and wind along washes and through mazes of thick, thorny growth.” The Strawhouse Trail leaves the Boquillas Canyon road and follows a drainage basin for fourteen miles before joining the trail to Telephone Canyon, named for a telephone line built by Army engineers during the Mexican Revolution because of the threat of raids by Pancho Villa.
I haven’t attempted to explore the Dead Horse Mountains, nor have I tried Mesa de Anguila, but I am inspired by the route designed by Craig Pedersen, the executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, who has walked across the entire park. The 95-mile stroll from Adams Ranch, just east of the park, through Telephone Canyon and the Dead Horse Mountains, all the way to Lajitas, took five and a half days and required carrying a seventy-pound backpack and fourteen topographic maps. Food and water supplies had to be stashed in advance in three locations. Still, Pedersen calls it “the best walk of my life.”
Another ambition of mine is to float all three canyons inside the park in a single trip-which can be done in about a week-though the flat stretches between the canyons offer no respite from the sun or the heat during warmer months. Every winter, a handful of advanced river runners attempt the two-hundred-plus miles from Colorado Canyon, west of the park, to the take-out on the Lower Canyons run well east of the park near Dryden. It’s one of the longest, least encumbered-by-civilization river trips in the entire United States.
I’m also looking forward to attempting the big three-day, two-night Three-In-One adventure that Desert Sports concocted for some clients, beginning by hiking from the basin up to the South Rim to camp out the first night, then down to the desert via Juniper Canyon on the second day, where a “sag wagon” awaits with mountain bikes. We will ride down Glenn Spring, Black Gap, and River roads to camp by the river at Talley before paddling canoes through Mariscal Canyon.
The Giant yuccas at Dagger Flat.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
Black Gap Road itself is an adventure that few attempt. It connects Glenn Spring to River Road over an ill-defined, rocky eight-and-a-half-mile track that is the only official back road in the park that is not maintained. Another lightly traveled back road is the forty-mile drive at the north end of the park near Persimmon Gap that winds west along the base of the Rosillos Mountains into Terlingua Ranch and, eventually, Texas Highway 118 north of Study Butte.
I’ve heard that there are secret places that park personnel don’t want you to know about. Is it true?
It’s true. They’re off the map because they’re so fragile that too many visitors would ruin them. Ask around. Locals and parkies (park employees) know many prime spots not mentioned in the guidebooks (did someone say Cattail Falls?) but generally don’t spill to outsiders. A parkie told me about Indian Head Springs, a little-hyped destination reached by taking the dirt road behind the Big Bend Motor Inn in Study Butte for a couple of miles to a parking area that is outside the park boundary. A trail leads past the boundary fence to a field of boulders strewn about the base of a mountain that have more Indian pictographs than any other site in the park. One veteran allowed that one of his favorite hikes is from the basin to the Window, then down a winding, precarious one-thousand-foot vertical descent to Oak Creek Springs and back up again. An easier way to get to see the springs is to take the unmarked dirt road opposite the turnoff to Sam Nail Ranch on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, then hike a level mile to the springs. Step gingerly, though. This is an extremely sensitive ecosystem.
You could also study topo maps and et your own course. Wherever there are springs, something interesting will be nearby. Big Bend is all about discovery. It took me more trips than I could count before I finally “got” Elephant Tusk, understood why the Rosillos are called the Rosillos, and located the landmark known informally as the Tired Backpacker. I’ve been coming to Big Bend ever since I was a kid, and every single trip I learn something new. There are not too many places left in this world where you can do that.
- Texas Mountains
University of Texas Press
In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas. Buy Now from UT PRESS
The Ultimate Big Bend Hike
Texas Parks and Wildlfe magazine
By Joe Nick Patoski
Photography by Laurence Parent
Six days and 70 miles of aching backs, oozing blisters, lost toenails, lightning storms and unimaginable beauty.
There are hikes, and there are blister-popping, back-breaking, toe-throbbing, mind-bending hikes. Hiking across the Big Bend falls into the latter category. That became clear once five other reasonably sane, able and physically fit adults and I set a course across 70 miles of empty desert, rugged mountains and steep canyons, carrying our tents, sleeping bags, food and water on our backs for six days and five nights.
Only a handful of people have attempted to transect the bend where the Rio Grande makes its grand detour through three majestic canyons in extreme Southwest Texas on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. One of those people, Craig Pedersen, told me about his solo trek. When Laurence Parent, the photographer with whom I collaborated on the book Texas Mountains, proposed it, I couldn’t resist. We both thought we knew Big Bend pretty well, having hiked the South Rim and the desert and floated its canyons.
But walk across it?
That was a new one. Maybe that’s because the Chihuahuan desert isn’t the most user-friendly terrain on earth, limiting long hikes to winter months, and only with considerable planning, support and desire.
With a combined million and a half acres of public lands among Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, the Big Bend is the only region of Texas where you can actually contemplate a journey like this. I’d witnessed as Laurence scaled Mount Livermore and scooted around the Chinatis like a mountain goat while carrying 60 pounds of equipment on his back, so I knew he could do it. I figured I could, too. Six years ago I completed an eight-day, three-canyon crossing in Mexico’s Copper Canyon complex, though Tarahumara Indian porters and several burros accompanied us on that hike.
Laurence plotted a 70-mile route from Rio Grande Village, near the terminus of the paved road in the southeastern part of the national park, to Lajitas, the gated resort at the national park’s western boundary. We each rounded up two friends to accompany us, and hired Desert Sports, the Terlingua outfitter, to provide shuttles and water drops.
The night before departing, we met Raymond Skiles, a national park wildlife biologist, who’d hiked from Adams Ranch, east of the national park, to Lajitas solo, only he hiked over the Chisos Mountains instead of skirting the range, as we were planning. He offered advice on where to camp on the Dodson Trail and climb the Mesa de Anguila and plenty of encouragement. At least he didn’t think we were crazy like everyone else seemed to.
On March 2, Laurence, Shelly Seymour and Jeff Whittington, my two friends from Dallas, and I hit the trail under the cottonwoods of Rio Grande Village around 11 a.m., carrying small day packs for 3 miles to the Hot Springs, where our shuttle driver, Rick Willing, met us with our big backpacks. From there we bushwhacked across the desert towards Glenn Springs. Everyone was able; conditions were perfect, though Laurence complained he was coming down with a cold. The sun stayed behind a cover of high clouds most of the day, keeping daytime temperatures in the 70s, and it didn’t rain.
No rain was important. Several long miles were through bentonite, a spongy, absorbent clay formed from volcanic ash that turns to mush when wet. It hadn’t rained in a couple weeks, but I was certain if it had rained one day more recently than it actually had, we would have gotten bogged down in the soil.
We didn’t see another soul after Hot Springs, though we did cross a well-worn path of footprints northbound from San Vicente, Mexico. But there was still plenty to see. The low desert was in early spring bloom, awash with tiny white and pink bicolor mustard, yellow composites among the prickly pear, ocotillo, dagger, pitaya and candelilla, with bursts of Big Bend bluebonnets that perfumed the air.
The foothills of the Chisos and familiar landmarks such as Mule Ears Peak and Elephant Tusk appeared to be another world away.
Geographic weirdness was everywhere. Grasslands alternated with expanses of nothing but rock, sand and gravel. Fist-chunks of burnt wood littered one quarter-mile, as if a pit cooker had just tumped over, only this wood was petrified. Some ridges were so devoid of vegetation and so violently uplifted by geological forces that their tilted layers resembled marble swirls. Wildlife sighting was limited to Jeff spooking a giant jackrabbit, Laurence spotting a coyote, Shelly tracking a hawk and a swarm of bees buzzing past. No black bear or mountain lion. I kept focusing on Rick’s advice: “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. A gallon a day, minimum.” I kept drinking even when I wasn’t thirsty.
We finally reached Glenn Springs just after sunset, almost making camp in a cemetery until Shelly recognized the crude wooden crosses and cairns – remnants from the early 20th-century village that was raided by bandits in 1916. We ate and talked, Jeff admitting he almost “bonked” that afternoon. “I would’ve thrown up while we were resting on that big rock, but all I had in my stomach was Starbursts.” That prompted me to eat all my freeze-dried dinner to carb up, even if I wasn’t that hungry. Falling asleep was easy.
The second day’s hike was 12 miles with a 2,000-foot gain in elevation. After following the Glenn Springs and Juniper Canyon Trail dirt roads into the grasslands, we met Rick, who delivered water, and Keri Thomas and Elizabeth Comer, two friends of Laurence’s. Keri had climbed Pico de Orizaba, the 18,000-foot volcano in Mexico, with Laurence the previous year. Elizabeth ran marathons. Like Jeff, they were both 34. Unlike Jeff and the rest of us, neither had been to Big Bend.
Progress slowed on the Dodson Trail, part of the Outer Mountain Loop, due to the steep ascent. By late afternoon, we passed behind Elephant Tusk, the landmark peak that appeared so achingly distant the day before.
We stumbled into camp by Fresno Creek in Fresno Canyon, a tiny trickle in a tight crevice in the sparse woodlands beneath the South Rim of the Chisos, less than an hour before sunset. We enjoyed supper within earshot of running water and gazed upon stars like nowhere else. Elizabeth lost one of her big toenails. Laurence complained of blisters. Carrying all that photo gear was having an effect. I developed saddle sores on my hipbones. My clothes were getting funky and my hair matted, but I slept so well that I was busted the next morning, along with Shelly, for snoring.
Day Three began with sunlight playing off the South Rim and the dulcet tones of Elizabeth’s voice, “Yea, it’s fresh underwear day.”
We started late in the morning with a steep, 500-foot ascent to the highest point of our trip, a mile above sea level. Jeff sprinted ahead of the rest of us so he could pause in solitude and get what he calls “epiphanies.” So far, he’d had one and a half, he reported.
At the saddle of the Chisos, we could see where we’d been and where we were going, from the Del Carmens to the Mesa de Anguila. It was difficult comprehending how far we’d already walked. Near its end, we veered off Blue Creek Trail and bushwhacked through high desert. We were an hour late to Ross Maxwell Drive, the paved road where Rick Willing waited with another water, food and underwear swap, and the weather forecast – 20 percent chance of rain today, 50 percent tomorrow, which explained the overcast skies and refreshingly cool breezes.
Fresno Creek had been a camper’s delight. The lunar surface beneath the Chimneys, the landmark cluster of small pointed pinnacles where we made camp on day three, was creepy. No breeze, an impenetrable darkness brought on by thick cloud cover, the way wolf spiders’ eyes glowed when a flashlight shined their way, the story Jeff told during dinner about camel spiders in the Sahara that ate their victims’ flesh and the sounds of little things scurrying around my sleeping bag prompted me to crawl into Shelly’s tent, until I crawled out again minutes later because my nose was so stuffed up from a lingering cold. Somewhere near dawn, I crawled back in after the rain started.
The flesh on two of Laurence’s toes had become infected and oozed pus. My lower back and right hip throbbed. Elizabeth’s toes were getting torn up too. Jeff said he had picked up my lingering head cold. Now it was raining. Did we dare go back? No way. We donned rain ponchos and pressed on. The rain was enough to draw the fresh scent from creosote – the perfume of the Chihuahuan desert – but ceased within the hour.
As we left camp, Laurence pointed out some petroglyphs near the base of the southernmost pinnacle. The first 5 miles below the Chimneys was a pleasant stroll through low desert, including several washes thick with Big Bend bluebonnets. The last 5 miles were mostly along Old Maverick Road, the dirt road shortcut to Santa Elena Canyon from the park’s west entrance.
We made a final water/food/underwear/socks/trash exchange at Shelly’s SUV parked by Terlingua Abaja, and made camp on a grassy bank of Terlingua Creek. Santa Elena Canyon was behind us, less than 2 miles away. Its 1,500-foot vertical west wall was the one we were supposed to climb the next day.
Day Five: The flesh on the bottom of three of Laurence’s toes had been rubbed raw. There was a 30 percent chance of rain. I wondered about Keri and Elizabeth’s resolve, especially after observing Keri shave her legs the night before. We could declare victory, celebrate what we achieved, and ride back to Terlingua in Shelly’s SUV.
“What’s the prognosis?” I asked Laurence, who was staring at his feet.
“Go for it.”
He was hurting, but he was too proud to bag it now.
We skirted the base of the mesa for 3 miles, picking our way through grassy plains and around ridges of bentonite, looking for an old, unused pack route up the canyon wall that Raymond Skiles told us about. Keri was nearing heat exhaustion to the point that Laurence proposed blowing off climbing the mesa and cutting across the flats towards Terlingua until Shelly spotted a cairn that marked the way up.
It took a little under an hour to scale the front wall, with considerable difficulty. On top, we discovered several more walls beyond. It was a terribly long slog. Almost every day of the trip someone would ask late in the afternoon, “How much farther?” The reply was always, “Oh, ’bout a mile, mile and a half.” This time it wasn’t funny.
“Today’s been a bitch, y’all,” Laurence declared as we finally dropped backpacks on a rolling plain near Tinaja Lujan. We’d covered 8 miles in seven and a half hours.
“I was getting demoralized,” Shelly admitted. “I’m freaking exhausted and want to get it over with,” Jeff said. Elizabeth was busy applying moleskin to her feet. Keri was exhausted. I didn’t move for 30 minutes after I dropped my pack, I was so tired.
Thunderstorms lit up the night sky as I fell asleep. When I heard a loud clap, I dragged my sleeping bag into Shelly’s tent. Lightning flashed, thunder cracked and rain came down hard for close to an hour.
At daybreak, the air had a pristine scent. “I’m glad we’re alive,” Laurence muttered as he emerged from his tent. “That lightning was less than a mile away. We’d pitched our tents close enough to each other that if one had been hit, all of us would have fried, with no one left to do CPR.” Elizabeth said she had a dream that we’d taken too much water from the tinaja and were being punished by the storms.
We were exhilarated. The views from the top were stunning. We could see the Sentinel marking the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon, the Rio Grande, the village of San Carlos 12 miles into Mexico, mountains in every direction. The walk down the mesa was positively chatty.
We paused at the last, great sweeping vista before our final 1,000-foot descent to Lajitas. The end of the trail was a golf course. The unnatural green of heavily irrigated grasses prompted grumbles and proposals to turn around. A golf course resort was no place to end a rugged adventure. “I’m feeling post-partum,” Shelly said on our final few hundred yards towards the course maintenance building. I saw a Coke can tossed among the creosote. This time I didn’t bother picking it up.
Jim Carrico, the former superintendent of Big Bend National Park and project manager of planning for Big Bend Ranch State Park, picked us up. In his four and a half years as national park super, he said he knew of only two parties who’d hiked across the Big Bend like we did. As for the golf course, he laughed. “People like you and me just don’t understand golf and jets.”
Somewhere on the drive back to Desert Sports, I saw myself in a mirror for the first time. The greasy hair and stubbly beard were not a pretty sight.
I fetched my car and drove Jeff back to his vehicle at Rio Grande Village, our starting point. The hour drive gave us time to ruminate on what we’d done, punctuated with several “We did that?” epiphanies, along with a full view of Santa Elena and the Mesa de Anguila sloping towards Lajitas. From the road, it looked as flat and smooth as a baby’s bottom. We knew better.
The shower back in Terlingua was delicious. For the rest of the evening, I took great pleasure in answering Terlingua friends and acquaintances when they inevitably asked, “What are you doing out here?”
Laurence’s feet finally healed, though he had a head cold for two more weeks. Jeff said he had flu-like symptoms for three weeks once he got home. Elizabeth, Keri and Shelly had their complaints. My lower back required some manipulation to get right and still acts up now and then. Despite all that, we’ve all said we’d do it again. Walking across the Big Bend will do that, to a few souls at least.
- Have you been to Big Bend Ranch State Park? Blog Joe Nick about your adventures.
- Did you hear Joe Nick talk about his hike on the Glenn Mitchell Radio Show?
- Texas Mountains
University of Texas Press
In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas. Buy Now from UT PRESS
Park and Parcel
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
April 7, 2006
Last summer, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department commissioners contemplated selling off 46,000 acres of Big Bend Ranch State Park, the largest state park in Texas, to John Poindexter, the Houston businessman who owns the nearby Cibolo Creek Ranch luxury resort. The proposed sale, endorsed by TPWD staff, was pretty much business as usual for the department, where selling parkland, transferring state parks to counties and cities, and downgrading state parks to “wildlife management areas” are all in a day’s work. But when news leaked out that a chunk of the 299,000-acre state ranch on the Rio Grande was up for grabs, a sudden public outcry led the parks commissioners to reject the proposal-unanimously.
In this instance, advocates for parks made their voices heard. Yet, the underlying problems with the state’s management of public resources didn’t go away.
Within three months of the almost fire sale at Big Bend Ranch, Texas Parks and Wildlife was so short on cash that 73 jobs were eliminated. The new Government Canyon State Natural Area, 16 miles from downtown San Antonio, is closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays and limited to day use only. The Devil’s River State Natural Area is open only four days a week as well. The Resaca de la Palma World Birding Center in Brownsville, scheduled to open in two years, has neither a staff nor a budget. The north shore of Choke Canyon State Park has been closed, along with the park’s swimming pool. The San Jacinto Monument is shuttered due to building and fire code violations and antiquated elevators. After the Parks and Wildlife ferry to Matagorda Island State Park burned in 2003, ferry service to the island was ended and last October the state park was declared a state wildlife management area. The agency could no longer afford to operate the barrier island as a state park.
Other properties were handed off. Lake Houston State Park is now operated by the city of Houston, Lubbock Lakes was transferred to Texas Tech, and Kerrville-Schreiner State Park is now the property of Kerrville. Reimer’s Ranch, the newest showcase park in the Austin area, is operated by the county, not the state. New local parks such as Blue Hole in Wimberley, the new city park in Hondo, and Dick Nichols Park in Austin were funded by matching grants from TPWD to get established. That grant fund was $17 million two years ago. Today, it is $5 million. One agency official went so far as to dis restroom facilities at Goose Island and Galveston Island state parks as “Third World.”
But the surest sign that things aren’t so hunky dory is the more frequent violation of Parks and Wildlife’s unwritten commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of the Legislature.” Normally, Parks & Wildlife personnel have been known as quiet creatures, meek and mild as birders. They’d rather walk on eggshells than complain about funding. Otherwise, vindictive legislators might give them even less. But here was Walt Dabney, the director of state parks for Texas Parks and Wildlife, on a December speaking tour in Cooper, Giddings, and other communities affected by parks cutbacks, explaining to the people of Palestine why the Texas State Railroad was eliminating roundtrip departures from Palestine, costing the town considerable tourist dollars. There was no other option, he insisted. “We have stretched the budget as far as we can by using [prisoner] and community service labor in addition to park camp hosts.”
Joining Dabney in Palestine was Parks and Wildlife Commissioner John Parker, who bluntly told the gathering, “The problem lies with the Texas Legislature.” A month later, speaking at Bastrop State Park to the annual meeting of the nonprofit group Texans for State Parks, Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman Joseph Fitzsimons and Commissioner Parker offered advice on how to inform legislators of the dire financial straits of the state’s parks. Executive Director Bob Cook used his “At Issue” column in Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine to make clear the agency was low on funds and its infrastructure was failing. With a little investment, he said, parks could deliver great returns.
If only those sentiments echoed across the great divide.
Studies conducted by Texas A&M, Texas Tech, the State of Texas, and the Texas Parks Coalition over the past eight years have all reached the same conclusion: The majority of Texans consider parks an important measure of quality of life and are willing to pay more taxes for more green space. Yet the leaders of Texas act as though they’ve never heard of such studies. And the gap between what the public wants and what its politicians deliver is growing wider.
It’s hard enough managing a parks system under that kind of guidance, especially when the definition of a park includes a 26-mile steam railroad, a mountain tramway, a 100-year-old battleship, and several 19th century mansions and restored frontier forts. But when increased operating expenses eat up $8 million of the budget in four years and then the Lege lops $2 million more from an already anemic $51 million budget, the duct tape begins to loosen.
No one forced Walt Dabney to accept the task of running the parks division of Texas Parks and Wildlife. As a 30-year veteran of the National Park Service, he didn’t need the gig. Lately though, he’s started to wonder about his decision, he admitted recently in his office at Parks and Wildlife headquarters in southeast Austin. “I came here seven years ago, rebuilt the staff, got rid of what little deadwood there was, [and] we’re in our third session of training park superintendents. We’ve got lots of good things going on, but I walked into a system that was totally underfunded. We got to ’06 and we ran out of rope.”
Dabney said the average age of a vehicle in the parks fleet is 10 years old. “We’ve replaced four vehicles out of a fleet of 900 over the last four years,” he said. “We’re lucky to get hand-me-downs from game wardens with only 120,000 miles on them. We’re thrilled, because we’d be walking otherwise.” Watching the budget get pared back puts Dabney in a “no more Mr. Nice Guy” mood. “Texas isn’t taking care of what it’s got, we’re not adding anything new, and we’re going backwards in a state that is growing so fast.” He wasn’t even looking over his shoulder to see who was listening. “I don’t think the rank-and-file senator or representative really knew how bad this was,” he added.
The buck, indeed, stops at the statehouse, where the prevalent attitude toward state parks in Texas seems to be: You want open space? Then work hard, get rich, and get a 10,000-acre spread of your own. Over the past 10 years, the Lege has commissioned several studies as part of its planning for 21st century growth. The findings have been studiously ignored. Former state representative Rob Junell (D-San Angelo), who held the purse strings to the TPWD budget as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, tried to sit on the 2001 study conducted by Dr. David Schmidly and Texas Tech that suggested Texas ought to acquire 1.4 million acres of new state park land and 500,000 acres of local parks inside the Dallas-Houston-San Antonio urban triangle within the next 30 years.
The response from then-TPWD Commission Chair Katharine Armstrong–yes, the now-famous member of the Dick Cheney-Harry Whittington hunting party–was dismissive. “We are not going to launch into a great big acquisition campaign,” Armstrong told the Austin American-Statesman. “If I could wave my magic wand and realize everything in the Texas Tech study, perhaps I would. My goals have to be tempered by reality. We don’t have the resources to do that.” Instead, Parks and Wildlife launched the Land and Water Strategic Plan, calling for four new parks of 5,000 acres each or more inside the urban triangle. Five years into that 10-year plan, the project has yet to be funded.
Some legislators do fight for their local parks because they understand the economic impact of parks on surrounding communities, but no Texas legislator has emerged as a champion of parks across the state. Perhaps lawmakers just haven’t felt enough pressure. Park users may number in the millions, but as a special interest group they could take a few tips from Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “I’d hardly ever see park advocates at the commissioner meetings until the Big Bend Ranch flap,” Joseph Fitzsimons said. “Hunting and fishing advocates show up in big numbers and let you know where they stand on issues.”
The way Parks and Wildlife is structured contributes to the problem, starting with the nine commissioners who oversee the agency. They may be interested in conservation but most are privileged enough to spend their quality time outdoors on private ranches or farms. Typically there are only one or two commissioners who are strong advocates for parks in the tradition of Mickey Burleson, Nacho Garza, Tim Hixon, Terry Hershey, and Bob Armstrong.
Fitzsimons and Parker have assumed that role on the current commission. But rarely has there been a commissioner appointed specifically to look after parks first, rather than wildlife. It has been that way ever since the State Parks Board and the Texas Game and Fish Commission were merged into Texas Parks and Wildlife in 1963 by Governor John Connally in the name of a streamlined bureaucracy. The current structure is unlikely to change.
The two divisions are on different footing. The wildlife budget comes from Fund Nine, a federal excise tax on guns and gear and from hunting and fishing licenses. The parks budget is tied to a state sales tax on sporting goods. Unlike the Fund Nine monies, which the Lege can’t raid or cap because it is a federal tax, the state tax proceeds for parks are capped by the Legislature at $32 million, considerably less than the $100 million the tax currently generates. The balance goes into general revenue.
Texas ranks 49th in per-capita spending on parks among the 50 states (thank God for Mississippi). Even Arkansas has passed Texas by upgrading its system to meet current and future demands through a quarter-cent sales tax earmarked for parks. Walt Dabney tells a story about friends from up north who used to come and spend the winter in Texas state parks. “Now they just make day trips into Texas because they’re spending the winter staying in Arkansas state parks. Their parks are in better shape than ours are.”
Quality-of-life factors, such as parks and amenities, are second only to an educated work force as the top criteria companies use when evaluating locations, Dabney said. In 2001, when Dallas-Fort Worth was one of three finalists for Boeing’s new corporate headquarters, DFW and Texas offered more tax breaks and incentives than Chicago and Illinois did. But Boeing ended up going to Chicago, which includes 87,000 acres of open space, parks, and forests in Cook County in its quality-of-life portfolio. Instead of increasing funding of parks to make Texas more attractive, Texas leaders responded with cutbacks. Dabney says that’s a dumb way to operate a government, especially if you’re trying to operate it like a business. “Tourism is the second or third component of the Texas economy and parks are the biggest component of the tourism segment,” he said. “If you’re not taking care of that, that’s bad economics.”
“What we’ve been doing is very parochial,” admitted Fitzsimons. “It’s ad hoc. There’s still not a plan to say how are we going to acquire new land, how are we going to tie the demand and the constituency to the service. The fish and wildlife constituency stay drilled into the department on a daily basis, from the squirrel hunters to the catfishermen to the bowhunters. They know their money [from hunting and fishing licenses] is going to the fish and wildlife division. They’re making sure they’re represented. But when you buy a canoe or a kayak or a mountain bike, you don’t have any expectations the sales tax from that is going to a place where you can use it. The sporting goods tax is a joke. It’s essentially GR [general revenue]. The sales of paddle craft have quintupled in the past 10 years. But I don’t have any more kayak trails to offer.”
The state of affairs has become so sorry that several wise men were recruited by Fitzsimons–a San Antonio attorney whose family owns extensive ranchland around Carrizo Springs–for a state parks advisory board. Among them are John Montford, who pushed through the sporting goods sales tax when he was a state senator; Andrew Sansom, the executive director of Parks and Wildlife under Governors Clements, Richards, Bush, and briefly, Perry; and George Bristol, a longtime fundraiser and advisor to the former Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who also sits on the board of the Texas Retailers Association and heads the Texas Parks Coalition. Bristol is pushing to lift the cap on the sporting goods sales tax and protect it from future raids and freezes. “If this Legislature, individually and collectively, says they believe in user taxes and user fees, and does not honor those user fees–I don’t care if it’s toll roads, parks, or what–then they got a real problem of honesty with the people of Texas,” Bristol said.
Bristol also said he was encouraged hearing Dabney and Fitzsimons speaking out. “Walter and Joseph and their predecessors get very goosy. They don’t want to talk money. They can say they need things but they wouldn’t touch money on a bet because they are fearful it looks like aggrandizement and empire-building, and they know when they go to the Legislature they’re going to get their asses handed to them. My advice to them is, "Boys, you’ve already had your ass handed to you. You might as well get up there and fight back."
Of all the returning wise men, none casts the long shadow that Bob Armstrong does. The former legislator, General Land commissioner, Parks and Wildlife commissioner, environmental advisor to Ann Richards, and one time assistant secretary of the interior is the only conservationist to have a queso dip named after him at Matt’s El Rancho restaurant in Austin. Armstrong should be resting on his laurels for swinging the deal that made the Anderson Ranch into Big Bend Ranch State Park. “I had thought after doing my duty to get Big Bend Ranch made a park for Texas, I’d go home and do something else,” he said. But he could no longer ignore the current parks crisis. “I’m back to look out for the ranch.”
It’s time, Armstrong said, that Texas suck it up and look forward. “We’ve got precious few parks and we’re going to grow immeasurably over the next 20 years,” he said. At the same time, he pointed out, “The average parks user isn’t on the commission, but there ought to be somebody there looking out for parks.”
Armstrong said he didn’t take umbrage at the commissioners for considering the sale of a piece of the Big Bend Ranch. He knew the circumstances too well. “When you’re out of money, you begin to do strange things,” Armstrong chuckled. “This is an example of people that are struggling to get what they want from the staff and here was a chance that maybe they could sell off a little bit of land and do some good things on the other parts.”
But he wasn’t buying that rationale either. “I sent a letter to the commissioners [after the Big Bend Ranch dust-up]. I said something like this should be considered not for what your problem is, but from what generations in the future are going to be saddled with. Your decision should be based on generations from now. This is such a small part of the budget–0.0007 percent–that to not upgrade our parks is just plain bad business. I don’t want there to be any kind of cap on the sporting goods tax. Parks should get the money it was intended to get so it can do things like repair the Matagorda Island ferry.”
Losing Boeing to Chicago should have been a wakeup call. The state should have gone on a green-space binge. Money alone won’t seal the deal. Compared to the Trans Texas Corridor, the Texas Water Plan, and all the multibillion-dollar big-ticket items being dreamed up to plan for future growth, a Texas 2050 park plan costs chump change, with guaranteed returns. If the current $35 million annual budget throws off $1.2 billion to local economies, as the number crunchers claim, think what a $500 million upgrade would throw off.
The solutions are simple. Raise the cap on the sporting goods tax from $35 million to $85 million, as Rep. Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville) has proposed. Better yet, eliminate the cap on the sporting goods tax altogether, as Armstrong suggests. Make it an honest user tax. Last year’s take of more than $100 million is more than enough to operate the parks division and to launch a program to buy more parkland for future generations. And the governor would do well to occasionally appoint a member to the Parks and Wildlife Commission who is a parks-first advocate. If nothing else, that would bring a different point of view to the table.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Commissioner Joseph Fitzsimons dared to dream, wondering aloud if instead of selling off part of the biggest park in the state system, “why can’t we have a deal with John Poindexter in reverse–give him and his Cibolo Creek guests [direct] access, like we give that B&B by the Hill Country State Natural Area? Is it too crazy to say why shouldn’t we have it all?” Fitzsimons was right. We should have it all. But he knew as well as anyone that it was too crazy to take seriously. Bob Armstrong was reminded of that when he said, “People tell me I’m a communist when I talk about the need for Texans to have open space.”
“The people of Texas have to decide what they want for a park system,” Walt Dabney said. Visualize the people telling their legislators. Visualize Rick Perry using parks as part of his campaign, as he did back when he ran for lieutenant governor and used the Franklin Mountains State Park as a backdrop. Visualize any statewide candidate weaving a statewide parks plan into his or her stump speech. If that ever happened, Texas’s wide open spaces might be more a reality than a myth to the 25 million Texans who don’t own a ranch or a farm.
Back in Black
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
With or without a stocking program, the black bear is returning to East Texas.
It’s usually little more than a footprint in moist soil or a dark blur darting across a dense green forest, leaves rustling and branches cracking in its wake. Some sightings are more specific: a mammal as big as a person, only heavier, that can stand up like a human and run like a deer. A few reports in recent years are quite detailed, like the one in February 2005, on Interstate 10, one-fourth of a mile west of the official Texas welcome center in Orange, when traffic screeched to a halt as a bear rambled around the highway median. Or the regular sightings at an RV park on the Louisiana side of Toledo Bend Reservoir. None should be too surprising — since the subject at hand pays less attention to state lines than people do.
All of them bear witness, as it were, to the obvious:
Black bear are coming back to East Texas.
“What we’re seeing here is a regional bear expansion,” Nathan Garner declares matter-of-factly. An affable bear of a fellow (more black bear than grizzly, actually), Garner is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s regional wildlife director for East Texas, overseeing a staff of 60 covering 57 counties. He also knows a few things about bears. His interest began as a child growing up in the Houston area and continued as a college student pursuing a biology degree at the University of Houston, then at the University of Montana, where he worked on a border grizzly project under Charles (Mr. Bear) Jonkel. His graduate studies at Virginia Tech included tracking 47 black bears around the Appalachian Mountains.
The black bear is afraid. By nature, they’re less aggressive because they didn’t have to be aggressive to survive as a species. They survived by retreating or climbing.
He can tell you that black bear can actually be brown, red or even blond, stand 5 to 6 feet tall and weigh up to 400 pounds, that they’ll eat anything and that they are not aggressive towards humans. “Grizzlies will charge when trapped,” Garner says. “The black bear is afraid.” Unless you get between a mother and her cubs, that is. Black bear coexist with deer. “By nature, they’re less aggressive because they didn’t have to be aggressive to survive as a species. They survived by retreating or climbing.”
Garner will also tell you that Bud Bracken of Honey Island had 305 bear hides when he stopped hunting and that, while the last native Ursus americanus in the state may have been shot in Polk County almost 50 years ago, 47 verified sightings throughout the Pineywoods, the Big Thicket and along the Sabine River since 1977, as well as hundreds more anecdotal sightings, have been recorded since.
To prove how ripe East Texas is for the American black bear (Ursus americanus americanus) and its subspecies cousin, Ursus americanus luteolus, the Louisiana black bear that historically roamed East Texas, Garner takes me on a tour of a couple hundred miles’ worth of bear habitat in the central and southern Pineywoods.
Even as black bear were being hunted out of Texas, Garner explains, recovery programs in adjacent states were underway. Beginning in 1958, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission moved 254 bears into the Ouachita and Ozark mountains from Minnesota and the Canadian province of Manitoba, the most successful restoration of a large carnivore population in the U.S. One hundred sixty-one black bear from Minnesota were moved into Louisiana between 1964 and 1967 to bolster the few hundred Louisiana black bear remaining. The ban on hunting bear in Texas in 1987, and regionally in 1992, when the Louisiana black bear was listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act, further bolstered bear numbers to the point of expanding their range as close as a few miles north of the Red River in McCurtain County in southeast Oklahoma and along the Sulphur and Sabine rivers. A permanent black bear population is just a matter of time.
The bigger question is, Will Texans greet the bears with open arms or loaded ones?
Garner is responsible for coming up with the answer. He’s invested four years heading the committee that recently completed the East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan, 2005 2015. Now he’s spearheading the ETBB task force and still keeping options open for the most controversial element of the plan — relocating 30 females with cubs to sites in East Texas under TPWD oversight.
The migration of black bears into a former habitat is viewed as a positive indicator for the ecosystem by black bear advocates, who see long-term benefits in increased eco-tourism.
As a biologist, Garner sees the obvious benefits in bringing back wildlife to its former native habitat. But as an administrator, he understands too well the wariness some humans have warming up to the idea. “How dare you put my child at risk?” one mother challenged him at a public meeting. For that reason, Garner makes clear that the relocation idea will move forward “only if there is strong support.” If public sentiment stands against TPWD helping to establish colonies, the project won’t happen.
But in one sense it doesn’t matter, because black bear are coming anyway.
Surprisingly, public reaction has been largely positive. Pollsters from Michigan State University surveyed 3,000 Texas households and 485 people who showed up at 10 town meetings that TPWD conducted around East Texas. The results were illuminating. The majority of those attending the public meetings supported the return of black bear to East Texas, and 70 percent of the written comments by mail were positive. The largest turnout was the 108 people who showed up in Kountze, in the heart of the Big Thicket. Meetings in Texarkana and Beaumont attracted the fewest. The greatest opposition was voiced by residents living near the Big Thicket preserves. Garner is not satisfied. “I want 75 percent,” he says.
A significant element of the East Texas bear plan is the mix of public and private stakeholders. Representatives from the Big Thicket Association, a landowners group from Newton County, the Texas Department of Transportation, Temple-Inland Corporation, the East Texas Beekeepers Association and the Alabama-Coushatta nation all had a seat at the table alongside various state, federal and NGO entities. The value of the partnership becomes evident when Garner veers south, then west of Lufkin to South Boggy Slough, where Don Dietz lives. Dietz is a biologist for Temple-Inland Corporation, the timber products giant that controls more than 1.2 million acres of East Texas woodlands, including South Boggy Slough.
Healthy black bear habitat translates into healthy forests, as far as Temple-Inland is concerned, Dietz explains, as we drive past clear-cut pine plantations, conservation forests of hardwoods that will never be touched and SMZs, the streamside management zones that provide critical riparian habitat for wildlife on the move, including black bear.
“We would not be for the bear if we thought it would negatively impact how we manage our timber,” Dietz states frankly. “Temple-Inland wants to make money off timber. As it is, biodiversity is in our best interest. We have seven bald eagle nests on T-I property in Texas.”
Dietz points out how selectively clear-cut land encourages growth of sedges, grasses and berries for bear to feed on in early spring. Pine plantations provide trees for denning and loafing. Mixed forests provide berries through summer. Hardwood bottoms in the SMZs provide downed woody debris full of grubs and other insects for bears to eat and drop the nuts to satisfy black bears’ dietary needs in the fall. If TPWD’s relocation program gets the green light, Temple-Inland has committed to hosting release sites in several locations, according to Dietz. Bear in the woods are good for the land and good for business. “They’re coming,” Dietz says. “I had dinner with a guy two weeks ago in San Augustine County who’s seen a bear twice in the past few weeks.”
“That’s 20,000 acres of the best black bear habitat in East Texas,” Garner says as he drives away. “That habitat offers bears everything they need. The Neches River corridor is the keystone. When I drive through the country, I think bear will do better on managed lands because they’re managed for diversity.”
Somewhere around the Angelina National Forest, he turns from the main highway and promptly gets lost on a network of unmarked back roads surrounded by forests and woodlands. “There’s groceries and cover in there,” Garner says, squinting into an impenetrable thicket. “It’s the roads that present the problem,” he says, changing direction again, “because roads bring people.”
The majority of those attending public meetings supported the return of black bear to East Texas, and 70 percent of the written comments by mail were positive.
Many roads also lead to hunting club cabins tucked in the backwoods, which is one asset Garner hopes to tap into. Hunters get back in the deepest woods, so they’re likelier to ID bears. Their cabins are also destined to be bear magnets if the clubs don’t take measures to properly store and dispose of garbage. Communicating with hunting clubs now will save a lot of hassles in the future, Garner believes.
The nuisance factor looms large. Black bear may be shy and prone to run, but they adapt quickly to humans. Garbage cans, raiding of deer feeders, bee hives and stock pens are all potential problems. As omnivores, black bear have been known to occasionally dine on small animals, be they wildlife, livestock or house pets. If measures aren’t taken to keep garbage lids secure, pet food out of reach, wildlife feeders monitored and so forth, bad stuff can happen.
What seems relegated to the past is human hostility towards bears. Some folks are still inclined to regard them as pests and vermin that should be eradicated, such as realtor Fuzzy Harmon, who told the Lone Star Eagle weekly of Marshall, “It makes about as much sense to spend money on bears as it does to stock Lake O’The Pines with piranha.” (For the record, piranhas are not native to East Texas; black bear are.) But Harmon’s sentiment is clearly in the minority.
“We’re never going to change those folks,” Garner admits. “There are people against this who are antigovernment and still mad about the Big Thicket,” portions of which were declared a national wildlife refuge, he acknowledges. “But I didn’t walk away from any town meeting discouraged.”
Garner’s patience with such concerns and fears, warranted or not, reflects one blueprint he’s followed while articulating Texas policy, the Black Bear Conservation Committee plan initiated in 1990 to promote the recovery of the Louisiana black bear. The Baton Rouge-based BBCC, whose members include Garner, Dietz, TPWD’s Ricky Maxey and several other East Texans, oversees the successful bear recovery programs in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma, while raising public awareness and putting in place a plan for dealing with bears that cause damage, in concert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Fish & Game Commission.
In Jasper, at the TPWD offices, Garner hands me off to district wildlife biologist Gary Calkins. Calkins knows the southern hot zone of potential bear habitat along the Sabine and Neches river corridors well enough to fret about the area’s future.
“Bottomland hardwood forest is the most diverse ecosystem in East Texas,” he says. “It’s home to 500 vertebrates and 1,150 plant species, but 75 percent of these forests have been lost since settlement.” More loss, he fears, is just around the corner. While Temple-Inland remains a dominant presence, Calkins has observed other large timber companies such as International Paper and Louisiana Pacific selling off tracts to forest investment companies (among them, Harvard University) more interested in short-term profit than long-term conservation plans. “Some are pretty good stewards,” Calkins allows. “But others have no interest in biodiversity. They want to cut and get out. The northern part of East Texas has already gone through these growing pains. Here in the southern end, we had it made for awhile.” But with the short-term profit mentality moving in, he says, “all of it is at risk.”
Perception issues are less worrisome. He’s heard the comment, “My kids are going to be at the bus stop and the bears are going to eat them,” a dozen times.
“I try to explain that I’m more concerned about the neighbor’s dog running loose that’s going to hurt their kids.”
While cruising through a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground on the western shores of Lake B.A. Steinhagen between Jasper and Woodville, Garner surveys trashcans and camp sites that may have to be retrofitted. He breaks into a “Hey, Yogi” voice, assuming the cartoon character Boo Boo Bear spying a “pic-a-nic basket.” Garner is trying to emphasize the need for humans to dissuade bear.
Having had close-up encounters with black bear in Minnesota, in the Mexican state of Coahuila and at many zoos, I have been persuaded by Garner’s tour that East Texas is primo bear habitat, as long as the people of East Texas let it be. But I am also impatient enough to hope public support will materialize for a restocking program that will bring them back sooner rather than later.
- See A Bear?
- Call TPWD. One of the bear plan’s goals is to resolve human-bear conflicts. If you see a bear, or have a bear problem, call your TPWD game warden or wildlife biologist or the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at (800) 792-1112 or at regional offices in Tyler (903) 566-1626, San Antonio (830) 569-8700, Kerrville (830) 896-2500 and Alpine (432) 837-2051
- Don’t feed the bears. Period.
- What if a bear approaches?
- Don’t panic, don’t shoot and don’t approach. Don’t run, either, says the TPWD Black Bears in Texas brochure. Back away slowly, with arms overhead to increase the size of your appearance, talk firmly and in a low pitched voice. If a bear stands on its hind legs, it is not preparing to attack. It’s trying to see, hear and smell you. If a bear is in a tree, leave it alone. It’s afraid. And NEVER approach a bear cub.
Westside Bears: an Unlikely Success Story
In the late 1980s, black bears from the northern state of Coahuila, Mexico, began migrating across the Rio Grande into the Trans-Pecos region, returning to a home range that had been unoccupied for nearly 50 years. The recolonization movement was a natural process, surprising many wildlife experts.
“If you look at all of Texas, the eastern two-thirds of the state had the best habitat, precipitation, vegetation and ecological system for bears,” says David Holdermann, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department endangered resources specialist who lives in Alpine. “The Trans-Pecos, ironically, has one of the lesser natural carry capacities to support bears.”
But the black bears (Ursus americanus) continued to migrate — driven perhaps by scarcity of food, drought or some natural instinct that told them there were richer resources, remote mountains and sparse human population to the north.
Holdermann says his best guess is that there are now around 80 black bear in the Trans-Pecos, primarily in the southern sections of Brewster, Terrell and Val Verde counties — some of the state’s most remote, inaccessible terrain.
Of that figure, the breeding population probably numbers around 30 to 40 bears, says Holdermann. Extensive state and federally funded research in the past decade has focused on determining the extent of recolonization, including monitoring bears’ movements through radio collaring, habitat analysis and field studies of bear sightings and bear depredations.
A biological key driving the bear recolonization process is the philopatric factor, which means a female black bear will allow her female offspring to remain on her home range. However, male offspring are forced to disperse outside the mother’s home range.
“Because of this pattern,” says Holdermann, “males will range farther outward, searching for a new home range with mates. Consequently, what we see is a slow, incremental expansion by females into new areas. Males are generally finding everything they need to expand except suitable females.” Male black bears may range over a 100-square-mile area.
The resident breeding black bear population is believed to occupy an area covering the Chisos Mountains in the center of Big Bend National Park, the Dead Horse Mountains and the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (near the eastern edge of the park), the Del Norte Mountains (south of Alpine), the Davis Mountains (near Fort Davis) and the Guadalupe Mountains (south of the New Mexico border). Bear sightings, usually involving males, have also occurred in other areas of West Texas, but far less frequently.
The primary black bear breeding habitat in the Trans-Pecos is the Chisos Mountains.
Raymond Skiles Jr., the chief wildlife biologist in Big Bend National Park, estimates the current number of female black bears in the park to be around 15. The figure is down from a peak female population of around 30 bears in 2000, although Skiles believes the number is now increasing again.
“We had a precipitous decline starting around 2000 2001, following a failure in the food supply because of drought conditions,” says Skiles.
Even though black bears appear to be in a new recolonizing phase, he warns, “The population isn’t safe and secure here. We don’t know now how many bears are breeding females. It’s a very tenuous existence. We need a couple of good years to get that breeding population back up.”
Since 1987, Skiles has devoted a large portion of his time to studying black bears and devising programs and methods to lessen the chance of conflict between bears and park visitors.
“We’ve had to go through an immense change to adapt to the bears,” he says. Changes include an extensive public education program, the creation of bear-proof trash containers and food-storage lockers for campers, bear-proof landfill operations for waste disposal and the development of a bear management and research team. The work has paid off: no major incidents involving bear-human encounters have occurred in the park.
TPWD wildlife specialist Holdermann recalls an example of male bear migration that occurred in Alpine in June 2003, when a young, mature black bear was found wandering in the downtown area. Holderman received an emergency call at his home about 1 a.m. He loaded a dart rifle with Telazol, an immobilizing chemical that interrupts an animal’s nerve transmission system.
“We darted it in one shot and it took five minutes to be immobilized and drop from the tree,” he recalled. Nicknamed the “Courthouse Bear,” it was fitted with a radio collar and transported and released in the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area — all within five hours. In a few months, the bear had migrated 75 miles north to the Del Norte Mountains, about 15 miles south of Alpine, where it remained until radio contact was lost earlier this year.
Public opinion on bear recolonization is narrowly divided, according to a recent TPWD-sponsored survey. A questionnaire mailed to 1,100 landowners in nine Trans-Pecos counties who own at least one section of land received a 42 percent return response. Black bear recolonization was not favored by 46 percent, favored by 40 percent and not answered by 14 percent.
Holderman notes that the TPWD approach to the recolonization process is not proactive. The recolonization has occurred naturally. The state’s primary role has been to monitor the process, gather research data, attempt to minimize threats of bear-human contact and educate the public.
The migration of black bears into a former habitat is viewed as a positive indicator for the ecosystem by black bear advocates, who see long-term benefits in increased eco-tourism and the return of a sense of “wildness” to the region.
Private landowners are an important part of any natural recolonization process, Holdermann notes, since 96 percent of the bears’ range is on private property.
“Once we’ve fully characterized how landowners feel about the black bear population, at that point we need to step back and ask what it means to the future of the bear population,” he says.
“The negative attitude toward black bears reflects a strong pattern that has grown from the frontier experience — it generally extends to all large predators. It’s a legitimate point for people to be concerned about property. The development of a successful bear strategy will have to include those private property interests, as well as the creation of a viable black bear habitat.”
[see also Big
Bend Field Notes]
Desolate Majesty: Preserving beauty without borders
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Texas and Mexico, the Big Bend region is high in biodiversity and low
in footprints. It’s a place so untamed that if something doesn’t bite,
stick, or sting, it’s probably a rock.
Photograph by Jack
You know you have arrived in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert when
it feels as if you have fallen off the edge of the Earth and into the
rabbit hole. Nothing is as it appears. Moths are the size of hummingbirds.
Are those twin pillars of black igneous rock (a landmark known as Mule
Ear Peaks) ten miles (16 kilometers) away or fifty (80 kilometers)? Visibility
reaches more than a hundred miles (160 kilometers) on a clear day, and
since there are few roads or buildings to use as milestones, distance
is difficult to judge. A jackrabbit runs so fast across the hardpan that
its hind legs stretch ahead of its front ones, like in a cartoon. A black
bear rambles through high desert canyons, picking its way through the
yucca and prickly pear, oblivious to the fact that it seems out of place
in this landscape. But that’s OK. No one is around to notice.
Legend says that after God created the rest of the world, he dumped the
leftovers into this giant sandbox. The devil is supposed to be sealed
up in a cave on the south bank of the Río Bravo del Norte (known
on the U.S. side as the Rio Grande), except when he escapes on a swing
hung between nearby mountains. This is a place where water runs uphill,
where rainbows have to wait for rain. The line between myth and reality
blurs. Stare long enough at the Chisos Mountains or the Sierra del Carmen,
the two mountain ranges, known as sky islands, that anchor the territory,
and they levitate above the plain. And you haven’t had a drop of tequila.
But you are under the influence of something stronger. Try inhaling the
scent of creosote bushes after it rains and not feel light-headed. It
is a powerful aphrodisiac. Walk across 80 miles (130 kilometers) of low
and high desert, as I have, and an appreciation develops for what others
might dismiss as a moonscape. Without trees or shrubs to get in the way,
the view is unobstructed: 500 million years of geologic turmoil and erosion
is laid bare over miles of fine sand, gravel, rocky rubble, spongy bentonite,
lava spewed from volcanic eruptions.
The vast Chihuahuan Desert has long been known as El Despoblado, the land
of no people. The name remains accurate today: The wildlife population
still exceeds the human one. But in this part of the desert, on both sides
of the border between Texas and Mexico, another name is taking hold: El
CarmenBig Bend Transboundary Megacorridor, a label only a conservationist
could love. It is two and a half million acres (one million hectares)
of one of the most biologically diverse desert regions in the world–the
largest block of protected land in the Chihuahuan Desert.
The idea of preserving this place started with a dream. In the 1930s advocates
in both Texas and Mexico wanted to create an international peace park.
That idea never took off, but what is emerging in its place is far larger
and more ambitious. On most maps, the megacorridor is blank space, the
only mark a squiggly line for the river that doubles as an international
boundary. It is dominated by six separate chunks of protected land that
hang off the Rio Grande like clothes whipping around a clothesline. On
the Mexico side, it includes the Cañón de Santa Elena in the
state of Chihuahua and the Maderas del Carmen in the state of Coahuila.
On the Texas side, two state protected areas flank Big Bend, a U.S. national
park named for the sharp curve where the Rio Grande’s southeasterly flow
takes an abrupt turn to the north, like a car swerving to avoid an armadillo.
The sixth piece is a ribbon of land on the U.S. side of the river itself.
From the air, the region is distinguished by huge cracks, crags, wrinkles,
and crevices, apparently devoid of life. On the ground, it is no more
welcoming. The temperature can reach over a hundred degrees (38ºC)
on a summer day and sink below freezing on a winter night. The wind can
blow 50 miles (80 kilometers) an hour for days on end. We are talking
rough country. Civilization is far away, no matter what direction you
came from. The remoteness is intimidating. Bad things happen. That can
mean a rattlesnake bite, a scorpion sting, a stealth hit by an assassin
bug. You might get stabbed by a spiny tip when you stumble into a low
lechuguilla cactus, or scraped by the branches of a catclaw, or impaled
by a horse crippler cactus. As locals say, if something doesn’t bite,
stick, or jab, it’s probably a rock.
Beneath their armor, some plants possess valuable food or medicine. Take
the sotol, a succulent with swordlike leaves and serrated edges, which
proliferates on the high Chihuahuan Desert. Its bulbs, when baked underground
for 48 hours as the ancients did, taste like steamed artichoke. The same
bulbs, properly fermented into moonshine, pack a wallop similar to tequila.
There is always the chance you’ll die of thirst. The You Can Die possibilities
are endless, which keeps some visitors–350,000 a year to Big Bend National
Park–from coming back. Those who do return are left to ponder the remarkable
grit of the hardy few who have managed to survive in this spare, unforgiving
environment. Not to mention the roadrunners and kangaroo rats, so adapted
to the arid climate they don’t even need to drink.
Contradictions come naturally here. The landscape is 90 percent desert
yet erupts into cliffs 1,500 feet (460 meters) high and mountains above
8,900 feet (2,700 meters). These skyscrapers are home to penthouse residents
such as bigtooth maples, quaking aspens, and Douglas firs. They soak up
water snagged from the clouds–up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain
a year–while their neighbors on the desert floor must make do with less
than 10 inches (25 centimeters). When it does rain, mostly during the
summer “monsoons” from July through September, spindly ocotillos sprout
leaves and spew flaming red shoots from the tips of their woody spines.
Stalks of yucca burst with huge bouquets of tough, creamy white blossoms
as big as ladling spoons. The candelabras that emerge from the heart of
agaves sag heavily with radiant yellow blooms. This whole lot of nothing
is full of life.
As tough as it looks, the Chihuahuan Desert is a fragile place. Few humans
have stepped here, but footprints fall heavily in the desert. Since the
1800s, the region has been mined, logged, hunted, and overgrazed. Now
it is being allowed to heal its wounds, helped along by governments, corporations,
and individuals on both sides of the border. In 1944, Big Bend National
Park was established, and a joint park with Mexico was envisioned. But
it wasn’t until 1994 that the Mexican government designated more than
a million acres (405,000 hectares) as the Cañón de Santa Elena
and the Maderas del Carmen Flora and Fauna Protection Areas. In 1999,
a cement company arrived on the scene, not to pave paradise but to preserve
it. Cemex, the Mexican cementmaker with operations in 50 countries, has
purchased hundreds of thousands of acres along the border to set aside
This is a different model of conservation. Mexico lacks the funds to purchase
land for parks or wildlife habitat, a situation becoming increasingly
common in the United States. So on the Mexico side of the corridor, much
of the protected land is privately owned. Mining has been allowed to continue.
Rather than removing the 5,000 ranchers and farmers living within the
protected areas, as U.S. national parks historically have done, conservationists
are teaching them why it’s in their interest to protect the land. The
goal is to give residents a sense of stewardship that national parks do
not. “You have to understand, the concept of wilderness doesn’t presently
exist in Mexico,” says Patricio Robles Gil, an environmentalist and architect
of the partnership with Cemex. “In Spanish, we don’t have a word for wilderness.
This is all new, but it could be the model beyond a national park.”
After a long day working in the desert, a group of conservationists gathers
for a dinner of steaks and tortillas at the Cemex reserve’s main lodge.
There is talk of the future. Already, a couple of adjacent areas are being
proposed to join the two protected areas on the Mexican side. They discuss
reintroducing the grizzly bear, the Mexican gray wolf, and bison–all
believed to have been native to the area. Anywhere else, such talk would
be dismissed as a fairy tale. In the Transboundary Megacorridor, such
dreams seem possible.
And why not? The desert bighorn sheep has been reestablished, as has the
pronghorn antelope. Decades ago, only a few remaining black bears could
be found tucked away in the isolated mountain ranges of Coahuila. A group
of Mexican ranchers decided to quit hunting bears and start protecting
them instead. Now you see black bears on the Texas side of the river again.
Wildlife pays no attention to international boundaries.
To its true believers, the megacorridor is the whole world boiled down
to its essence. It is “pure raw,” says a conservationist who has fallen
under its spell, one of the last places on the North American continent
where wild trumps humanity, and one of the only spots where wilderness
is actually expanding instead of contracting. At a time when most of the
Earth’s stories focus on what is being lost, that is a contradiction worth
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Bend Field Notes
Big Bend Field Notes
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
The author jumps over a watery passage in the Chihuahuan Desert. Two and a half million acres (one million hectares) of this desert straddle the Texas-Mexico border in a block of protected land known as El CarmenBig Bend Transboundary Megacorridor. The area is one of the most biologically diverse desert regions in the world, so Patoski had to watch his step. As the locals say, if something doesn’t bite, stick, or jab, it’s probably a rock.
Photograph by Jack W. Dykinga
While researching this story, I joined five other people and walked across the bend in the Big Bend, a six-day, 80-mile (130 kilometers) hike. That may have been the most physically difficult trek I’ve ever attempted. It was certainly the first time I’d ever done extended overnight backpacking. My lower back ached for weeks afterward.
Eight months later, I’d forgotten the pain and–for the first time ever–soloed in a canoe through 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the lower canyons of the Rio Grande. The lower back acted up for a while after that, too, but in a good way. Both experiences underscored the efforts one endures in search of the kind of solitude many seek but few ever realize, regardless of lower back pain.
“If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes; it’ll change.” That old homily about Texas weather popped into my head after I dodged the bullet that photographer Jack Dykinga and Mexican environmentalist Patricio Robles Gil took.
After spending a couple days in Big Bend National Park, plotting and planning our adventures and camping out near Old Ore Road, I headed back to civilization while Jack and Patricio prepared to paddle Santa Elena and Mariscal canyons, two of the three major canyons on the Rio Grande within the boundaries of the national park.
When I left them on a Saturday morning, the skies were clear, and the temperatures had already climbed to around 70 degrees (20°C). It looked like it was going to be a warm and sunny early spring day. But I hadn’t driven more than an hour when the winds started whipping up out of the north and dust kicked up on the horizon. By the time I reached Fort Stockton, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) north of the park, the temperature had dropped to the upper 40s.
I talked to Jack a week later to ask about his trip through the canyons. “It was the trip from hell,” he said wearily. Once the winds began to blow, they didn’t quit for a week, with some gusts exceeding 65 miles (105 kilometers) an hour. More than once, their canoe was blown away from their campsite. Jack’s sniffles turned into a full-blown case of the flu, and he passed it on to Patricio. I waited until he was finally done with his complaints. “Welcome to the Big Bend,” I replied.
The Cemex preserve in the Sierra Del Carmen, is 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Boquillas Crossing on the Rio Grande, as the crow flies. Driving there on rough dirt roads used to take a little more than two hours, once you paid a boatman two dollars to row you across to Mexico in his dinged-up Mexican johnboat. It was a funky way to travel, made more adventurous knowing there was no customs or immigration on the Mexican or the U.S. side (although U.S. Border Patrol highway checkpoints and Mexican military stops manned by bored uniformed teenagers toting automatic weapons loomed farther in the interior). This was too middle-of-nowhere to justify permanent posts. Then September 11, 2001, happened, and everything about the Borderlands changed–including traditional means of crossing the river.
A drive between those same two points now takes at least ten hours. Heightened border security put an end to the freelance ferry tradition. In the past, almost all ferry passengers were tourists from Big Bend National Park bound for Boquillas del Carmen, a primitive village of 300 about a mile from the river, whose residents largely supported themselves selling food, drink, quartz, overnight accommodations, walking sticks, quilts, and trinkets to the visitors. Now the village is slowly depopulating; half of the people have already left.
In the high country of the sierra, I found another Boquillas resident, David, one of the boatmen who used to row visitors across the Rio. These days, he tends to a tricked-out log cabin lodge the Cemex corporation has built overlooking a dammed-up stretch of a clear-running creek. He’s glad to have a job, he said. On weekends, he can go home to Boquillas. It could be worse, David added. Other locals who still call Boquillas home work in Musquiz, another 50 miles (80 kilometers) distant, and many there return home but once a month.