In Far West Texas, conservationists revive a decades-old push for a Big Bend “wilderness” designation

Wilderness areas are the most stringently protected types of public lands in the U.S. A coalition of Big Bend boosters is pushing for Congress to protect most of the park’s natural areas through a formal wilderness designation. | Lea esta nota en español

A view from the Chisos Mountains at Big Bend in April 2022. (Travis Bubenik / Marfa Public Radio)

By Travis Bubenik

At a popular overlook in Big Bend National Park, the park’s superintendent Bob Krumenaker gazed at a sweeping view of mountains and miles of desert lowlands.

“The Window is this notch in the mountains, and water – when we have water – flows through that,” he said. “It’s a spectacular hike.”

The sprawling Chihuahuan Desert terrain that makes up the park is one of the most pristine parts of Texas. A recently formed group of conservationists and park fans called Keep Big Bend Wild is pushing for lawmakers to formally declare most of this land as “wilderness.”

According to Krumenaker, the designation would effectively ensure that the views at Big Bend are always as stunning as they are now.

“The wilderness would preserve the things that people tell us they love about this park the most,” he said.

Wilderness areas are the most stringently protected types of public lands in the U.S., with limits on things like building roads and facilities. Right now, the park’s staff manages Big Bend like it’s a wilderness area, but supporters of the wilderness effort say that’s not enough.

Raymond Skiles, a vocal advocate of designating most of the national park as wilderness at his home in Alpine, Texas. (Travis Bubenik / Marfa Public Radio)

Retired wildlife biologist Raymond Skiles is among those who want lawmakers to guarantee the national park will be protected from overdevelopment in the future. Skiles worked at Big Bend for decades, and said there have been plans in the past that could have dramatically changed the park’s landscape. 

Like in the 1960’s, when lawmakers wanted to build a commercial airport on the edge of Big Bend.

“I’ve seen a few of these things that, they’re rare, did not come to pass, but it wasn’t because someone didn’t want it to happen,” he said. “And I could just see that could be in the future as well.”

Though an airport or anything on that scale was never built, Skiles and others involved with the Keep Big Bend Wild effort want Congress to declare most of the park a wilderness area to make sure nothing like that ever happens here, especially as more and more people flock to Big Bend. The park had more than 524,000 visitors last year, a record high.

Skiles insisted the wilderness designation wouldn’t have any effect on existing park infrastructure.

“Basically, what is wild now would stay that way,” he said. “Nothing would be taken out, nothing would be rolled back.”

But not everyone’s convinced.

Just outside the park on a recent Friday evening, the party was getting started at Terlingua’s Starlight Theatre, a tourist hot-spot. A singer belted her heart out to the crowds of people munching on antelope burgers and throwing back beers. The busy season was in full swing.

The Terlingua Ghost Town on a busy day in April 2022. (Travis Bubenik / Marfa Public Radio)

“Even when we thought it was going to be slow, we’re still cranking,” said Bill Ivey, the Starlight’s longtime owner.

Ivey is a fixture of the local economy and the board president of the Brewster County Tourism Council, which has so far declined to endorse the wilderness effort.

Ivey’s not into the wilderness idea, and he wasn’t a fan when it was first proposed decades ago.

“I haven’t budged from being opposed to it, and that stems from a lot of information from way back,” he said.

Bill Ivey, the longtime owner of the Starlight Theatre and a fixture of the local economy. (Travis Bubenik / Marfa Public Radio)

In the 1970’s, some state and local officials feared the federal government was trying to make the park less accessible by making it a wilderness area, which they believed would’ve hurt tourism.

Supporters of the revived wilderness effort promise they’re not trying to make it harder for people to visit Big Bend, but there’s not yet a detailed nitty-gritty proposal on the table for what the new wilderness plan would look like. Which is a problem for Ivy.

“If we’re going to endorse something or agree to something that we don’t know what it is, and they’re going to develop it after it goes to Congress, I’m not comfortable with that,” he said.

Keep Big Bend Wild’s wilderness effort does have support from a number of other local businesses, like river guides who run commercial trips in the park.

Supporters want Congress to pass legislation establishing the Big Bend Wilderness by the start of next year. But so far, representatives and senators from Texas haven’t commented on the idea, so it’s far from clear if there’s the political will in Washington, D.C. to make it happen.

The Dr. Ralph R. Chase West Texas Collection at Angelo State University provided archival newspaper articles for this story.

About Travis Bubenik

All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter
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