Animals Don't Recognize International Borders, So Why Should Parks?

When Big Bend National Park was established, it was meant to be international in scope. Dean Fikar/Shutterstock

For nearly 80 years, conservationists have been trying to create an international park. The region would encompass some 3 million acres of desert mountain region including protected lands in U.S. national parks, Texas state parks and protected areas in Mexico.

On the U.S. side, the vision started with Big Bend National Park, which covers more than 800,000 acres in Texas. The park is located along a 118-mile (190-kilometer) stretch of the Rio Grande at the U.S.–Mexico border. The park is in the Chihuahuan Desert and contains a wide variety of native plants and animals, including more than 1,200 species of plants, 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles and 75 species of mammals.

According to the Greater Big Bend Coalition, a conservation group protecting the ecosystem in the area, the park was never meant to be only national in scope. The original agreement signed in El Paso, Texas, in 1935 called for the creation of a U.S.-Mexico International Park.

In 1944, not long after Big Bend National Park was established, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a letter to President Manuel Ávila Camacho of Mexico.

"I do not believe that this undertaking in the Big Bend will be complete until the entire park area in this region on both sides of the Rio Grande forms one great international park," he wrote.

Camacho responded that he agreed.

Maderas del Carmen is a protected natural area in the state of Coahuila in Mexico.
Maderas del Carmen is a protected natural area in the state of Coahuila in Mexico. Comisión Mexicana de Filmaciones/Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, politics and time interfered with those plans. President Harry Truman continued to support Roosevelt's park dream, but when Camacho left office, the interest in his cause waned.

As the National Park Service writes:

While official dialogue regarding an international park continued over the decades, numerous obstacles forestalled the establishment of the protected area in Mexico. In Mexico’s governmental system, elected officials are limited to one six-year term in any office. Since newly elected candidates had little incentive to continue projects left by the previous administration, the establishment of the protected area had to be accomplished within a single term of office. Cultural differences, distrust, private land interests, economics, and more demanding domestic and international issues such as World War II also delayed the establishment of a protected area in Mexico.

But eventually in the mid-1990s, two natural protected areas were established in Mexico: Maderas del Carmen in Coahuila and Canon de Santa Elena in Chihuahua.

"These protected areas on both sides of the Rio Grande could form the backbone of a new international park that would recognize them as a single ecosystem and provide for collaborative management by both countries," writes Dan Reicher in The New York Times. Reicher is a Stanford University lecturer and research fellow and board member of the conservation group American Rivers.

International park or sister parks?

The Chihuahuan Desert landscape
The rocky Chihuahuan Desert landscape includes creosote bushes and purple prickly pear cactus. Pi-Lens/Shutterstock

If there are protected areas on both sides of the border, some question why there's need for the area to be designated an international park. But in a time where the border is fraught with political divisiveness and discord, it can bring people together. Says the Greater Big Bend Coalition:

An international designation would send a message to the people of both countries and the world that the entire region is an important conservation area worthy of care and support from citizens of both countries. If the federal governments of both countries would come together and recognize the value of declaring the entire region an international park, it would not only help ... conserve the area, but also help boost the economy on both sides of the border through ecotourism. Promoting the economy would have the added benefit of helping with the socio-economic needs of many impoverished people living in and near the area.

The National Park Service, however, says the talk has turned away from the concept of an international park and instead has moved to the idea of "sister parks" or "bi-national parks." Each area would keep its own management plan but there would still be opportunities for joint management of shared ecosystems and resources.

"What will be the future relationship of these neighboring protected areas on the United States/Mexico border? Only time will reveal the exact outcome. No matter what the future brings, the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem along this part of the international border now enjoys the environmental protection afforded by two countries that share the common goal of protecting the natural resources of this unique region."