Big Bend National Park: an Environmental History
All of these titles are evident to any individual who happens to venture upon the majestic, sprawling landscape that is the Chinquapin Desert. But this jewel of a park has not lived life unscathed. Big Bend National park’s rich natural history is tightly intertwined with cultural conflicts, environmental changes, and political activities of the area over the past two centuries. Throughout the years it has experienced brutal droughts, extensive overgrazing, pollution, intrusion of foreign species, and the deep cuts so often made by mining.
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The scars of these activities can be seen today, nestled within the powerful beauty of the Chicks Mountains. The earliest form of change imposed upon the once raw land of the area Egan as early as the 185(Yes, when vaqueros and other settlers began using the land for cattle raising. Madison says, “The Big Bend was cut out to be a cattle country, and today the cattle business is the most highly developed and scientifically operated industry in the region”. The Big Bend country was a promising land for the industry, with a variety of grasses perfect for the nutritional needs of cattle.
The early Mexican settlers of the area carefully selected certain cattle breeds able to withstand the harsh conditions of the desert. Initially these early homesteaders took only what they needed from the land to sustain clusters of families residing together in the vast wilderness. But as times progressed and the value of the land began to reach outside ears, more and more ranchers came hoping to leech profit from the land. Soon after Texas was admitted to the Union in 1845, land became a commodity and plots of range were quickly sold to prospective cattle ranchers.
By law the lands to be sold would be division into agricultural, watered, or timbered land. General R. M. Gang was one of the first men to attempt range consolidation, and he eventually became the owner of one of the biggest cattle operations in Big Bend. His ranch, Block GO, received its first herd of 6,000 cattle in 1884. By 1895 the ranch boasted a whopping 17,000 head herd, nothing compared to the ranch’s 1891 peak of 30,000 cattle. Raising cattle however was not a walk in the park. Water was scarce and sporadic in the desert, and rainfall itself was scattered.
Madison states “there will be rain on one side Of a fence and not a sprinkle on the other” followed by a quote from a cowboy that he could find “the north barrel of my double reeled shotgun plumb full o’ water and the south barrel as dry as a powder keg! ” The focus hence swung to advancements in irrigation. The first attempt at large-scale water storage was in-ground tanks. Ranchers dug make-shift lakes in the ground hoping to collect water for herds, but rainfall was too sparse and the top soil too loose for success.
An alternative was shallow-dug wells from which water was drawn in kegs. However it required extremely back-breaking work to provide enough water to the massive herds. The windmill was a technological breakthrough that significantly solved the water robber but also led to extreme degradation of the ROI Grandee Rivers. Pipelines were installed to better transport water from the mills to ranch houses and cattle troughs, and some ranches had fifty to sixty miles of pipelines supplying their industry.
To this day the effects of these actions can still be seen on the river, with less fruitful springs and significantly slower flows. The replenishing of the river and the ROI Grand Watershed have also been affected by the overgrazing of the land, since the topsoil once held by plains grasses are no longer present to allow proper runoff. The National Park Service spoke of these droughts in a history of the park by saying “By the mid sass’s, the rich desert grasslands were disappearing due to overgrazing; the tree-lined streams were denuded and drying.
Man hoped it would rain to replenish the land, renew the streams and fill the river; hope in the renewing power of water continued through the sass’s until it became clear that nature was more powerful than hope”5. Many speculate that the changes imposed on the land by the cattle grazing industry are the single most significant impacts on Big Bend National Parka. The search for gold is a familiar dream in American history. Victor Cocoa once told a parable of a miner who died and went to heaven. The miner knocked on the pearly gates and “was refused admission when Saint Peter learned what his occupation had been on earth. No More miners get into heaven,’ said Saint Peter. ‘There are a lot of them up here now and they are digging up the heavenly streets because they heard they were paved with gold. ‘”4 Big Bend did not escape the seekers of this coveted mineral, and in the sass’s the first rumors off potential ore located in the area spread like lieder. The exhausting hunt for gold was unfulfilled to the Marathon residents and other locals which participated in Big Bend’s mini gold rush, but to this day prospectors are still searching for traces of the valuable resource.
However, the flock of people searching for gold led to the discovery of abundant silver and mercury ores that would be mined for years. In addition to the cinnabar (mercury ore) and silver mines were vast deposits of lead, coal, zinc, copper, potash, marble, tin and uranium were found and exhausted. This made Big Bend a hot spot for mining companies and immunities. The towns of Trilingual and Beaujolais sprung up as centers for miners and other workers as a result.
As mining production grew, supplies were needed to keep the operation going. Specifically the methods for extracting the mercury cinnabar deposits were demanding on the land. Workers would smelt down the cinnabar rocks in vast quantities, producing the silvery liquid they called quicksilver. This process required large amounts of wood for the smelters, and as a result large plots of wooded areas were cleared from the soon-to-be national park. As a result Trilingual is now one of he most arid, bare pieces of land in all of Big Bend.
The lack of mechanical transportation in the early 1 ass’s meant any resources needed for the development of the mines had to be taken from the immediate area, and the tree-based diversity of the land dwindled dramatically. Around 1 924 was when the first government officials began looking at Big Bend as a diamond in the ruff, and the first efforts were made to establish the park as an official reservation. Initially the park was known as Texas Canyons State Park, and in 1 933, after the addition of the Chicks Mountains, it became Big Bend State Park.
Everett Townsend, “The Father of Big Bend” combined with the efforts of our very own Ammo G. Carter pushed for further recognition of the park. As head of the Texas Big Bend Park Association, Carter stated in a Fort Worth Star Telegram article titled “Anything As Big As Big Bend Calls for Big pen” that Texas and its people would do what Was needed to fund the establishment of the potential national park. Carter presented a deed personally to current president Theodore Roosevelt, and by June 12, 194 Big Bend National Park was officially established 10.
Although the park retains an overwhelming amount of beauty and wilderness, the effects of humans on its environment are still evident. Due to its persistently unhealthy amount of drought and extensive haze of pollution from neighboring Mexican cities, Big Bend had made Top Ten lists of the most endangered national parks in the Unites States 10. It is sometimes known as having the worst air quality of any western national park, its average Visibility dropping from a hundred miles to less than forty in the past thirty years. This problem is caused by unregulated carbon lignite coal plants in downstream
Mexican towns and the pollution continues to grow. The ROI Grandee still shows significant dents in water supply and flow, something which only compounds upon itself as population grows. Invasive species in the park also contribute to environmental problems, brought in from tourists and other outsiders to the park. These species are crowding out and suffocating many of the native desert plants that make Big Bend so unique. However, Big Bend is still The Last Frontier, instilling a sense of isolation and rawness in the spirit of all who witness its sprawling horizons and jutting mountains.