Nature Notes; Celebrating the Park Service Centennial at Big Bend

NPS Historic Photograph Collection

Everett Townsend was captivated by the desert-mountain landscapes of the Big Bend when he encountered them as a 22-year-old Texas Ranger, and he became a driving force in the creation of Big Bend National Park. In the photograph above, from 1936, he is pictured with Blanca, a Mexican child, in Boquillas, Mexico.

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation creating the National Park Service.

The national parks are a uniquely American idea – they’ve been called “America’s best idea.” The creation of an agency to preserve and interpret those places was equally novel, and the park service has been a model for similar agencies around the world.

National parks are celebrating the centennial in 2016 with special events. Big Bend National Park – Texas’ first national park – marks the occasion with new exhibits and events, including a fair Saturday, March 26, at Rio Grande Village.

The creation of a national park is a political achievement. But at the center of the history of many parks is a singular vision – an American who saw a place as special, and who fought to preserve it intact for future generations.

For Big Bend, that visionary was, aptly enough, a Texas Ranger.

In 1894, Everett Townsend, age 22, was tracking stolen mules in the Chisos Mountains – when he arrived at the mountains’ South Rim. The unbroken desert-mountain vista made a powerful impression on the young man. He said he had “seen God as he had never seen Him before.” He became convinced the area should be preserved.

Townsend went on to serve as Brewster County sheriff and as a state legislator. The creation of a park in Big Bend remained a passion, said David Elkowitz, Big Bend National Park’s chief of interpretation.

“He would eventually go into the state legislature and co-sponsor the original legislation to purchase Big Bend National Park lands,” Elkowitz said. “He would go on to work at the land office that actually purchased and graded lands and then looked at securing the rights and the title to lands. So I think Mr. Townsend is oftentimes considered to be the father of Big Bend.”

Townsend’s vision won powerful allies – including President Franklin Roosevelt. And West Texans embraced the idea.

In the midst of the Depression, the Texas legislature appropriated $1.5 million to purchase more than 300,000 acres at Big Bend. The state already owned 300,000 adjacent acres.

On June 6, 1944 – D Day – the state turned over 700,000 acres to the federal government for a national park. It was called “Texas’ gift to the nation.” The park opened six days later.

In authorizing the park, Congress pointed to resources that continue to draw visitors today.

“They highlighted the great panoramic vistas, where you could see large, long-distance portions of the landscape,” Elkowitz said. “They talked about the proximity to Mexico and the opportunity to experience some of the small villages and the culture of the border country. They also talked about the great wildlife diversity, and we know today that Big Bend leads in at least seven categories of biodiversity.”

The history of the National Park Service is reflected at Big Bend.

The Civilian Conservation Corps – the Depression-era work program – built infrastructure at parks across the country. In the 1930s and 40s, in anticipation of the creation of Big Bend National Park, CCC crews built roads and trails – including the popular Lost Mine and Window trails.

In the 1950s, in advance of its 50th anniversary, the park service launched a national initiative called Mission 66. It brought major developments to Big Bend. Legacies of the program include the visitor center and headquarters at Panther Junction, the Chisos Mountain Lodge and the tunnel near Rio Grande Village.

On March 26 – the Saturday of Easter Weekend – Rio Grande Village will be the site of a showcase of the park’s resources.

Staff will provide a “behind-the-scenes” look at the work they do. There will be tents with activities, and a free lunch for visitors. Residents of Boquillas, opposite the park in Mexico, will cross to share aspects of their community. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Elkowitz said the centennial is an opportunity to spread the word about the national parks.

“I think it’s a great chance just to get new audiences to find out about the parks and to consider coming,” he said, “because there is so much they offer, and there are many people who maybe don’t know enough, and who’d consider coming now. This is our great chance to show it off.”

Big Bend National Park is expecting an increase in visitors during this centennial year.

Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.