Keep Big Bend Wild seeks to ensure that the natural and cultural resources of Big Bend National Park (BBNP) and the nature-based experiences we have come to love in past decades are preserved in perpetuity. Ours is not an effort to reduce access to the Rio Grande River or existing roads and visitor amenities. This initiative seeks to ensure the current undeveloped spaces of the park – off-road and away from existing visitor and administrative developments – are protected as well as they can be and remain as wild as they have been.
The preservation we seek would have no effect on the already-developed areas of the park, nor would it restrict the National Park Service (NPS) from maintaining or improving facilities in those developed areas. Nor would it prevent Border Patrol from securing the southern border with Mexico or reduce access by Border Patrol to border lands.
Keep Big Bend Wild seeks Congressional action to provide the currently undeveloped areas of BBNP with the highest level of protection available to federal lands – designation as Wilderness.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
1. VISITOR ACCESS TO FACILITIES AND RECREATION
Would wilderness designation mean removal or changes to existing developments such as campgrounds, lodging, visitor centers, gas stations and employee housing?
No. All existing visitor and administrative support facilities, including all paved and unpaved public roads, would remain. Such areas would not be within designated wilderness. The NPS would still maintain and, with appropriate environmental and cultural compliance and public involvement, be able to improve facilities within the existing developed areas of the Park. NPS is about to invest as much as $50 million dollars in replacing the Chisos Mountain Lodge and the potable water systems in the Chisos Basin, clearly indicating their commitment to maintaining, and improving this popular developed area in the heart of the park.
Would wilderness designation result in paved or unpaved roads being closed or restricted?
No. All public roads, paved and unpaved, would not be changed by wilderness designation of nearby undeveloped areas. The Keep Big Bend Wild effort would not close the Black Gap Road, which has occasionally been suggested in the past. Existing roads would be corridors of non-wilderness, with wilderness boundaries beginning at a distance to be determined from the centerline of the road. The National Park Service policy is 100 feet on either side of the centerline, unless local situations indicate otherwise.
Would any trails be closed or require additional permits if they were within the boundaries of a designated wilderness area?
No. All of the park trails would remain open and would be unaffected by wilderness designation. There would be no change in permit requirements due to wilderness designation. Also, there would be no change to off-trail hiking opportunities or permits.
The park has announced seasonal closure of portions of selected trails to protect nesting peregrine falcons from human disturbance since 1985. Such closures are based upon natural resource protection – regardless of wilderness status – and are expected to continue.
How would wilderness designation affect private and commercial river use?
No change would occur to river access or use as a result of wilderness designation. The 1978 wilderness proposal did not include the river, nor roads that provide access to the river. A new proposal would be consistent, and not include the river in wilderness. While some access roads have changed since 1978, no existing access roads or routes would be within wilderness, and almost all the lands south of river road (aside from the 3 major canyons) are also outside of the wilderness boundary, allowing continued use and maintenance of unpaved roads that provide essential river access. Primary guidance for river use and access would continue to be the park’s General Management Plan and River Use Management Plan, both subject to periodic revision and update with public involvement.
Would we still be able to hire commercial guide services?
Yes. Most guided activities within Big Bend National Park occur along the roads or on the Rio Grande River, both of which are non-wilderness areas. Few guided activities occur within wilderness areas. That said, guided services can be an important means of experiencing wilderness for many people. Everyone cannot be expected to have the experience, knowledge, or equipment for a successful wilderness experience. Knowledgeable guides are also excellent tutors to help visitors safely learn about the wilderness they are experiencing – from birds to plants to geology. Whether guided or not, wilderness users are expected to conduct themselves and use equipment appropriate to preserve wilderness. Outfitting operators who enable visitors to experience the recreational opportunities of the area while respecting the area’s wilderness values, are unaffected by wilderness designation.
Visitation to BBNP is rapidly increasing – won’t more facilities be needed inside the park to support increased use?
Wilderness designation would prevent future facilities from expanding beyond the existing development footprint, but would not prevent the NPS from adding facilities within those developed areas to accommodate more visitors, if it were determined to be in the public interest and if funding were available. Water availability may be a more limiting factor than the boundaries of the developed zones.
The environmental and aesthetic quality of the park interior, which draws so many people to the area, would not be negatively impacted by well-designed improvements to facilities in the existing developed areas of the park. Facilities outside the park to meet increased demand for overnight lodging, largely for use by park visitors, has increased exponentially in recent decades. Meanwhile, lodging inside the park has remained the same. Yet the scenic and aesthetic appeal of the park interior has been preserved over that time despite increased visitation. Therefore, the increased demand for service consistent with increased visitation could be met by additional economic development within the park’s gateway communities.
Would I still be able to watch the sunset through the Window from the Chisos Basin?
Yes. Wilderness designation would not influence or be a reason for changing any activities within existing developments such as the Chisos Basin, its lodge, or campground. Wilderness designation would ensure that the scenic beauty of the surrounding vistas as viewed from the Basin would remain to be enjoyed by future generations.
2. WILDERNESS ELIGIBILITY AND MANAGEMENT
Do other national parks have designated wilderness?
Yes. Of the 63 U.S. national parks, 50 include designated wilderness, totaling 44 million acres. Substantial portions of well-known parks are designated wilderness, including Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, Yosemite National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, and Death Valley National Park, among others.
I’ve heard wilderness designation is another way to keep people out. Is that true?
No. Wilderness is for people to experience the dynamics of nature, as well as a haven for wildlife. The 1964 Wilderness Act, in fact, says that “wilderness areas … shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness”. It goes on to say that these “areas shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use”.
Designation under The Wilderness Act ensures current and future generations will continue to have certain experiences that are becoming more and more rare as our population grows, and our natural landscapes become ever-more fragmented and built upon. The Wilderness Act and designation ensures people will continue having the opportunity for experiences that 1) are substantially under natural conditions, 2) are essentially free from modern human control or manipulation, 3) are without permanent improvements or modern human occupation, 4) include opportunities for solitude or primitive, unconfined recreation, and 5) include other qualities such as ecological, scientific, historical, and similar values.
Does the establishment of Wilderness, by Congress, in Big Bend National Park
restrict, or prohibit traditional practice by federally recognized Native American Tribes?
No. The designation of Wilderness in Big Bend National Park in no way prohibits any of the traditional cultural, or religious practices by tribal members permitted by existing federal law within the park. The creation of wilderness will help to ensure that these areas are protected from any development by law, so that the natural and cultural resources deemed important to Tribes for these practices are managed in a manner that protects their value and integrity in perpetuity.
Would roads, paved or unpaved, be a part of wilderness?
No. Existing roads would be corridors of non-wilderness and would continue to be available for use by park visitors.
Could wilderness designation be used as a means to prevent any private development or land uses on private land outside Big Bend National Park?
No. Wilderness designation would have absolutely no impact on any lands or land uses outside the national park. Wilderness can only be designated within the boundaries of federally owned property and cannot determine the usage or management of private property. And while there may be differences of opinion about future land uses, private property rights outside the park are unaffected and the law would not support any challenge based on existence of wilderness designated inside the park.
Would wilderness prevent projects like grassland restoration and correcting human-caused erosion problems in wild areas away from existing roads? What if those projects require motor vehicles and other mechanized equipment?
Improving ecological conditions, including restoration of natural conditions, is one of the purposes of wilderness. The Wilderness Act and NPS wilderness policy requires managers evaluate the “tools” required to get an appropriate project done and select the one that has the least impact on wilderness purposes and values. Indeed, such an analysis might conclude the minimum required method includes motorized vehicles and/or equipment.
I heard Big Bend backcountry is already managed as Wilderness. Is that true?
Yes, that is true. Much of the park has long been managed as wilderness, despite not being designated as such by Congress. Here is how that works. In accordance with The Wilderness Act, the Department of Interior and NPS transmitted a Big Bend Wilderness Recommendation to Congress in 1978. That recommendation identified approximately 583,000 acres of Big Bend for wilderness designation.
However, over all these years, Congress has not yet acted upon the recommendation. National Park Service internal policy mandates that until Congress acts, formally recommended lands will be kept in a condition that remains eligible for congressional action – not damaged or developed in ways that would preclude Congress’s authority to act as they choose. Thus, NPS management at BBNP has long considered wilderness character and values. Therefore, you may also have heard “if you like the way BBNP has been for past decades, you would also like it with designated wilderness.”
The reason why wilderness designation is so important is that agency policy can change, and if that happens before Congress acts, it is possible that vast areas of Big Bend could be opened for additional infrastructure development. That would change the character and experience of the park forever.
If Congress acts to designate wilderness at Big Bend National Park, would the wilderness boundaries be same as the 1978 recommendation to Congress?
While the 1978 recommendation is still the official map and would be the basis for an updated map, the designated wilderness boundaries are unlikely to be exactly the same. Keep Big Bend Wild is committed to excluding all roads and developed areas from the wilderness. But mapping technology has advanced since 1978, which would allow more refined boundaries for the non-wilderness road and river corridors. The Black Gap Road, which was recommended for closure in 1978, would be recommended to remain open today. About 60,000 additional acres in the North Rosillos unit, acquired by the NPS after 1978, are also likely to be eligible for wilderness designation. Keep Big Bend Wild will suggest a map, but Congress would ultimately determine the mapped wilderness boundaries.
We’ve read about a proposal to expand the west side of BBNP along part of Terlingua Creek. Is there a link between the wilderness proposal and the Terlingua Creek Project?
No. The two initiatives are independent. NPS has no plans for new development or roads on the Terlingua Creek property. Thus the new acreage would likely be eligible for wilderness designation in the future and such designation would ensure the area remains undeveloped.
3. IMPACT OF WILDERNESS ON BORDER SECURITY AND LOCAL ECONOMY
Big Bend is on the border. Would wilderness designation hinder the Department of Homeland Security and Border Patrol from securing the border?
Wilderness management and border security can and do co-exist. NPS and the U.S. Border Patrol have an excellent relationship at BBNP and work together to ensure that each agency’s mission is accomplished. Agreements and policies are in place to guide the agencies through any border security issues or needs that should arise, such as accommodating required border security infrastructure that cannot be placed outside of wilderness, while minimizing that infrastructure’s impact upon wilderness values and the visitor experience. Additionally, wilderness does not preclude NPS or Department of Homeland Security/Border Patrol from using necessary means to ensure life safety and to respond to emergencies.
Brewster County receives an annual federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) to compensate for BBNP lands not being subject to property tax. Would wilderness designation change the PILT?
No change to PILT would occur. In 2022, the PILT payment to Brewster County from the federal government was $1.358 million, approximately 16% of the revenue in the County’s budget.
Visitation to BBNP is rapidly increasing – how could demand for additional facilities impact local communities?
Although NPS could consider expanding lodging in non-wilderness developed areas (such as the Basin), it has no plans to do so. It is more likely that any required significant expansion of visitor-support facilities would be developed by private entities outside the park, in neighboring communities. This would have a direct positive economic impact on the private sector and gateway communities.
4. WHY WILDERNESS IS A GOOD IDEA FOR BIG BEND
Didn’t the NPS recommend about ⅔ of the park to be designated wilderness back in 1978? Whatever happened to that?
Yes, but Congress has not acted on that proposal. The 1978 proposal is a good place to start but Congress is not bound by the lines drawn on a map 40+ years ago. There are a number of places that were not recommended for wilderness then, but have remained undeveloped and would be good candidates to add to the wilderness proposal without changing any current uses. The Keep Big Bend Wild effort will put together a consensus map and recommend to Congress boundaries for a wilderness bill that would allow the existing developed areas to remain so, but preserve forever much of the undeveloped core of the park as federal wilderness. The final wilderness boundaries would be determined by Congress after input from all stakeholders.
Aren’t all national park lands already protected from development? Why is wilderness designation necessary to keep existing wild space in BBNP the way it always has been?
It may come as a surprise that the NPS could build new developments and roads in currently undeveloped areas. Certain requirements, such as an Environmental Impact Statement and public meetings, would be required, but it is not out of the question. Wilderness designation is the highest level of protection available to federal public lands to preserve wild space for non-mechanized human uses, such as hiking, horseback riding, backpacking, camping, and other “primitive” uses. Trails, primitive campsites, privies, and directional signage are allowed in wilderness, as are administrative actions to restore damaged natural resources, remove invasive species, manage wildland fire, and preserve historic structures.
Will my grandchildren be able to experience BBNP in the same manner as we do today?
Wilderness designation is the most reliable mechanism for ensuring future generations can experience America’s wild, untamed natural landscapes in the best possible condition. Wilderness preservation is truly a gift for future generations. Designation of wilderness at Big Bend is the best way to ensure that our grandchildren can enjoy the Big Bend experience in the same manner as we have been privileged to do.