Border Security

Wilderness and Border Security at Big Bend

News stories about illegal border crossings and smuggling of people or contraband are a daily occurrence, especially along the southern border of the United States.   It is understandable that the public could be concerned that a change in the status of specified acreage at Big Bend National Park to Congressionally designated Wilderness might affect the level of border protection within the park boundaries. 

Before they can feel comfortable supporting action to Keep Big Bend Wild through wilderness designation, local residents and the broader general public need answers to questions such as:

1. Are there other formally designated wilderness areas located on the southern U.S. border with Mexico and are they patrolled by the Border Patrol?
2. What is the current role of the Border Patrol at Big Bend National Park?
3. What is the current working relationship between the Border Patrol & the NPS at Big Bend National Park?
4. Would the designation of wilderness for parts of Big Bend National Park prevent Border Patrol from engaging in surveillance, patrol, or enforcement action in those designated wilderness areas or any other areas of the park?

Look for answers below ——–

1. Wilderness on the U.S. border

Wilderness management and border security can and do co-exist today along the southern border of the United States.

There are FIVE Congressionally designated wilderness areas next to the U.S.-Mexico border   They are managed by four different federal agencies: the US National Park Service (NPS), the US Forest Service (FS), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  If the additional TWELVE wilderness areas along the U.S.-Canada border are included, there are currently a total of SEVENTEEN (17) wilderness areas along America’s international borders.  There is already a history of active border security in designated wilderness areas. 

On the Mexican border, from East to West:

Wilderness NameStateAgency
Pajarita WildernessArizonaFS
Organ Pipe Cactus WildernessArizonaNPS
Cabeza Prieta WildernessArizonaFWS
Jacumba WildernessCaliforniaBLM
Otay Mountain WildernessCaliforniaBLM

The Border Patrol actively patrols each of these areas, although none have as good a working relationship as do the rangers and Border Patrol agents at Big Bend National Park.

2. The Current Role of the Border Patrol at Big Bend National Park

NPS and Border Patrol cooperation interdicting undocumented non-citizen crossing border at Big Bend National Park.

The current role of the Border Patrol at Big Bend is patrol, surveillance, investigation, and apprehension of illegal border crossing activity while respecting the values of the national park.

As the 118-mile-long border at Big Bend is amongst the most remote sections of the international border in either the United States or Mexico, illegal border crossing activity, while it does occur, is at a lower level than every other sector of the international border.  For that reason, and the fact that the few roads in the Big Bend area all funnel northward to state and national highways, neither the Border Patrol nor the NPS see a need for significant physical infrastructure within the remote areas of the park to enhance security.  There are no plans to construct border walls in, or near, Big Bend National Park.

There is substantial electronic surveillance of the border in the park, however, so most illegal border activity is detected and apprehended.

3. Current Working Relationship of Border Patrol & NPS at Big Bend National Park

NPS and Border Patrol collaborating on the evacuation of an injured visitor at Big Bend National Park.

NPS and the U.S. Border Patrol have an excellent relationship at BBNP and work together to assure that each agency’s mission is accomplished.

The Border Patrol has a substation located in BBNP, where agents who live in the park work cooperatively with the national park rangers.  Border Patrol agents focus on their border security mission and work alongside NPS law enforcement rangers.   The field staff of both agencies cooperate on a daily basis to protect multiple national interests at Big Bend – which include conservation, public enjoyment, visitor safety, and security of the nation’s borders.

NPS and Border Patrol management confer on a frequent basis to ensure that their operations are complementary so that neither impedes the other.  

4. Wilderness Would Have No Effect on Border Patrol Operations at Big Bend National Park

NPS and Border Patrol rounding up trespass cattle at Big Bend National Park.

Wilderness designation would not change the mission or operations of Border Patrol at Big Bend National Park, its duties at the park, or its interaction with park personnel, the public, or those who cross the border illegally. 

The designation of wilderness at Big Bend National Park would NOT prevent the Border Patrol from the performance of their duties in any area of the park.  As the Border Patrol agents and senior management embrace the wild values of Big Bend National Park, they have long conducted their mission with sensitivity to the values of the national park in mind.  For example, the Border Patrol assists the NPS with maintenance of primitive roads in the Big Bend backcountry – but does not drive off those roads except in the most dire emergency.

Agreements (1) 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 avoid being placed within wilderness, while minimizing that infrastructure’s impact upon wilderness values and the visitor experience.

Additionally, wilderness does not preclude NPS or any arm of the Department of Homeland Security, including the Border Patrol, from using necessary means to ensure life safety and respond to emergencies, including motorized equipment and helicopter landings if necessary.  The agencies pre-plan their programs carefully, however, to minimize the circumstances where it would be needed. 

None of the Rio Grande River itself, which forms the border with Mexico, would be within the Big Bend wilderness.  The only lands immediately adjacent to the border that are recommended for wilderness designation according to the 1978 recommendation to Congress are in Boquillas, Mariscal, and Santa Elena Canyons, where steep cliffs essentially preclude anyone leaving the river corridor and penetrating to the interior of the park, or the country.  The remainder of the riverine corridor is not recommended as wilderness according to the 1978 map.  Although the 1978 Congressional recommendation is over 40 years old, at this point it is STILL the official recommendation.  However, the final decision on where wilderness is mapped within any federal property is strictly the province of Congress – after stakeholders and the public have weighed in with their opinions.  Yet, it must be emphasized again that the designation of wilderness at any place in the park does not prevent Border Patrol from performing any of their duties. 

Memorandum of Understanding Among U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U. S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture Regarding Cooperative National Security and Counterterrorism Efforts on Federal Lands along the United States’ Borders