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Neel Baumgardner is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. His dissertation research focuses on the development of national parks and wilderness areas along the borderlands of North America, specifically the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and Montana and the Chihuahuan Desert of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Texas. He received his B.B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin and an M.B.A. from Southern Methodist University.
In October 1942, after the bulk of land acquisition for Big Bend National Park was completed, the Texas State Parks Board (TSPB) announced a prohibition on hunting, shooting, or depredation of any kind. In its public outreach regarding this policy, the TSPB explained that "the NPS [National Park Service] is said to be anxious to preserve the area and have it returned to its former condition, 'as it existed when the wild horsemen of the Comanches signaled their smoke fires from the mountain peaks'." Indigenous peoples thus reappear in NPS and TSPB's vision for the Park, but are relegated to a past that conjures up a specific aesthetic vision of the American Southwest. However, Big Bend, like many other areas set aside as protected spaces on both sides of the border, was not devoid of human agency before its establishment. This "wilderness" was occupied by Native Americans, the Spanish, Mexicans, Anglos, and carved out of previously settled and subdivided land. The idea of wilderness has been, and continues to be, used to arbitrarily separate humans from the landscapes they inhabit. These spaces are important for the preservation of the natural environment, but must also be understood historically through the profound personal tradeoffs and state-sponsored or private speculations that often engendered their creation. My dissertation project explores this set of questions and revolves around the creation of protected spaces and wilderness along the North American borderlands, focusing on the Big Bend region and Waterton-Glacier.
In 1910, Glacier National Park was carved out of the Rocky Mountains of Montana primarily from lands ceded to the United States by treaty from the Salish and Blackfeet peoples. By 1932, Glacier and its Canadian counterpart to the north had been combined to form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Further south, Big Bend National Park was created in the desert of southwest Texas in 1944. Big Bend was predominantly fashioned out of private land parcels acquired by the State of Texas. Using the Waterton-Glacier model as precedent, in the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. and Mexican governments undertook a major effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to form a sister park in Mexico and combine the two areas into another international park. In the mid-1990s, Mexico established two protected areas adjacent to the other protected spaces in the Big Bend region. CEMEX, a Mexico-based international aggregate producer, largely owns and manages the Sierra del Carmen preserve. Although the dream of an integrated, international peace park in the same vein as Waterton-Glacier remains elusive, regional cooperation in the protection of natural resources has continued. Indeed, Big Bend National Park has noted the reappearance of black bears in the Chisos Mountains, not through any managed effort at reintroduction, but through their migration from the Mexican Sierra del Carmen range. In 2005, CEMEX and its conservation partners announced their intention to designate and manage a portion of the Sierra del Carmen as the first official wilderness in Latin America. More recently, in August 2009, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Juan Elvira announced a new bilateral initiative to strengthen environmental protection across this space.