Big Bend National Park was established on June 12, 1944, but the park contains a history that precedes this date many years. With its vast desert covering 801,163 acres and its widely diverse ecology, this park has been known for centuries as El Despolbado: “The Wilderness”. The area that is now Big Bend National Park has, over centuries, earned many other romantic names: Sky Island in a Desert Sea, The Empty Space on the Map, and the Last Frontier. All of these titles are evident to any individual who happens to venture upon the majestic, sprawling landscape that is the Chihuahuan 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. The scars of these activities can be seen today, nestled within the powerful beauty of the Chisos Mountains.
The earliest form of change imposed upon the once raw land of the area began as early as the 1850’s, 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 divisioned into agricultural, watered, or timbered land. General R. M. Gano 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 G4, 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 cattle4. 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 barreled 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 problem but also led to extreme degradation of the Rio Grande River4. 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 Rio Grand Watershed have also been...
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