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Wouldn’t that be Rio Grande?

by Dan W. Reicher


A former assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration and director of climate Change and energy initiatives at Google, Dan W. Reicher is a Stanford lecturer and research fellow, as well as a board member of the conservation group American Rivers.

In 1977 I was a member of the first expedition on record to navigate the entire 3,038-kilometer Rio Grande. Four of us, all Dartmouth College students and budding kayakers, were sponsored by the National Geographic Society and Dartmouth’s Ledyard Canoe Club. The trip took us down an ice-choked creek on the flanks of the Continental Divide in Colorado; through intricate white water in the Taos Box of New Mexico; into overgrown irrigation ditches around Albuquerque; to the bottoms of steep canyons in West Texas; and past palm-bordered agricultural fields near the river’s mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. 

I have been back to the river many times, especially to explore its crown jewel, Big Bend, the 483-kilometer section of the river that cuts a great sideways “S” on a map of North America and forms the border between Mexico and the United States. Its massive canyons cleave the cactus-studded Chihuahuan Desert on both sides of the Rio Grande. Far from any urban center, Big Bend offers the darkest night skies and brightest constellations in the lower 48. 

As Ben Master’s film, The River and the Wall, so brilliantly demonstrates, the expansion of a border wall between the United States and Mexico represents a profound threat to the future of the Rio Grande. Described by one wag as a “twelfth-century solution to a twenty-first-century problem,” construction of such a barrier puts so much at risk, from endangered species and critical water supplies to local economies and property rights, with little upside. 

When it comes to the future of Big Bend, however, there is a far better idea: the creation of an international park. The idea was first proposed in 1936, just four years after the United States and Canada joined Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park to create the word’s first international peace park. Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed the idea when he signed legislation establishing the 243,000-hectare Big Bend National Park in 1944. Shortly thereafter, the American president sent a letter to his Mexican counterpart, Manuel Ávila Camacho, writing, “I do not believe that this undertaking in the Big Bend will be complete until the entire park area in this region on both sides of the Rio Grande forms one great international park.” 

Camacho agreed, and in the years since, presidents as diverse as Truman, Reagan, and Obama have taken up the cause of cross-border conservation, yet 75 years later, Roosevelt’s hope remains unfulfilled. Ironically, the current administration’s determination to build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border is breathing new life into the idea of creating such a park. The equities and the politics are compelling. 

There are now more than 1.2 million hectares—an area substantially greater than Yellowstone National Park—protected on both sides of the Rio Grande in Big Bend, along with more than 400 kilometers of river frontage. As I wrote in a March 14 New York Times op-ed: “A jointly managed park would recognize the region as a single ecosystem and encourage collaboration by focusing the two nations on shared environmental and climate challenges along the border, like droughts, floods, and wildfires, and invasive plants and endangered species. Joint efforts at habitat restoration and water conservation would increase river flows, discourage illegal crossings and support agriculture. And the park would increase tourism, helping struggling people on both sides of the river.”

More important, the politics of Big Bend International Park are promising and bipartisan. The Democratic-led House is well-positioned to advance the idea, in collaboration with Republican Congressman Will Hurd, who represents the Big Bend region and who has been an outspoken opponent of the wall. Hurd spoke in favor of the park during a panel discussion moderated by the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, following a screening of The River and the Wall in Washington, DC. 

Democratic Senator Tom Udall, whose father, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, was a key player in the 1968 adoption of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which now protects 431 kilometers of the Rio Grande, signaled his support for the international park on a Big Bend canoe trip we took in 2018. That voyage, which also included Theodore Roosevelt IV, both celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Interior Secretary Udall’s legislative victory and highlighted the threat posed by the border wall. 

Additionally, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) is a logical Senate ally, particularly with his intimate connection to the Rio Grande as one of the four members of our 1977 expedition and a congressional leader in international conservation. On the Mexican side of the river, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who views the border wall as “an attempt to strong-arm and humiliate Mexico,” also recognizes that “Mexico and the U.S. are bound not only by a shared border, but by a shared culture and history.” 

As with any binational diplomatic effort, there are some complexities with establishing Big Bend International Park, including differing approaches to land conservation on the two sides of the river. But with the Glacier-Waterton precedent and scores of other trans-boundary protected areas around the globe, this is clearly a feasible idea whose time has come. Just think how marvelous it would be to fulfill Roosevelt’s dream with a natural wonder that links our two great countries, instead of a massive medieval wall that divides us.   

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