Can we realize Roosevelt’s dream for a transboundary conservation area by developing a plan for a sustainable future?

This is a picture Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande with the Santa Elena Canyon Protected Area, Chihuahua, Mexico on the left and Big Bend National Park in Texas on the right.

By Rick LoBello, Board Member


Big Bend National Park was first officially proposed on February 16, 1935 when Texas Senator Morris Sheppard wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggesting a protected area of international scope in the Big Bend area. Roosevelt was a strong advocate for the proposal and before he died in 1945 he said in a letter to His Excellency General Manual Avila Camacho, President of the United Mexican States “I do not believe that this undertaking in the Big Bend (referring to the establishment of Big Bend National Park) will be complete until the entire park area in this region on both sides of the Rio Grande forms one great international park.”

Nine years later Big Bend National Park was established by the US Congress. It was not until 1994 that Mexico took steps to protect lands on the Mexican side of the proposed internationally protected area when the Maderas del Carmen Protected in Coahuila and Santa Elena Canyon Protected Area in Chihuahua were established. One final piece in the long proposed Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion protection effort was completed in 2009 when the Ocampo Protected Area in Coahuila was established.

Big Bend National Park was designated by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as a Biosphere Reserve in 1976 to help protect the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion. The September 22, 2016 Periodic Review for Big Bend Biosphere Reserve proposed a compelling vision for transboundary conservation. The MAB International Coordinating Council has recommended that U.S. authorities explore the possibility of creating a transboundary biosphere reserve with the Maderas del Carmen Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, as Big Bend is part of a cluster of an international area of huge conservation interest. If such a biosphere reserve was approved it could be an important step in helping to realize Roosevelt’s vision for the border area.


In order to help Big Bend National Park fulfill the vision and goals of the 2016 Periodic Review, several years ago the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition (CDEC) proposed assisting the Big Bend Biosphere Reserve with increased stakeholder awareness in the surrounding West Texas region and adjacent northern Mexico. With the help of partner organizations including the El Paso Zoo, El Paso Community College, University of Texas at El Paso, Frontera Land Alliance, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Chamizal National Memorial and Davis Mountains State Park the proposal included the following four objectives:

(1). Conduct a process of outreach and engagement around enhancing the health and well-being of people, communities and the environment in the Biosphere Reserve transboundary area. A foundation of trust and mutual understanding that community well-being and environmental health are inseparable is necessary before establishing goals of a transboundary biosphere reserve or an organizational structure to achieve them. The key to that process will be developing relationships and a strong rapport with public and private entities and their members and stakeholders. In order to find common ground on a vision for the biosphere reserve, positive feedback as well as any negative misconceptions must be addressed in an open, transparent dialogue.

People living and working in the transboundary area need to ask themselves questions and come up with answers on how to plan for the future so that both people and nature can thrive, and realize that the things we want to do in maintaining our quality of life, we can do forever. In other words how can we live sustainably? The  Biosphere Reserve and the Maderas del Carmen as a Biosphere Reserve should work on shared values with local people resulting in a plan to ensure a sustainable future.

(2). Create an Advisory group for the Big Bend Biosphere Reserve that establishes new collaborative partnerships to further the recognition of the biosphere reserve’s potential with stakeholders and the public. . The Mammoth Cave Local Advisory Council and cooperative agreement between the Barren River Area Development District, Western Kentucky University and Mammoth Cave NP offer an example of how to create the organizational structure. Informed by the community outreach and engagement process, raise awareness of the incredible biodiversity of the Big Bend Biosphere Reserve and how the biosphere reserve can forward the goals of the region. Establish this collaborative group to develop and conduct a communication strategy so that people know they are living, working, and recreating in a biosphere reserve that connects people with nature and culture in the local, binational and global contexts.

(3). Explore the opportunities for the creation of a Transboundary Biosphere Reserve with Maderas del Carmen Biosphere Reserve (Mexico) and the Big Bend Biosphere Reserve.

(4). Promote public understanding of the reserve through developmental efforts that include a reserve webpage, updated communication and branding, and local community engagement in the partnership and cooperation zones (U.S. and Mexico).

The existing foundation of transboundary cooperation should be noted. Over the years Big Bend National Park has established cooperative agreements with protected areas in Mexico through Sister Park relationships. Working with the three protected areas the park cooperates with Mexico in species monitoring, water quality monitoring, invasive species removal and training in firefighting and management. The Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition hopes to move forward with this proposal in working with the park and the entities noted above. Anyone wishing to help can contact CDEC from its website.

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