Big Bend National Park and its more than 800,000 canyon-carved acres in far West Texas got a new overseer last September. Bob Krumenaker left behind the sea caves and water-splashed cliffs of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, where he served as superintendent for sixteen years, to take the helm at Big Bend, which this year marks its seventy-fifth anniversary. Briefly a state park, Big Bend officially became Texas’s first national park on June 12, 1944. That first year, it drew 1,409 visitors. The past few years have seen record attendance at the park; in 2018, more than 440,000 people came to Big Bend, where they could gaze down at the desert from the edge of the South Rim, admire the sunset through a rocky notch known as the Window, and stick a toe in the frothy, coffee-colored Rio Grande.
Texas Monthly: Why did you want to come to Big Bend?
Bob Krumenaker: I was ready for something more challenging—a bigger, more complex place where I could have more impact. I began my career at Canyonlands National Park [in Utah], so in some ways I’m returning to the high desert. I’m here because I want to be here.
TM: What’s it like to manage a park as large as Big Bend?
BK: We run a place about the size of Rhode Island. We are the police, the fire, the emergency medical, and the department of natural resources, all wrapped up into one. Between Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, we have responsibility for 245 miles of the border. We have fewer staff—about ninety employees—now than we did ten years ago, and visitors are increasing. It’s getting harder to do the job and keep quality services available.
TM: Now that you’re superintendent, what’s on your to-do list?
BK: Some of our facilities are historic, but many are dated technologically. We are not very energy efficient. Where the opportunity exists, I’d like to make the park an exemplar of sustainability. Because of our isolation and the high cost of doing business, we have not taken advantage of some things that make a lot of sense, like solar energy. There are power lines all over the park, and they’re kind of an eyesore. I’d like to see what we can do to wean ourselves off the grid and be more sustainable that way.
TM: The park’s seventy-fifth year began with a government shutdown. Did that cause any long-term problems?
BK: The shutdown was pretty tough on both the park and the people who care about it. We were able to contain the damage done to natural and cultural resources by being fairly proactive, but I worry, frankly, about the psychological impacts. The National Park Service has always been looked at as a reliable presence. It hit employees particularly hard, especially those who were prohibited from doing their jobs.
TM: In May, a fire destroyed the historic barracks in Castolon, including the visitors center and store. Will it be rebuilt?
BK: The Castolon fire was heartbreaking, but no one was hurt, and the firefighters did an incredible job saving all the other structures in the historic district. There is a lot of debris, and it is taking some time to get the environmental clearance to clean up the site. There will be a temporary store by October, and we will reopen a visitors center in another one of the Castolon buildings. Long term, the visitors center will move to the Garlick House, another historic Castolon building that we were planning to rehab anyway.
TM: The Chisos Mountains Lodge and its popular restaurant date back to the sixties. Are you planning any improvements?
BK: The facilities will be in poor condition in ten or fifteen years. I’m looking into whether we can put together a comprehensive, economically sensible, sustainable development plan that fits the magnificent setting and provides a quality experience for the future. The main lodge building itself, where overnight guests check in, is in very poor condition, and it’s not cost-effective to save it. We’re not looking to increase capacity, because we have a limited amount of water and only one road in, but there’s an opportunity to rethink all the basin facilities other than the cottages.
TM: A more immediate change you’re implementing is requiring campers to reserve sites ahead of time.
BK: We’re going to put either all or the vast majority of campsites on a reservation system. We’re going to start with reservations for much more of the front-country campground sites, the most popular drive-in sites, and the majority of the Chisos backpacking sites. Backcountry fees will go to a per-night fee but still be reasonable.
TM: What’s the biggest challenge of managing the park?
BK: Certainly providing for border security along with the Border Patrol and assuring that the visitor experience and park resources are not adversely impacted by border activity. That’s a big challenge. There have been more than 440 known [illegal] crossings in the park this calendar year so far. Most are from Central America; many are in family units—there are no caravans. They’re seeking asylum. The good news is we’ve seen no threat to visitors. These are people fleeing because of issues back home.
TM: What about a challenge that Big Bend lovers might not be aware of?
BK: We’re trying to manage the invasive cane along the river. Removing it benefits the ecosystem, helps the Border Patrol, and enhances the experience of those who run the river. Everybody is in favor of managing cane, but that’s tremendously labor-intensive and a continuous need.
TM: Any plans to celebrate the park’s seventy-fifth anniversary?
BK: The Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University, in Alpine, will host a free public celebration on October 11. Throughout the whole year we have been honoring the park, but it’s a milestone and not an event.
TM: What’s it like living so far from city comforts?
BK: We get no radio or TV except for the internet, if you pay for it. Power fails on a regular basis. Your neighbors are your coworkers. I don’t mind any of those things, although it’s certainly inconvenient to get groceries. The nearest grocery store is one hundred miles away in Alpine. You need a chest freezer, and you need to plan. For entertainment, I hike.
Pam LeBlanc is an Austin-based veteran journalist who specializes in outdoor adventure and recreation.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Monumental Task.” Subscribe today.