A record 581,000 travelers visited Big Bend National Park last year. Tourists are drawn to this prickly desert paradise in far West Texas for its majestic sunsets, spectacular hiking and camping, and remote location along the Rio Grande. Above all, visitors come seeking wilderness and solitude. To ensure that experience is preserved for future generations, a new advocacy group called Keep Big Bend Wild is pushing to give vast portions of the park the nation’s highest level of conservation protection: an official federal designation as a wilderness area. 

The designation would have virtually no impact on what travelers could do in the park or how outfitters operate there now, according to members of the group and the park’s superintendent, who supports the effort. But it would permanently prevent new infrastructure from popping up outside already developed park areas, protecting the rugged experience that one can get only from a few days of tromping through the Chisos Mountains alongside mountain lions and owls, or watching tarantulas scurry across the desert flats below.

The wilderness designation isn’t intuitive. Why is it necessary to further protect land that’s already part of a national park? To answer that question, you have to go back to 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. The law created a system to protect federal land from development; today, it encompasses more than 100 million acres, from national forests and refuges to national parks. In 1978, the National Park Service submitted a recommendation to Congress to designate large swaths of Big Bend National Park as wilderness, but that designation was never adopted. 

One reason why: park staff, volunteers, and advocates had worked hard to build infrastructure in Big Bend, which became a national park in 1944. The idea of restricting future growth might’ve seemed backward at the time, says Raymond Skiles, a core member of the Keep Big Bend Wild team and a longtime park employee who retired in 2018. “That was a time when most of the folks who were boosters of getting a park established were still around and influential,” Skiles says. “They had made a huge effort to get a park established and get good roads, lodging, and gas stations. At the time, there was concern that accessibility achievements might somehow be rolled back by the wilderness designation.”

The idea of “wilderness” was relatively new then. But today, 50 of America’s 63 national parks—including Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park—include designated wilderness areas that total 44 million combined acres.

Visitation at Big Bend National Park has surged in recent years. It reached more than 463,000 people in 2019, then climbed to 581,000 in 2021. Backers of the wilderness designation say it would ensure that any future construction needed to serve increasing crowds, such as hotels or campgrounds, would be confined to gateway communities outside park boundaries, helping to retain Big Bend’s scrappy character.

The park’s lodge and three developed campgrounds would continue to operate as they have for decades, and paved and unpaved roads that cut through the rugged landscape would remain open. Visitors could still hike and camp in the backcountry and paddle the muddy Rio Grande, and the designation wouldn’t affect the way the Border Patrol does its work inside the park, either. The designation, advocates say, would simply keep the undeveloped parts of the park undeveloped in perpetuity–something that is not currently guaranteed.

“I can’t think of a single change in human use [that the designation would bring],” Skiles says. “The wilderness designation wasn’t meant to keep people out or shut down integral facilities. It was to say, ‘Hey, there is a point where development achieves its goals . . . and let’s save the untarnished landscape that is really why people want to be there in the first place.’”

Visitors to the park would see little change, according to Big Bend National Park superintendent Bob Krumenaker, who supports the effort. New hiking trails could still be constructed, and there would be no changes in permit requirements, off-trail hiking opportunities, or river access. Bicycling is already allowed only on gravel or paved roads, and that won’t change. The park’s existing infrastructure would not be part of the designated wilderness. Paved and gravel roads would become corridors of non-wilderness inside the wilderness areas. 

Existing facilities, such as the lodge in the Chisos Basin at the center of the park, could expand a small amount, if they didn’t extend into the designated wilderness areas, but a new lodge or campground couldn’t sprout in the middle of the desert. A planned $50 million upgrade to the aging Chisos Mountain Lodge and the potable water system could proceed as planned.

The wilderness designation at Big Bend was not adopted in 1978 in part because the National Park Service was initially not a strong supporter of the Wilderness Act, according to Krumenaker. “The thought was, ‘We’re already protecting wild lands; why do we need an additional law?’” he says. “That’s why it’s important now. That was basically a handshake deal, and a future superintendent might someday decide we need another lodge or another developed campground [inside the park]. The Wilderness Act recommends that those areas that could remain wild should be guaranteed wild.”

Even without the designation, most of the parkland at Big Bend has in effect been managed as wilderness since that recommendation. But organizers of the effort worry that the “wilderness with a small w” policy, as Skiles calls it, might not hold forever. The designation aims to protect against future park management going rogue and building a big new lodge in the desert, or adding a snack bar near a beloved site like Mule Ears or Balanced Rock. 

“While we’re good stewards, things can change in local administration,” Krumenaker says. “More importantly, we are managing these areas to be wild based on policy that can change based on whoever is in Washington, D.C. I think the public has told us clearly they do want these areas protected. By Congress passing this law, we can cement the deal.”

Charles Angell operates Angell Expeditions, which offers mountain biking, hiking, paddling, and rafting trips in and around Big Bend. He says he supports Keep Big Bend Wild’s effort. “The designation is just one more layer to keep [the park] pristine,” Angell says. “This is a step in the correct direction.”

Krumenaker says he hasn’t seen hard opposition to the proposal, although in the past some lovers of the park have incorrectly seen the push for a wilderness designation as an undercover effort to remove all existing development from the basin area. That’s false, he says, noting that the park is about to spend $50 million on improvements to the main lodge (the restaurant and check-in area, not the rooms) in the Chisos Basin. Demolition on that project could begin as soon as next summer. “This is not about removing any development; it’s about drawing lines around development so it doesn’t expand beyond existing area,” Krumenaker says. 

Other naysayers don’t see any urgency to getting the designation, since Big Bend has operated without it for so long: “They figure it’s working now, so why do something else?”

Ultimately, it will be up to Congress to consider the designation. Organizers hope that will happen before the end of the current term, in January 2023, but they’ll continue to push for the change if it doesn’t. For Skiles, it’s a way to ensure that future hikers, paddlers, and backpackers have the chance to strike out across the landscape and get in touch with the primitive nature of human existence. “So many people going to Big Bend feel it and understand it,” he says. “That’s because they’re experiencing that wilderness.”

video: escape to big bend

Revisit Texas Country Reporter’s tour of Big Bend National Park.