Review Of The Story Of Big Bend National Park, by John Jameson

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 11/25/09


  A recent visit to Big Bend National Park prompted my interest in this book, which can be found in any souvenir shop within range of the park. Published by University of Texas Press, John Jameson’s book offers a detailed and comprehensive look into the history behind the park, as well as much of the minutiae that went into its establishment. “Minutiae” is not to imply these details are unimportant or should go overlooked, but rather, the book offers glimpses into the drone like mentality that many citizens had before Big Bend became a National Park.

  While the science and geology aspects are more or less skimmed over, much focus is given to the National Park Service and the methods used to preserve this land from commercialization. Jameson does dip into the many different species of cacti, flowers and birds that exist within the park, as well providing picturesque photos of the canyons and mountainous terrain, but The Story of Big Bend is ultimately a story of bureaucracy, and the attempt to push past the stubborn mentality of those who lack any sort of long term vision.

  Just as what was seen in Ken Burns’ recent documentary series: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, many Texans were not in favor of having Big Bend established into a National Park. And just as the many morons who wanted to mine and drill within the Grand Canyon, the making of Big Bend into a National Park went not without hurdles. Yet of course now, those who couldn’t see the benefit of preservation are easy to mock, but the National Parks, just like great artists in their day, had to endure much opposition from the visionless drones of the world incapable of seeing anything long term.

  Another topic the book addresses is the preservation of natural resources, including that of natural predators, such as the black bears and mountain lions that visitors can find within the park today. While visiting the park, I spoke with a ranger to inquire about the ratio of human injury to that of mountain lions, and the ranger informed me that the animals are tracked, and those that attack humans are ultimately disposed of. So “preservation” is such only to a point, in other words. The text, while dry at times, is thorough and full of history—noting also the trips the former First Lady, Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson, personally made to the park, thus granting it the national attention many believed it deserved.

  The Story of Big Bend also notes the ways in which the landscape names were changed, such as Santa Elena Canyon, which was once Santa Helena Canyon, or Boquillas Canyon, which was formerly known as Dead Horse Canyon due to the number of horses that had been abandoned and thus starved to death within those canyon walls. Many were not pleased with these changes, feeling that these new names were eradicating some of the more important historical parts of the park, and conflicts arose due to these changes.

  Unlike The Grand Canyon National Park, which receives millions of visitors each year from tourists all over the world, Big Bend is not as popular, and nor is it as immense. It thus suffers from lack of funding. Rangers are not paid well, and the meager living conditions and remoteness of the terrain can cause problems for the families of employees. Jameson briefly mentions the “poorly insulated mobile homes unattractively grouped together without landscaping, storage, or garages, where utility lines crisscross the desert sky overhead.” For example, if an employee gets sick and needs immediate medical attention, airlifting is the only way to get that person to a hospital in time. Many employees can suffer from depression due to isolation. The book only mentions these struggles at the very end, and more detail as far as what life is like for those who work within the park’s natural walls would have challenged some of the idealism.

  The Story of Big Bend is worth the read for anyone wanting to learn what lives within the park, both in scenery and species, and the efforts undertaken by those willing to fight for it. As any natural area, its story will outlive us. Perhaps that is why we keep returning to it.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Examiner website.]


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