Big Bend Conservancy
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A wilder and untamed Big BendState tries to make a largely unused park more accessible without diminishing remote characterBy JOHN MACCORMACKSan Antonio Express-news B IG BEND RANCH STATE PARK — More than 30 miles from the nearest paved road and surrounded by a sea of prickly brush, this was not an obvious spot for a new public campsite.Unless, of course, it happened to fall somewhere within the 300,000 wild acres of the largest, most primitive and perhaps least-known state park in Texas.By the rugged local standards, this remote site — hidden amid giant rocks beside a broken-down windmill — was perfect for a new campsite."This is a really sweet place. You are in a world of your own out here, in a secluded wilderness. This one is a keeper," said Dan Sholly, the state's deputy director of parks, as he recorded the site's latitude and longitude. "And that's the whole thing about this place. There is nowhere else in Texas, including Big Bend National Park, where you can basically go wilderness camping by four-wheel drive."When ready for public use, perhaps as early as this fall, the primitive campsites will offer little more than a clear spot on the desert floor and lots of splendid isolation.During a week of site inspections early this month, the team from Texas Parks & Wildlife visited almost 30 proposed campsites.High standardsStandards were strict. Some sites were rejected just for being visible from afar. Others for not being anchored to a geological or historical feature. It's all part of a larger effort to make this sprawling but largely unused West Texas park more accessible to the public without taming its wild character."That's the real dilemma. It's really the only opportunity we have in Texas to operate a wilderness park, and there's pressure to open it up," said Ted Hollingsworth, another Parks and Wildlife official. "It's a balance, but not everyone sees the balance in the same place."Two decades after the state acquired the Big Bend property for $8.8 million from oilman Robert Anderson, its overseers at Texas Parks & Wildlife still seek that elusive balance.Settled more than a century ago as a high-country sheep and cattle ranch, the park is utterly remote compared to urban Texas but just a few miles west of the larger and better-known Big Bend National Park.Over the past five years, the state park has averaged about 10,000 visitors a year while the older, more developed federal park has averaged about 340,000. But even those figures are misleading.Most visitors to the state park use only the 25-mile stretch along the Rio Grande, never venturing into the interior, most of which is not open to the public.MisperceptionsOnly about 2,500 visitors a year make the hour's drive over gravel road to the park headquarters at Sauceda, where lodging, horseback riding and bike rentals are available. "I live in Terlingua, and I know a lot of people there. Probably the biggest perception of this park is that it is closed and that they don't want us in there," said Jim Carrico, a member of the park's advisory board and a retired state and federal park administrator.And though the 800,000-acre federal park is tended by 90 full-time employees, the smaller state park has only eight. Their duties vary, including routine maintenance, feeding guests at the bunkhouse and tending a small herd of longhorn cattle.The new user plan, if fully implemented, would increase trail mileage for hiking, biking and horse riding from 68 to 242 miles.It would expand the number of campsites from 12 to 49 and open up much of the park to off-trail jaunts while trying to minimize human impact, such as forbidding camping near water sources and prohibiting generators, pets and all-terrain vehicles.Protecting resourcesDespite political pressures in Austin to dramatically increase public access — provoked in part by a proposal last year to sell part of the park — agency officials are proceeding cautiously. "The most important thing we have to do here is protect the cultural and natural resources. You can't put hundreds of thousands of people in here and not lose its value," Sholly said.The natural features of the park include the Solitario, an eroded molten rock dome almost 10 miles across, and some of the state's most beautiful waterfalls.It is also rich in historical and cultural assets, among them Indian cave pictographs and the wagon-wheel ruts of the stage coaches that once made the perilous run from Marfa to Terlingua.The round of campsite inspections earlier this month came as park officials and an advisory committee huddled at the Big House to compare notes and plot strategy. When the committee broke and headed home April 12, the registry showed not a single camper anywhere in the vast park.'This is paradise'Barbara Richardson, 63, of San Antonio, a volunteer working in the visitors center at Sauceda, was eager to share her recent camping experience. "We came in February, quite by accident. We stayed in the Big House when it was real cold, and then we went primitive camping," Richardson said. "We saw coyotes, wild mares and mule deer. We didn't see a person or a car for six days. It was fabulous."After staying a couple of weeks in the park, she and her husband went home briefly, and then returned as volunteers, working the spring cattle roundup."This is paradise. It's the only primitive place left in Texas, and every minute there is something new out here: a cactus plant, the old ranch sites, the sunrises and the sunsets," she said."If the compromise is that we have to open it up more rather than sell part of it, then OK. But we have to be very careful."firstname.lastname@example.org
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