Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Expanded Fossil Bone Exhibit development threatens wilderness experience at Big Bend National Park


I've started the petition "Save the wilderness - cancel plans for the Fossil Bone Exhibit in Big Bend National Park" and need your help to get it off the ground.

Will you take 30 seconds to sign it right now? Here's the link:

Here's why it's important:

Expanded Fossil Bone Exhibit development threatens wilderness experience at Big Bend National Park

By Rick LoBello

First look at the actual plan for the fossil bone exhibit. Then watch the video above if you haven't already.

(June 6, 2015) On May 23, 2014, National Park Service Intermountain Regional Director Sue E. Masica approved a Big Bend National Park finding on how building a new Fossil Discovery Exhibit in the Tornillo Flat area of the park would have no significant impact. Not so fast say wilderness and national park advocates who spoke out against the project on a petition. Many comments on the proposal came in from El Paso, the largest city near the park, and other Texas cities and areas of the country including California, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Oklahoma. Marshall Carter-Tripp, past Director of UTEP's Centennial Museum in El Paso said “A smart-phone trail could be constructed for very little, and would have only a tiny portion of the impact that this huge display will have. No one is impressed by fake fossils anymore! We go to Big Bend to get away from our over-built world. Please leave Big Bend as it is.”

Diane Devine, wife of former Park Ranger Bob Devine and a former teacher at San Vicente School at Panther Junction Park Headquarters, stated that “BBNP already has visitor centers capable of housing displays; current staffing patterns will be stressed to cover additional exhibits, but lack of staffing could create safety issues. Have use statistics justified a need for a new exhibit?”

Mark Kirtley who worked as a volunteer at Persimmon Gap Visitor Center for many years summed up much of the opposition to the exhibit when he said “I've listened to thousands of visitors talk about why they love Big Bend. They often speak of a peace engendered by the wide-open spaces, a quality that the Park Service normally fiercely protects and a quality that buildings impact. Driving the gravel Old Ore Road or even the paved park road from Persimmon Gap to Panther Junction can feel like paradise, but a large exhibit at Fossil Bone, even a lovely one, would somewhat spoil the experience. Doesn't the Organic Act mandate that we preserve the scenery? And cannot education at a national park occur without compromising its beauty? Visitors do like wayside exhibits, but my impression is that they prefer the intimate and personal feel of the small ones, like the one at Anna Hanford’s grave.”

Many people who have fought against development project proposals in the park in the past believe that the park's staff was only able to gain support for the project by focusing solely on financial support from the friends group. Unlike environmental groups that are willing to be critical of park management actions, historically most National Park Friends Groups and Cooperating Associations support nearly everything that parks want them to. I saw this first hand when I worked for two of them over a 14 year period. During this time I also networked with others in similar positions across the country and served for a brief period as a member of the Friends of Big Bend National Park board of directors.

You would think that park staff would demonstrate a greater passion for conserving the park by focusing more on protecting park resources and working on plans to reintroduce extirpated species like the gray wolf and desert bighorn. I understand that there are also problems with exotic species like European wild boars and exotic plants species. Recently I learned that Mexico is moving forward with a plan to build a new road south of the park near the three newly protected areas that are adjacent to the park. How will these roads impact the wilderness quality that has been protected by the park since 1944? Why not re-direct funds planned for Fossil Bone to higher priority issues that directly impact the park’s ecosystem?

During my last year working in Big Bend National Park the Houston Chronicle on January 19, 1992 published an article entitled “Big Bend: At the Brink.” I am saddened to say that the park is still at the brink and echo the words of former Big Bend National Park Superintendent Robert Arnberger who was quoted in the article stating that the park's “remoteness does not entirely shield it from society's ills.”

Over the past 40 years I have supported and teamed up with members of the Sierra Club, Rotary International and other groups across the country in supporting conservation efforts at the park. One person who I have great respect for is Roland Wauer, Chief Naturalist at the park for many years, former Chief Scientist of the NPS and a hero of the current NPS Director, Jonathan Jarvis. Most people know Wauer as a prolific writer who has helped people better understand and connect with the natural resources the NPS is mandated to protect. But Wauer has also been known to be a passionate advocate for conservation and has spoken out publically on what he sees as threats to the parks. The 1992 Houston Chronicle summed up the problems in the park by saying “even a spot as big, rugged and remote as Big Bend National Park is subject to the ecological stresses and strains of modern development.” Wauer was quoted as saying “damned with the resource” Park Service managers must cater “to the whims of concessioners and public officials and are thinking more about visitation than natural and cultural resources.”

Big Bend's current Wildlife Biologist Raymond Skiles was also quoted by the Houston Chronicle when he stated that the “future of the park is far from secure." How secure is the park today when we see park managers devote resources towards projects like at Fossil Bone? Does the NPS at Big Bend really have the resources to waste on projects that do little to help protect the resource? Does the park's education program measure its success by how many exhibits it can build out in the middle of wild open spaces?

There was very little effort by the park to alert the public to the proposal and to seek input from wilderness advocate groups like the Sierra Cub. Big Bend Sierra Club member Roger Siglin, a former Big Bend National Park ranger who retired from an illustrious career with the NPS which included assignments as Chief Ranger at Yellowstone National Park and Superintendent of Gates of the Arctic, lives nearby in Alpine, Texas. In response to the proposal Siglin said that the “building design and size is totally inappropriate for the current location and would be out of place anywhere else in Big Bend NP. My experiences in Big Bend go back to 1966 when I was a ranger there. The existing exhibit is a disgrace and should be removed. I was therefore pleased when I heard the park was planning a new one. But the proposed structure to house exhibits is ugly beyond anything I might have imagined. I have frequently hiked in the hills across Tornillo Creek and this structure will impact the wilderness experience because it will be highly visible for hiking off of the Old Ore Road.”

When I visited the park in October, 2014 I decided to make a YouTube video of the area where the exhibit will be located to help people better understand the project and what the NPS has planned. Unfortunately the park did a very poor job in spreading the word about the new exhibit when an Environmental Assessment process was announced. What was shown and described in the EA documents did little to help the general public truly understand the big picture of the project. This approach to getting public input on project proposals is not an uncommon practice and it is not surprising to see how a project like the one planned for this wild area of the park could make it this far.

I contacted the park's geologist Don Corrick asking for more information on the status of the project. After hearing back from him I remain convinced that if Big Bend National Park moves forward in building a new Fossil Bone exhibit it will result in a negative impact on the park. According the Corrick the project will have a potential footprint of 4000 square feet. An area that large is big enough fit 21 cash register lines and several departments in a super discount store or build a colossus sized state of the art fast food restaurant. If built as planned the project will prove one thing, the depth of the National Park Service's commitment to its mission is both alarming and disturbing.

Corrick stated that “the project will be fully funded by donations gathered by the Friends of Big Bend National Park, and that the project will not proceed until the fundraising is complete, so a timeline is not available.” What this means is pretty simple - if fundraising is completed, destruction of the area will soon follow, UNLESS we the people can stop it.

You can sign my petition by clicking HERE.

Rick LoBello

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