Big Bend National Park
Balanced Rock Big Bend National Park © Tom Haymes

Stories in Texas

Texas by Nature

Big Bend National Park: The transfer of 57,000 acres by The Nature Conservancy expanded a treasured national park.

The Nature Conservancy in Texas was thinking big during the 1980s in its mission to save great places, and it didn’t get any bigger than Big Bend National Park.

Specifically, the Conservancy was seeking to get the North Rosillos Mountain Ranch (or Harte Ranch) in Brewster County added to the national park, to protect the property in perpetuity.

At the time, Big Bend was already a Texas-sized park sprawling across more than 700,000 acres of remote West Texas terrain of great geological features and ecological diversity.

Its major features included 118 miles of the Rio Grande running like a green ribbon through deep canyons and the Chisos Mountains, which jut more than a mile high from an arid plain to form a sky island forested with pinyon pine, juniper, mountain mahogany and Texas madrone trees.

For the most part, however, it was a vast swath of Chihuahuan Desert dominated by plants like lechuguilla, sotol, yucca, prickly pear and mesquite capable of surviving in a hot, dry environment.

Nevertheless, you’d think the park would be eager to absorb another 57,000 acres, but wasn’t the case, according to Jeff Weigel, the Conservancy’s director of strategic initiatives in Texas. 

By the 1980s, the Conservancy already had a solid record of working with landowners and public agencies to protect large swaths of Texas land. This ranch, however, represented an acquisition of unprecedented size.

“It was the single biggest piece of land the Conservancy had ever owned in Texas,” Weigel said. “At the time, we just didn’t have the resources to manage it. So getting it added to the park was our goal from the start.”

The ranch was owned by Ed and Houston Harte, the scions of a prominent Texas family and well-known for their philanthropy and interest in conservation.

“They had already tried to donate the ranch to the National Park Service, but had hit a bureaucratic wall. That’s when they contacted us to see if we would accept the ranch and take up their cause,” said Weigel.

Soon after accepting the 67,000-acre ranch, in 1984, the Conservancy learned that expanding the boundaries of a national park literally required an act of Congress. That, in turn required getting the support of Texas lawmakers. After a winding, three-year congressional process, the National Park Service incorporated 57,000 acres of the North Rosillos Mountain Ranch into Big Bend National Park. The Conservancy sold the remaining 10,000 acres to a private individual; several years later, the NPS purchased that parcel, too.

Despite the difficulties in expanding Big Bend, the Conservancy remains committed to helping expand public lands, a commitment on display in Big Bend and around the great state of Texas.

For more information about The Nature Conservancy's work in Texas, including other places we've helped protect, visit nature.org/texas.