A huge reddish brown boulder balanced above the ground between two other rocks.
Balanced Rock Big Bend National Park © Tom Haymes

Stories in Texas

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—and it didn’t get any bigger than Big Bend National Park.

Specifically, TNC was seeking to get the North Rosillos Mountain Ranch, also known as 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, boasting awe-inspiring geological features and ecological diversity.

Most notably, those features include 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.

The surrounding area is dominated by a vast expanse of Chihuahuan Desert replete with plants like lechuguilla, sotol, yucca, prickly pear and mesquite, that are capable of surviving in a hot, dry environment.

Most people would assume that the park would be eager to absorb more acreage—but that wasn’t the case according to Jeff Weigel, TNC’s director of strategic initiatives in Texas. 

By the 1980s, TNC 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 TNC 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 who were 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 1985, TNC learned that expanding the boundaries of a national park required an act of Congress—literally. 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. TNC 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, TNC remains committed to helping expand public lands, a commitment on display at iconic Big Bend and around the great state of Texas.