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It has taken decades, but a project to create a massive park straddling the Texas-Mexico border is moving forward. President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon signed a joint statement last month pledging to protect the wild lands on both sides of the frontier. As NPR's John Burnett reports, this comes at a time of rising concern about security along the border.
JOHN BURNETT: When Big Bend National Park was established in 1944 in far West Texas, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote to President Manuel Avila Camacho of Mexico: I do not believe this undertaking in the Big Bend will be complete until the entire park area on both sides of the Rio Grande forms one great international park.
Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)
BURNETT: Presently, this is as close as you can get. On the U.S. bank of the Rio Grande, at the entrance to Boquillas Canyon, a border busker from Mexico floats in a canoe on the river. He sings for tips.
Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)
BURNETT: His natural amphitheater is the great limestone canyon that interrupts the thorny expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert, creating one of the most breathtaking landscapes in North America. Mike Long, who runs an outfitter called Desert Sports, says the mountains are even more spectacular on the Mexican side.
Mr. MIKE LONG (Desert Sports): They're every bit as beautiful as the Chisos Mountains in the Big Bend National Park. Actually, Mexico probably has an opportunity for a more spectacular park than what we have already here in the United States.
BURNETT: Visitors to the Mexican side describe Douglas fir and ponderosa pine at 10,000 feet, crystal mountain streams, black bear and bighorn sheep.
As of last year, Mexico had set aside two-and-a-half million acres of wild lands on its side of the Rio Grande. Together with Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, this could become the greatest protected desert ecosystem on the continent. And there's a model, says Suzanne Dixon, Texas director of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Ms. SUZANNE DIXON (Texas Director, National Parks Conservation Association): We've got one here in America. It's the Glacier-Waterton with Canada. That's been there. It's been working for many, many years.
BURNETT: The Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park - on the Montana-Alberta border - has been in existence since 1932. There are three passport-controlled port of entries. The two parks share visitors, wildlife management and fire protection.
If they can do it on the northern border, they can do it on the southern border, says Rick Lobello, a conservationist in El Paso who's a longtime promoter of a U.S.-Mexico peace park.
Mr. RICK LOBELLO (Conservationist, El Paso): It's just a matter of the two countries getting together and saying let's do this and come up with a plan, and then we'll work on the security issues. We'll work on the border crossing issues.
BURNETT: And there will be issues.
Sherriff RONNIE DODSON (Brewster County, Texas): If there was a park in Mexico, you know, I would stay on my side of the river. I definitely wouldn't go over there.
BURNETT: Brewster County Sherriff Ronnie Dodson is leery of Mexican drug traffickers. His vast county - bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined -includes the Big Bend.
International park supporters insist the area is relatively safe. They point out the Big Bend region has less illegal activity than many other areas along the 2,000-mile border. Sherriff Dodson responds.
Sherriff DODSON: Within a month, between us and Border Patrol, you know, we've caught 6,000 pounds of marijuana coming out of there, numerous illegal aliens. The problem is when people say it's the least, it's because we're the biggest, and we miss a lot.
BURNETT: Security is on the rise up and down the border. President Obama is sending up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the southern frontier, though the governors of Arizona and Texas say they want more. There are presently eight houses under construction for Border Patrol agents to live inside Big Bend National Park.
Congressman Ciro Rodriguez wrote the resolution to create an international park with Mexico. He represents the district that encompasses Big Bend.
Representative CIRO RODRIGUEZ (Democrat, Texas): This is a very difficult time to be doing this, but I want to stress that the more communication we have with Mexico, the better we will be.
BURNETT: For its part, Mexico remains very supportive of the idea of a bi-national park, says Carlos Sifuentes. He manages Mexico's federal lands opposite Big Bend - which, at the moment, are nothing like the U.S. national park.
Mr. CARLOS SIFUENTES (Director, Mexico's Federal Lands): (Spanish spoken)
BURNETT: The Mexican government has limited resources to develop its protected areas, Sifuentes says. Today, across from Big Bend, there are no roads, no stores, no electricity and no water. It's totally remote and wild.
Mr. SIFUENTES: (Spanish spoken)
BURNETT: There's not yet a detailed plan for a bi-national peace park. In fact, most lawmakers have not even heard of the idea.
Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has, released a statement saying she would not support any such undertaking that could compromise border security.
A National Park Service official in Washington, speaking on background, said senior levels of the Interior Department and Mexico's Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat have quietly begun discussions on what an international park would entail. He said the mood is more positive than its been in years, perhaps because this is one of the few bright spots in otherwise tense border relations.
John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.