Pol on Welsh, 'Big Bend National Park: Mexico, the United States, and a Borderland Ecosystem'

Michael Welsh
Eytan Pol

Michael Welsh. Big Bend National Park: Mexico, the United States, and a Borderland Ecosystem. America's National Parks Series. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2021. Illustrations. 288 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-948908-82-5.

Reviewed by Eytan Pol (Texas Tech University) Published on H-Environment (January, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58451

Michael Welsh has written an extensive biography with his 2021 book, Big Bend National Park: Mexico, the United States, and a Borderland Ecosystem. I describe this as a biography, rather than a history, because Welsh very much shows how the desert, contrary to common belief, is full of life. The book offers a brief introduction to the history of the national park system, before moving on to the birth of Big Bend National Park, the largest park in Texas and one of the largest and most remote in the country.

In the early chapters of the book, Welsh touches on the local history of the area around Big Bend National Park. The narrative moves from anthropological information on Indigenous populations and later ranchers and fishers, to rich descriptions of the landscape, while retaining an informative yet inquisitive tone throughout. Welsh illustrates the creation of Big Bend as a federally protected national park before reaching the main thread in the book: the attempts to establish an International Peace Park from Big Bend and an accompanying Mexican park on the other side of the border. While such a creation was seen as an opportunity for great political symbolism, all attempts to create an international park have so far failed. Welsh describes these attempts and their failures throughout the latter half of the work, highlighting the internal and external challenges that proved too large to overcome. Yet, as Welsh points out, Big Bend National Park and its staff face challenges unique in the National Park Service System, due to their location right on the border. This has sustained the potentiality for Big Bend to rise above the rigid boundaries currently set upon it by the geopolitical reality of the Mexican border, of which the Rio Grande serves as the physical boundary.

One aspect that stands out in Big Bend National Park is the detailed descriptions of the numerous people involved in creating, managing, enlarging, and protecting Big Bend. An impressive amount of archival research has gone into creating the book, which allows Welsh to give his historical overview dynamism rather than what one may expect to quickly turn into a dry recounting instead. Welsh introduces the reader to a wide array of people involved, from governmental officials in Texas, Washington, DC, and Mexico City, to ranchers, rangers, and even small store employees.

Big Bend’s unique location at the border between the United States and Mexico serves as the cornerstone of Welsh’s research. The work does not simply linger on providing the American perspective on the creation of the park and the challenges it has faced and continues to face but also extensively examines the Mexican side. Big Bend does not exist in a vacuum, surrounded by a lifeless desert, but is influenced by its surroundings, from nearby communities to Rio Grande water management policies, and immigration politics. In this way, Welsh sets his book apart from similar historiographical works on other parks and gives Big Bend’s reality as a borderland park its due. As the recent border wall construction in another borderlands park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, has shown, such a perspective remains ever-relevant.

Citation: Eytan Pol. Review of Welsh, Michael, Big Bend National Park: Mexico, the United States, and a Borderland Ecosystem. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58451

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