Only 150 years ago, Big Bend wasn’t as harsh an environment as it is today. That was before ranchers settled the area in the late 1800s. They raised cattle to feed the U.S. soldiers stationed at the forts of southwest Texas. Forts with names like Stockton, Davis, Sumner, and Leighton. As demand for beef increased, ranchers herded more and more cattle onto the land. Periodic droughts made it a difficult life for ranchers, but beef fetched a high price. Unfortunately, ranching exacted a high price on the land.
The newcomers couldn’t have known just how fragile the land was. The cattle ate up the native grasses faster than the grass could regrow. Remember, in a desert, everything grows slower. The tallest trees around — cottonwoods—quickly fell under the ranchers’ axes.
Salt cedar, or tamarisk, was imported because it had a reputation for doing well in dry environments. It lived up to its reputation, but no one realized salt cedar did so well by using a lot of water, leaving little for its neighbors. A salt cedar tree can grow eight feet in a single summer. According to the Big Bend Handbook, “The tree is about the size of an ordinary apple tree, but it loses to the atmosphere about five times as much moisture as an apple tree does. In desert country where water is so scarce, tamarisks pose a serious problem. Brought to this country from the Mediterranean area for use as a windbreak, salt cedar escaped cultivation and spread like wildfire across the Southwest, invading river bottoms, drainage ways, and water holes in unbelievable numbers.”
To save water for the restoration of other plant species, Big Bend National Park actively removes salt cedar from the park’s springs. According to the Park Service Handbook, “No known creature can be used for control, and if you leave so much as a root hair, another tree will grow. You have to saw the tree off and paint the stump with a special approved chemical that does not harm other plants or wildlife and will not contaminate the spring.”
The weeping juniper, a common juniper of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts in Mexico, is found only in the Chisos Mountains within the United States. Also known as cedars, junipers were commonly used for fence posts by ranchers because of their resistance to rot. The shaggy bark of these trees was used for matting by prehistoric Native Americans.
To make matters worse, in the first 40 years of this century, thousands of miners streamed in to the Big Bend region to mine cinnabar—the ore from which quicksilver (mercury) is derived. Copper, zinc and lead were also mined in the region. More people called for more lumber for building and for running mine furnaces. More people needed more meat, which the ranchers happily supplied. Mules that hauled the miners’ ore ate—you guessed it—grass. Grass which was already become scare.
What finally pushed Big Bend over the edge was the introduction of barbed wire. When cattle roamed free, their impact on the region’s grasslands was spread over wide areas. But when ranches were fenced in, cattle started to be concentrated on small plots of land that couldn’t support them for more than a few years.
When the National Park Service took over Big Bend in 1944, it was a wasteland. It’s been slowly healing ever since. Native grasses are returning. The light green of cottonwood leaves can once again be seen along Alamo (which is Spanish for “cottonwood”) Creek. Bears from Mexico have in recent years crossed the Rio Grande to once again roam the mountains of Big Bend in search of berries. And as the heat of summer begins to break, the dazzling Comanche moon once again rises high and clear over the desert.
Water and Rocks | Making a Desert | Fossils | Adaptations | People of the Desert | Ranching