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The New York Times

The New York Times

NATIONAL DESK

Big Government Makes a Texas State Park a Big Attraction
By ERIC O’KEEFE
Published: February 4, 1996

The recent 21-day partial Government shutdown was good news for a little-known park near the Mexican border.

While many national parks lost services and revenues, Big Bend Ranch State Park, just north of the Rio Grande River, remained open and enjoyed a surge in visitors.

One of the newest components in the Texas state park system, the 287,000-acre preserve is also the Lone Star State's largest state park. Acquired by the State of Texas in 1988, it has been overshadowed since then by its bigger and better known neighbor, Big Bend National Park. The 800,000-acre national park celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1994 and averages roughly 300,000 visitors a year. Though that number is only one-tenth the visits of Grand Canyon National Park, it makes the park more than 10 times as busy as nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park.

But like many national parks, access to and through Big Bend National Park was prohibited while services were suspended for five days in November and 21 days while the Government was closed in December and January. The result? An increase for nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park 100 miles west of its Federal counterpart.

Until Texas bought it in 1988, almost all of the state park's 400-plus square miles were operated as a ranch, principally cattle and sheep. The historic ranch headquarters, Sauceda, still stands, 38 miles via gravel ranch roads from the nearest paved thoroughfare. Scattered throughout the Chihuahuan Desert preserve are the remains of numerous American Indian camp sites, flora and fauna found nowhere else in the United States, and one of the world's geological oddities, the Solitario.

Perceived as the crown jewel of the state's park system, the immense resources of the park initially limited access. After paying more than $8 million, the top priorities of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department were to develop a management plan and to complete an inventory of the park's resources, not to accommodate tourists. For its first six years, camping and hiking were allowed only at the park's perimeter. Entry to the interior was always guided and was restricted to bus tours and seminars featuring topics like the abundant American Indian rock art.

Throughout this period, the popularity of Big Bend National Park, the area's leading destination and one of the state's tourism highlights, only increased. Impatient critics contended that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department with maintaining the Big Bend Ranch State Park as a private reserve for state officials, and anxious businesses owners urged state employees at the park and in Austin to move more quickly.

In late 1994, more activities, trails, and facilities became available to the public.

The completed management plan opened the heart of the Big Bend Ranch State Park, creating a more accessible park. This trend continued in 1995. The park superintendent, Luis Armendariz, said of the impact, "We were very pleased with the public reaction to the opportunity for increased access to the interior of the State Park."

Visitor numbers for 1995 were a comfortable 20,000 as December passed.. Then the second, longer budget crisis hit on Dec. 16, and visitation skyrocketed.

"During the last week of December, over three thousand people visited the park," Mr. Armendariz said. Though that figure is roughly 50 percent of an average week in Big Bend National Park, it amounted to more than 13 percent of Big Bend Ranch State Park's 1995 visitor total of 24,752.