Good things often take awhile, and are worth waiting for…
In late 2008 we were planning practical outcomes for WILD9 (the 9th World Wilderness Congress), with The WILD Foundation and our partners trying to create better wilderness awareness in Mexico and better cooperation for wilderness in North America. Patricio Robles Gil — the great Mexican conservation photographer and artist, and our partner in creating WILD9 — suggested to me that we visit with our colleague Juan Elvira Quesada, Mexico’s Secretary of Environment, and present to him the long-dormant plan for a transboundary park along the USA/Mexico border in the region of Big Bend (Texas) and Maderas del Carmen (Mexico).
What a good idea, I thought, to revive the idea first suggested in a letter in 1944 (!) from US President Franklin Roosevelt to Mexico’s President Camacho. The idea had been politically stone-dormant, unknown except for a few committed conservationists in Texas, for almost 70 years. We met with and briefed Secretary Elvira, provided him with back-up materials, and I will never forget the way his eyes lit up and twinkled when he heard the story. He responded, “I like this very much…let me try this.”
It was not easy. National security issues, continued bad news on the border with drug cartels, immigration, weapons smuggling, and all the rest had created a stone wall of attitude. President Calderon was clear: do not bring me the idea until all my Ministers agree…and many of them did not. Juan Elvira worked on each of them.
The USA was the USA (of late)…..in a box. Undaunted, Juan Elvira took advantage of the newly-elected Obama administration’s message of cooperation and hope. He met with the incoming Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, who was just getting his feet under the desk and was interested to know more details and be kept informed. Using very strategic diplomacy, Secretary Elvira then went straight to the White House and President Obama’s National Security Advisor, General James Jones (US Marine Corps, retired). Jones liked this out-of-the-box idea and thought it would help create a different and positive image of national security. The White House engaged. Ken Salazar got on board. It began to roll.
Almost three years after our first meeting and 67 years since President Roosevelt’s letter, and after much work by all land management agencies and embassies on both sides of the border, on 24 October 2011 we met at a signing ceremony on the banks of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo River at the Big Bend National Park. Hosted by Big Bend National Park Superintendent William Yellman, members of all federal land management agencies, local conservationists and school children met with the two Secretaries — Juan Elvira and Ken Salazar — plus the Chief of the US Border Patrol, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services (Kathleen Sibelius), Head of CONANP (Mexico’s National Parks) Luis Fueyo, and US Ambassador to Mexico Anthony Wayne in a gathering that Yellman called “The biggest gathering of big brass ever assembled at Big Bend!”.
The Natural Area of Bi-National Interest was officially launched, creating a new consciousness and practice of international cooperation in a 2 million hectare (5 million acre) area of the most bio-diverse desert ecosystem (the Chihuahuan Desert) in North America.
I spoke with Juan and Ken Salazar as we looked over the river into Mexico at the tiny village of Boquillos and the towering El Carmen escarpment, and we marveled on the conservation achievement and potential of this initiative. As the day moved on, I also marveled at something else…the obvious respect and genuine friendship between the two Secretaries. Ken Salazar spoke to Juan Elvira using the personal and affectionate “Juanito”…surely this was a first in US-Mexico relations! And it all came together because of protecting wild nature….
This objective of WILD9 illustrates the World Wilderness Congress process, of collaboration and practical accomplishments that are achieved over many years. We can achieve the miracles we need through cooperation, friendship and persistence. Onward…