Big Bend NP sees changes on horizon with new park projects, leadership

Big Bend NP sees changes on horizon with new park projects, leadership
Published: Apr. 25, 2023 at 3:19 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 25, 2023 at 5:49 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - Big Bend National Park is often referred to as “Texas’ Gift to the Nation.” There’s no person who knows this vast and rich ecological landscape quite like the man who heads the protected area, Superintendent Bob Krumenaker.

“With no disrespect to New York and Philadelphia and all those places, I love big open spaces,” Krumenaker said as we caught up with him in Central Texas. “It’s not just Texas’ Gift to the Nation, but it’s one of the most significant places that is not very well known. It’s a hidden gem, despite being 800,000 acres.”

The long-time national park servant isn’t from Texas, but his career starts and ends in two vastly different areas of the state.

“My first year-‘round assignment was at Big Thicket. I had done several years of seasonal work all out in the southwest, which planted the seed for big bend later in life.”

It was Krumenaker’s skill set on geographic information systems, GIS, which made him a standout among his peers in the 1980′s.

“It’s hard to believe for a park ranger type, but I went there to be the computer guy,” Krumenaker said. “They actually recruited me because I was one of the few people they could find that understood natural resources and something about computers.”

His career would span over a dozen more assignments across the country, mostly in the northeast, followed by a 17-year role over Apostle Islands NP in Northern Wisconsin.

“I loved the Apostle Islands. I could’ve retired there, but I really wanted something that was a little tougher, gnarlier,” explained Krumenaker. “There were two questions when I interviewed for the job that I anticipated correctly. One was isolation and the other was the border.”

Both of those aspects would become an integral part of the day-to-day life at Big Bend NP. It’s a place where park staff, border patrol, first responders and their families make up their own unique community in some of the most remote and spectacular landscapes.

“It’s got the darkest skies, it’s got the best wildlife, it’s got the quietest landscape, because there’s no commercial aircraft above it. But the price you pay is you’re 100 miles from a grocery store, 200 miles from an airport or a Starbucks, and I’m okay with that.”

Krumenaker spent the past weekend well outside park boundaries for a meeting with the Big Bend Conservancy Board. It’s the non-profit organization working to accomplish park needs through fundraising, grant-writing and other various commitments and volunteer opportunities.

Some of the board’s more recent projects include an award-winning state-of-the-art Fossil Discovery Exhibit located 8 miles north of Panther Junction in the park. Bipartisan work is underway now to approve the expansion of the park on private lands like the Terlingua Creek. Additionally, construction is near completion on solar panel shade coverings near the park’s visitor center.

“It is a remarkable organization of people who not just love the park, but want to help and find a way to do that,” said Krumenaker.

While conservation is at the heart of the mission at Big Bend, an aging infrastructure from the 1950′s and ‘60′s is something their leadership believes needs immediate attention and remedy.

“That’s when park visitation was 100-200,000,” explained Krumenaker. “We’re well over 500,000 now and we have an aging infrastructure that’s 60 or 70 years old. Most of which is past its useful life and some of which is desperately past it’s useful life.”

Money from the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act will soon go toward a $22 million project on replacing the Chisos Mountain lodge. At the same time, underground water pipes which distribute water from the tanks to buildings will also undergo work and repairs.

Less visible to the public, work is being done to find a solution to a growing trash problem. Big Bend is one of two national parks with an on-site landfill. But the site at Big Bend is almost full.

“A separate but complimentary effort is working with local government, regional government, non-profit groups like the Big Bend Conservancy to try to find an alternative, which ultimately means a transfer station or landfill outside the park that we can’t build on land that’s outside the park,” said Krumenaker. “We don’t want to own it, I don’t know that we can even fund it, but it’s a shared problem.”

Krumenaker hangs up his hat on a long national park career at the end of June. He tells us his goal post-retirement is to push for the highest level of protections for federal lands through the Keep Big Bend Wild effort.

“While it’s misunderstood by a lot of people, wilderness is about establishing where you want development and where you don’t,” said Krumenaker. “It’s not a democrat - republican thing, it’s about what Texans want. And when we talk to people, most of them aren’t aware of the need or what this effort is, but we’re seeing a tremendous amount of support.”

Krumenaker calls the mission of Big Bend a “perpetual one.”

“So it’s in this sweet spot of it’s an amazing huge landscape but it’s not overwhelmed, and just about everybody who visits says ‘wow, it’s ... this is just fantastic!’ So to have had that opportunity for almost five years, not just to live and work there, but to be the steward of such a place... it’s a great honor and I’m very fortunate to have had that opportunity.”

For more information on how you can become a member of the Big Bend Conservancy, click here.
For more information on the Keep Big Bend Wild Effort, click here.

*Editors Note: Erika Holland is a board member of the Big Bend Conservancy Board