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Hiking at sunset on Boquillas Canyon Trail along the Rio Grande. Photo: Sean Fitzgerald

Big Bend National Park is making a happy announcement on its website: “We’re back!”

After the federal shutdown ended Friday night with an agreement to reopen the government for three weeks, Big Bend started rolling out the reopening of its campgrounds, visitor centers, and other facilities on Sunday. The process was complete by Wednesday when public access to the international Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry was also restored.

“We’re overjoyed to be back,” said Tom VandenBerg, the park’s chief of interpretation. “It took a few days to get everybody’s mind back in the game. It’s been a little bit stressful and weird, but we’re easing into things, and visitors are showing up.”

Big Bend and other federal properties had been closed, or operating with significantly reduced services, for more than a month during the 35-day government shutdown. The majority of Big Bend’s staff furloughed during the shutdown, while the park’s law enforcement officers were kept on duty without pay throughout.

With the park’s campgrounds closed, visitation was down significantly, VandenBerg said. “Our law enforcement folks were pretty darn busy for the last month. We did have some vehicles driving off road and people camping out of bounds, things like that. But I’m not aware of any major events.”

Even before the stalemate’s end, Big Bend officials had done what they could to protect the park’s natural resources and to serve visitors who continued to flock to Texas’ oldest and largest national park. Under a government directive, Big Bend officials tapped into revenue from entrance fees to start paying for basic custodial services like garbage collection and restroom maintenance at the sprawling West Texas park. That allowed the park to reopen Old Maverick Road and the Santa Elena Canyon trail, which had been closed during the shutdown. Chisos Mountains Lodge, inside the park but run by a private concessions company, had remained open.

According to Big Bend Superintendent Bob Krumenaker, the park had seen some stress since the shutdown began Dec. 22.

“Major impacts early on were backcountry camping, illegal campfires, people driving around barricades and off-roading in the desert where they’re not supposed to, and lots of confusion,” Krumenaker said. “We had people speeding recklessly—one was clocked at 78 in a 45 mph zone.”

He also noted no biologists were able to work, ongoing environmental monitoring stopped, and most park employees were not getting paid. “Fire season is beginning, and we don’t have a fire crew and can’t do the prep work we normally due to prevent wildfires,” he had said in the midst of the shutdown.

Other national parks throughout the state—Chamizal National Memorial, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, Padre Island National Seashore, and San Antonio Missions National Historical Park—have also reopened.

After the deal to reopen the government Friday night, South Padre was ready to go by 10 a.m. Saturday. During the closure, park rangers were not available, but Charles Lassiter, chief of interpretations and public information officer, told KZTV Action News 10 that visitors had done a good job keeping the park clean.

“I know that some volunteers came in and tried to make sure things were picked up,” Lassiter told KZTV. “So we really appreciate the efforts that the public put forth […] during the shutdown to really police behind themselves to make sure their trash was put away properly and they didn’t leave much of a footprint.”

 

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