By Benjamin Wermund
MARFA, Texas (Reuters) - Dwindling funding and resources to protect wildlife, maintain historic structures and keep out invasive species have put America's national parks in peril, according to a recent National Parks Conservation Association report.
But an international approach to preserving a unique and storied area along the Texas-Mexico border has bucked the trend, helping preserve, and even revive, at least one park, according to the association.
Big Bend National Park, a breathtaking and storied expanse of West Texas, is a sliver of a larger desert ecosystem, a major part of which exists in Mexico, south of the Rio Grande.
For a long time, it was in trouble.
In 2003, the conservation association rated the park abysmally in terms of its ecosystems, visitation rates and cultural resources.
Since then, however, the park has seen improvements that have revived the region and protected wildlife such as black bears, bats and peregrine falcons.
"I see it on an upward trend. I think it's getting better," James Nations, head of the National Parks Conservation Association's Center for the State of the Parks, which put out the report this summer, told Reuters in reference to Big Bend.
Experts point to a push from U.S. and Mexican leaders for preservation along both sides of the border as one of the driving forces behind that improvement.
In January, the United States took a potential first step toward creating a binational park, which has been called for as far back as President Theodore Roosevelt, and as recently as last year when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar visited.
The United States announced it would reopen the informal border crossing at Boquillas that had long provided an important source of income to villagers in Mexico by allowing American tourists to easily visit and buy souvenirs. The crossing closed after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Conservationists believe the reopening will galvanize cooperation between the two communities that had been taking place before, and encourage ownership of the single park by both countries.
"I think will benefit, and economic benefit will show them conservation is a positive thing, and that's an incentive for protection," Nations said.
Rick Lobello, an advocate for binational cooperation who worked in Big Bend National Park for years, said the crossing's closing "almost shut a door."
"Talks that were ongoing between different individuals in the political realm and also grassroots groups ended," Lobello said.
"Now that that door is opening again, it's only going to encourage the park service to cooperate with mandates they've been given by the president."
U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon released a joint statement in May urging cooperation in the region, which the statement said is "one of the largest and most significant ecological complexes in North America."
Big Bend National Park Superintendent William Wellman said the reopening would ease research and restoration projects that have to be conducted on both sides of the river.
"It's made it much harder," Wellman said of the closing. "You have to do everything sort of remotely, even though you're trying to work with people just across the river from you."
The binational push, of which the reopening was an integral part, has paid off in the revival of wildlife, Big Bend park wildlife biologists said. Mexican attempts to restore its half of the ecosystem also have played an important role.
It's especially evident in the black bear population, which has made a comeback in Big Bend.
Only a handful of the endangered bears roamed the region just more than 20 years ago.
The park's population, now relatively stable at about 20 bears, was founded in the late 1980s when a female found her way across the Rio Grande from Mexico, met a male and formed a mating pair.
The bear population has slowly grown and fluctuated since.
"The future of bears in Big Bend depends on there being a healthy population in Mexico," said Raymond Skiles, Big Bend wildlife biologist.
"If they were completely isolated from the Mexican…it's just really highly unlikely that such a small population could persist on its own."
"It's hard to have success on half a river, because it just doesn't work that way," Skiles said.
The black bears are not the only species on the rebound.
In Maderas del Carmen, a 500,000-acre preserve in Mexico, one of the nation's largest cement companies, Cemex, has spent roughly a decade reviving grasslands.
Those grasslands feed grazers like desert bighorn sheep, now making a comeback in the Big Bend region. Those grazers provide food for predators like mountain lions.
Small populations of peregrine falcons have historically lived in the park's cliffsides, but relied on the more extensive mountain ranges in Mexico for food, shelter and mates.
Endangered bats migrate from Mexico to Big Bend, their livelihood also dependent on both sides of the Rio Grande.
"It's never going to be what it was 100 years ago. There's just not enough water and too many exotic species, but we're getting a lot closer to that," Wellman said.
"You can only do that if you work with both sides."
(Edited by Karen Brooks and Jerry Norton)