Ivey, as part of his minimalist growth plans for Terlingua Ghost Town, wants to restore the hilltop Perry Mansion.
Ivey, as part of his minimalist growth plans for Terlingua Ghost Town, wants to restore the hilltop Perry Mansion.

End of the Bend?

Bill Ivey sits on the rickety wooden bench in front of his Terlingua Trading Company, listening to the grand silence that can be the Big Bend -- not even a cicada thrums in this suffocating summer heat. It's before noon, and the mercury is far past 100 degrees.

Here is where the Rio Grande makes its big bend before heading straight downhill to the Gulf of Mexico. Here is where, thanks to an international border more imaginary than real, Tex meets Mex in a blend of language, culture and heritage unlike anywhere else in either country.

The conquistadors called Big Bend el despoblado, the deserted wilderness. Not many have ever wanted to live in this brutally harsh desert --not soldiers, not settlers, not smugglers. Even Apaches and Comanches were just passing through.

Until now.

Ivey has lived here his entire life and owns most of the Terlingua Ghost Town, population about 60. On his Chihuahuan Desert land or adjacent to it are a ramshackle collection of cinnabar mining ruins, renovated shacks, a couple of shops, two restaurants and a river rafting company. He has a spectacular view of the Chisos Mountains and the Sierra Quemada (the Burned Mountains) 30 miles to the east, but today they're shrouded in a purple veil.

"You know," Ivey muses in a slow, thoughtful voice that's reminiscent of Gary Cooper -- if anyone remembers Gary Cooper anymore -- "this is probably the only place in the world where people sit facing east to watch the sunset."

Locals sitting on this bench at the end of the day, beer bottles in hand, are common sights in the ghost town. They gather to watch the setting sun light up the Window and Casa Grande formations in the west face of the Chisos with brilliant golds and reds; and they gather to watch the sightseers who wander around the stacked-rock and adobe ruins and bleak graveyard.

Tourists travel great distances to get to Big Bend, the most remote and primitive location in the United States south of Alaska.

The main attraction here is Big Bend National Park, seven miles to the east of Terlingua. The 800,000-acre preserve has 200 miles of hiking trails and teems with rare and unusual plants, animals and birds.

Along its 118 miles of shared international border with the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua, the park has three spectacular river canyons: Boquillas at 33 miles long, 20-mile-long Santa Eleña and ten-mile-long Mariscal.

Most of the Chisos range is more than 7,000 feet high, offering a respite from the desert heat and amazing views when the wind is blowing the haze away.

In Big Bend -- in the park or not -- a visitor might spot exotic wildlife like peregrine falcons, mountain lions, javelinas, coyotes, coatimundis or black bears. Even the names of the desert plants indicate how different this place is: acacia, agave, candelilla, chamisa, cholla, creosote brush, guayacan, leatherstem, lechuguilla, mesquite, nolina, ocotillo, cenizo, sotol, tasajillo, yucca.

Tourists come here to hike across the desert and mountains and to enjoy a night sky ablaze with stars. They paddle the Rio Grande through those dramatic canyons. They spot rare birds, some of which can be found in the United States only right here. They enjoy the lizardlike silence and gaze at the awesome vistas.

Today all that is threatened because, unlike the conquistadors or the Comanches, people are finding reasons to develop a desert that has endured for millions of years.

The mighty Big Bend already suffers from rapid growing pains in this remote region of southern Brewster County, an area larger than Rhode Island.

"Change is inevitable, but what's different is the pace of change that's happening now," says Dave Simon, southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association in Albuquerque.

This year the NPCA named Big Bend as one of the ten most endangered parks in the United States.

"Things now change overnight, and we have less time to prepare. The consequences and short-term impacts are greater now, and there's more at stake because what we do now has far more impact than what we did 100 years ago," says Simon.

Ivey grew up in the western Brewster County town of Lajitas before it became a resort -- when it was just the Trading Post and his family's house and farm. He's seen the area change drastically.

"We got electricity in the '60s, phones in the '70s, and television in the '90s. The dirt road from Alpine crossed Terlingua Creek five times to get to Lajitas. It's almost unbelievable now from my childhood."

Houston millionaire Walter Mischer bought Lajitas from Rex Ivey, Jr., Bill's father, in the late '70s. Mischer built hotels, a restaurant and bar, shops, a nine-hole desert golf course, tennis courts and a swimming pool. And Steve Smith, an Austin millionaire, is developing the town on a level no one ever thought possible.

Although Lajitas is often the hottest place in the States, Ivey never noticed the heat he was born into until night when he had trouble getting to sleep. His mother would advise him to lie still and be quiet, and that usually worked. Today he says that the smell of kerosene and that nighttime heat are his earliest memories.

"Our nature is not to like change, especially if you're a happy person. My attitude is that, for the Lajitas changes in particular, as it becomes more modern, as it removes itself from the past, that makes the experience I have and my memories that much more precious."

The changes are coming more rapidly now, though, and no one knows what the ramifications will be, he says.

"It's real hard to predict at this point where the changes are headed, because no one would've thought it would change so much so quickly at this point," Ivey notes. "So much of the new interest in the area was unexpected. I think we are all in for some big surprises. And I think they'll be good. Instead of just sitting back and criticizing, people should try to get involved in the change, so it changes in ways that benefit us.

"We can't ever go back to the way it was, and most people probably couldn't handle it if it did. They may talk about good old days, but lots couldn't hack it. It's not ever going to go back, so enjoy what it is."

When such an expansive area has such a small population, changes that people in cities would consider insignificant can seem enormous.

Ten years ago, around 650 people lived in the south county area. Many of them were seasonal guides for the river companies and living in converted ruins in Terlingua Ghost Town without water or electricity. Today the population is around 1,800 and those Terlingua jacals (shacks) now have water and power.

The newly formed Study Butte Water Corporation provides that water. It has connected 102 meters so far, but the current demand far exceeds the new utility's ability to supply water, according to County Judge Val Beard.

Other indicators mirror the growth.

Retail sales have nearly doubled in Brewster County over the past ten years, jumping from $44 million in 1990 to $75 million in 2000. The student population in the Terlingua Consolidated School District went from 88 in 1990 to 183 in 2001.

Just ten years ago, law enforcement was seldom seen in Big Bend. The lone Texas Ranger in the area roamed over several counties. The few state troopers spent most of their time in the more heavily populated areas to the north. Brewster County was so poor it couldn't afford to have its only south county deputy regularly patrol the roads, so he just sat at home waiting for calls.

Today the county has two deputies in the south who are ever present between Lajitas and Study Butte.

All the growth, though, is tempered by the fact that Big Bend remains a very remote area.

To understand just how isolated this place is, consider that the nearest commercial airport is 300 miles away, the nearest Wal-Mart is 160 miles away, the nearest hospital is 100 miles away. This is an area where it's common to have to drive more than 50 miles one way over dirt roads just to get a loaf of bread.

Just a couple of years ago, south county kids had the longest bus ride in the nation -- two hours each way -- to attend high school in Alpine. They would have to get up at 4:30 a.m. and wouldn't return home until after 6 p.m. Sports and other extracurricular activities were nearly impossible. Now they attend a new high school in Study Butte where the first graduating class in 1997 totaled just two students. The 2001 class had 23 graduates.

"We estimate that 60 percent of students dropped out of high school before they graduated because of that bus trip," says Kathy Killingsworth, principal of Big Bend School and superintendent of the Terlingua school district.

Building the high school was a remarkable achievement. It went up quickly and with no county or state money. The county did help with moving dirt and building the foundation of the modest building, but the school's cost of $650,000 came from other sources. The San Vicente school district, which teaches children in the national park, and the Terlingua district kicked in $100,000 each; the remainder came from grants and private donations from across the country, some as far away as Maine.

"We were good at begging, and everyone pitched in," Killingsworth says. The district is $100,000 away from the $725,000 needed to build a library for the community and school. It would also like to add a school cafeteria -- the current one is little more than six picnic tables open to the desert heat.

Those dreadful summertime temperatures chase away the tourists, who have become the bread and butter for south county businesses.

Lajitas owner Smith wants to lure more visitors -- many more -- to Big Bend year-round, and he's betting $50 million he can. And the changes that $50 million can buy in a delicate environment like the Big Bend have a lot of people concerned.

Smith sits in the air-conditioned comfort of his Badlands Restaurant eating lunch. Construction dust can be seen through the windows. On a corner of the patio, workers are building a large stone tower to overlook the new amphitheater, the new 18-hole golf course, the new spa and the Mexican town of Paso Lajitas -- just a goat-chip toss across a very narrow Rio Grande. Smith doesn't know what the tower is for, only that his architect told him he needed it. Muffled noise from earth-moving machines seeps through the stucco-covered walls.

Before the 20th century, Lajitas -- Spanish for the flat rocks that line the riverbed here -- was best known as the San Carlos Crossing on the Rio Grande. It was one of two fords Comanches used in their raids from North Texas and Oklahoma into Mexico to bring back cattle, captives and whatever loot they could find. It wasn't a place anyone wanted to live near.

Lajitas has boomed before, though, thanks to the prime river crossing and to mining.

In the late 1880s prospectors discovered cinnabar in vast and relatively pure quantities in the hills ranging from Study Butte to Lajitas. The cochineal-red ore is refined into quicksilver, or mercury, which had been used for generations in thermometers. At the turn of the century, it also was a vital element in munitions production.

Several mining companies pounced on the area, bringing in hundreds of laborers.

H.W. McGuirk, the first prominent Anglo settler, guided Lajitas into a significant community with mining, ranching and farming. Another business sprang up from candelilla, a ubiquitous plant that thrives on the harsh conditions of the Chihuahua Desert. Its pencil-thick stems can be boiled down and its wax harvested for a variety of uses. Lajitas, with the economic growth in the early 1900s, boasted a store, saloon, customs house, church, post office and 50-student school.

The relative prosperity faced a peril from the south, after escalating raids by Mexican bandits and revolutionaries in 1916. On May 5, Cinco de Mayo, Pancho Villa's forces attacked a wax-processing facility in the Big Bend village of Glenn Springs. They killed three U.S. soldiers and one young boy, injured four others, looted the store, burned two buildings and destroyed the factory.

To combat the border threat, Army General John J. Pershing established a major cavalry post at Lajitas that year.

It was all enough to frighten McGuirk away. He sold his Lajitas interests to Thomas Skaggs, who established the Lajitas Wax Company, a business that would continue until just recently.

But the price of cinnabar dropped, profits dropped from farming and ranching, and Lajitas declined. The post office closed in 1939. Ten years later, the Lajitas population was estimated at four.

When Skaggs died in 1945, he left his holdings to Everett E. Townsend of Alpine, the man considered to be the father of Big Bend National Park. Townsend transferred Lajitas to his wife, Ada, and she sold it to Rex Ivey Jr. in 1949.

Two decades later, census figures showed only six people lived in Lajitas, most of them Iveys. In 1976, while Bill Ivey was off at Texas A&M University, Rex Ivey sold Lajitas to Mischer.

In addition to making a fortune as a Houston real estate developer and founding Allied Banc shares, Mischer also owned vast Big Bend ranching properties, so he knew the area well. He praised Lajitas's weather, charm and scenery but noted "there was nothing out there that was really decent for people to stay in for when visiting."

In 1978 Mischer built the Cavalry Post on the ruins of Black Jack Pershing's old headquarters and turned it into a motel. Soon he added the Badlands Hotel across Farm Road 170. Mischer turned the community into a facsimile of an 1880s Old West town so accurate it's been used for a number of movies. By 1990, the population was 50.

His stated goal was to turn Lajitas into a "Palm Springs of Texas," but the resort never reached that level, mostly because of its remoteness. But another wealthy entrepreneur would soon be replacing Mischer in the quest to link Lajitas with the world.

Steve Smith, an investment magnate from Austin, was leafing through a newspaper when he noticed an unusual property up for sale: The Lajitas resort and about 23,000 surrounding acres would be going to the highest bidder.

"I saw an ad for the auction, and it seemed like a cool thing," he recalls. "I thought it'd be interesting to see how you auction off a whole town. And I thought in the back of my mind, if no one else showed up maybe someone could get a hell of a deal, and I wanted to be that guy."

Mischer, now 78, insists the only reason he put the town on the auction block last year was because he's getting older. He estimated he had about $7 million invested in Lajitas, and although the resort rarely made money, it was debt-free.

Smith -- the same age now as Mischer was when he purchased Lajitas 23 years ago -- grew up in El Paso and understood desert beauty when he saw it. In more than 20 years, his only visit to the area had been on a float trip through the canyons.

Arriving to tour the town only 45 minutes before the auction, he was enamored with Lajitas almost immediately. He had just one serious competitor: San Francisco hotelier Manou Mobedshahi. And Smith's bid of $4.25 million was a winner.

"The money never got up to what I thought was a good price," Smith says. "I wasn't in the business of running a resort, and I had no plans to get into the business of running a resort, but, you know, I've paid more for a ranch than I paid for this."

Thirteen years ago, Smith says, he never dreamed he'd end up owning his own town.

Back then, he was broke, living in a borrowed house and with no car, selling shellacked chili ristras on the side of the highway just west of Austin. He met with Excel Communications founder Kenny Troutt in 1989 and came up with the idea to sell long-distance telephone service through independent sales representatives under a network marketing system. He would receive compensation for each new sales representative signed up and a percentage of the phone revenue.

He helped build Excel, based in Dallas, into a multibillion-dollar company. In 1998 the company was acquired by Teleglobe Inc., a Canadian company, for $3.5 billion. Smith remains active in the company.

Smith then built up his own property and investment company with interests in residential and commercial property development, oil exploration, banking, consumer financing, and now resort/golf course ownership.

After the Lajitas auction, Smith says, his first thought was to fix what was broken and let life go on, but he soon discovered he wanted to be more serious.

"When I looked at the business side here, I saw that the high season was December through around March and the rest of the year was pretty much dead. So how do you pick up the rest of the year? I really don't think this heat keeps people away in the summer; it's just that there's not much to do except play golf in the morning," Smith explains.

His expansion and renovation plans are an ambitious effort to attract more visitors year-round.

The prestigious Bechtol Russell Golf company of Austin will transform the nine-hole golf course to a championship-level 18-hole course, and add a second course. A 19th hole will feature a tee on the American bank of the Rio Grande and a cup on the Mexican side, making it the only hole in the world where a golfer can hit a shot in one country and have the ball land in play in another.

Deborah Smith of Smith Club and Spa Specialists of Aspen is overseeing design and construction of a full-service "world-class" spa. A new water-treatment facility will quench the area's thirst and supply three new swimming pools.

A new 7,500-foot airstrip, replacing the current 4,800-foot one much farther east of town, will enable jets to fly in and be unobtrusive to people staying in Lajitas. At night, Smith promises, the lights will come on only when a plane is landing.

To promote Lajitas like never before, Smith has brought on Austin's GSD&M, the largest advertising firm in the Southwest.

Hudson's on the Bend, one of the premier eateries in Austin, will open a gourmet restaurant, to be called The Ocotillo, in the old Ivey House. The Austin Hudson's menu includes such delicacies as rattlesnake cakes in pistachio-nut crust with spicy chipotle sauce, black bean ravioli with goat cheese and crawfish sauce, and ruby trout with mango-habañero aioli.

Such fare will be a far cry from the Pancho Villa Special -- one beef and one cheese enchilada with a taco, rice and refried beans -- that is offered in Lajitas's current cafe.

Credit the Pancho Villa Special to Bill Ivey. He invented it when Mischer first opened the restaurant, and Ivey grew up in that small stone house beside the 1899 Lajitas Trading Post. As the oldest occupied building in Lajitas, the Trading Post has served both Villa and U.S. troops headquartered there in pursuit of him.

When visitors first see the current Lajitas Resort, they remark that the boardwalk area looks just like the Wild West, little realizing that the real Wild West existed here just a few years ago.

"When I was a kid, my mother would take my brother and I into the bathroom at odd times of the day. What she was doing was taking us to the safest place in the house because there were gunfights in the streets," Ivey says. "Everyone down here carried a gun."

In fact, right up until he left the Lajitas Trading Post to Mischer in the 1980s, Ivey would routinely check pistols at the front door, putting the weapon in a paper sack with the owner's name written on it.

Ivey was always heavily armed in the store. Law enforcement officials told him he should deal with trouble on his own, since it would take a deputy too long to arrive.

"We had a lot of shootings in Lajitas," Ivey says. "Mexicans express themselves quickly, and if they get mad they'll pull a knife or a gun. They don't really want to hurt anyone; it's just a ritual. They shoot to make a point, and most of what was going on was between the federales and the wax boys. You might get grazed but never killed. The only killings I recall were by white people. They shot to kill."

Growing up, Ivey was the only gringo around, going barefoot all the time and riding burros whenever he and his pals went off exploring. He wasn't aware of it at the time, but he always had a bodyguard behind him.

"Someone always followed me wherever I went, usually this Cherokee who worked for my father," Ivey explains. "The candelilla business has always been full of some kind of conflict, and Dad was worried I'd get kidnapped."

At one point the Mexican government made it illegal to export candelilla plants to the States, although U.S. laws allowed them to be imported as long as they were declared.

"We'd declare every ounce brought over," Ivey says, adding that he quickly discovered he'd become a smuggler as far as Mexico was concerned.

Federales would often arrest his workers in Mexico and he would have to bail them out of jail. "At one point I realized I was paying off police in two Mexican states," Ivey chuckles.

When the Mexican officials finally devalued the peso, they stopped harassing harvesters from bringing candelilla into the States. But then U.S. Customs stopped the wax trafficking in Lajitas because the crossing isn't official so it has no customs office.

"They did this in an attempt to crack down on drugs, but when they stopped people from dealing in candelilla, some had no alternative but to turn to drugs to make a living," Ivey says. "So the policy obviously isn't working."

He sold his final load of wax last year but hopes to revive the operation at his refinery in Alpine. Along with the shifting ways of doing business, Ivey's had to wrestle with more personal changes.

After college, he was lured back to run the Trading Post as Lajitas was beginning to expand under Mischer. But the town once owned by the Iveys had become a different place.

"It was real hard for me to deal with," Ivey says. "It was the only life I ever knew, and my whole world was taken away. Lajitas had changed a lot, and it wasn't like I expected it to be anymore. It wasn't fun anymore, so I left."

In 1982 Ivey moved east a few miles and bought Terlingua Ghost Town.

"Terlingua was being broken up into half-acre tracts and sold, and I could see what was inevitable if things kept going that way," Ivey says. "I wanted to preserve the structures and the history and the culture."

He also wants to attract tourists. Smith shares that goal -- but their visions are very much apart.

Smith wants people who can fly their own private jets in and stay in vacation homes that will cost as much as any ten homes in the Terlingua/Study Butte area together.

Although Smith will remodel and upgrade several rooms in Lajitas, he's determined to keep the total number of rooms the same -- about 120 -- and to limit the number of new houses to around 550. If that number sounds small, consider that there are no more than about 30 homes in Lajitas now.

Smith's expansion is seriously upscale. However, he has approved designs that fit in with the landscape and use as many local materials as possible.

Ivey ensures historic preservation at Terlingua by simply refusing to sell any of it off. He will lease an old ruin, but only if the lessee preserves the exterior and makes no additions that wouldn't be correct to the time and place of the old mining community. They can fix up the inside as elaborately as they want, creating what Ivey calls "upscale ruins."

"We've tried to preserve that image of ruins on the outside, and in doing so we've been able to build a residency of very creative people who've put a lot back into the community. They appreciate the opportunity to be here and appreciate the ghost town for what it is," Ivey says. "It's created a community we never had before. Lajitas and Terlingua were always one-man towns, but we're entering that community phase now."

Ivey plans to make a bed-and-breakfast out of the 1906 Perry Mansion that overlooks the town. Chisos Mining Company owner Howard Perry built the Spanish-style home for his wife. But when she arrived in Terlingua, she stayed one night in the house, packed her bags and went home.

Terlingua in those days was no place for a lady, and the mansion may resist restoration as well. Two previous rehab attempts by Ivey were thwarted when high winds blew the roof off.

Although the church and school remain in ruins, Ivey did restore the town jail. It's now a pair of restrooms. And he put a roof on the old movie house, which became the Starlight Theatre restaurant, one of the best for hundreds of miles around.

The ruin gained the moniker "Starlight Theatre" after an impromptu concert there by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1986. In March, Walker came to Big Bend, like many other people, to see Haley's Comet in the pristine Big Bend sky that spring.

He sang solo for a couple of hours in front of perhaps 20 people. The old movie theater was missing most of one wall, had holes in others, and the roof was completely open to the sky -- hence the name. More concerts followed.

"Some folks were very upset with me when I put the roof on it, but I had to because the interior was deteriorating too quickly," Ivey explains.

What amuses him is that many of the people criticizing him the loudest were among the first to ask Angie Dean for jobs when she opened the ruin as a restaurant.

A few years ago, the area from Terlingua to Study Butte had only a gas station and a restaurant or two, depending on the season. It now has several restaurants and four motels, three RV parks, a rock shop, a health food store, an auto repair shop, a massage therapist, a couple of art galleries, gift shops, a medical clinic, the funky but popular Study Butte Store, and the funkier La Kiva underground bar and restaurant. Even designer java can be had at the Terlingua Springs Coffee House.

A 16-mile road into Terlingua Ranch paves the way, at least partially, toward an uncertain future for this community on the east boundary of south Brewster County. When the county completes the roadwork in a couple of years, residents debate what kind of growth it will bring.

The 32-room lodge and restaurant at Terlingua Ranch used to cater mostly to landowners but is now trying to draw tourists to an area that prides itself on an ecology-friendly existence.

"Most of the people who have moved into the area, mainly the Terlingua Ranch area, are people that live fairly lightly on the land. They like the harsh environment and they're doing innovative things so as not to be a problem," says Don Dowdy, chair of the Big Bend Region of the Sierra Club in Alpine.

Many of the newer homes use cisterns for water, solar power for electricity, and composting toilets.

Tom and Betty Alex, for example, are constructing a straw-bale home, which looks much like a big rock so they don't pollute the view from the adjacent national park. The Alexes are park employees who have lived in the area for 20 years.

"I have no problem with people coming in and building on 40 acres like we have, but I have a problem with five-acre tracts," says Betty Alex. "There's development, and there's bad development."

Like many locals, she's not sure about the changes in Lajitas.

"It seems like they're bringing in people for the wrong reason," Alex says. "The type of person they want to attract isn't going to appreciate this country with its openness and vistas and ruggedness. They'll come because it's a resort with a swimming pool and a golf course."

Many of the newcomers to Big Bend are bringing their big-city needs with them, she worries. Remoteness and lack of amenities kept most people away, but now the school and clinic and power and water are making it much easier for people to live here.

That's the same sort of thing that bothers Kirby Warnock, editor of the Big Bend Quarterly and a descendant of one of the area's most prominent pioneer families.

"All our cities are getting to look all the same," Warnock says. "You came out here to get away from all that crap. Here you felt you were on the frontier, and you were. You had to adapt to Big Bend; it was part of our barbed-wire soul. But now they want Big Bend to adapt to them."

Ivey recalls a time just 20 years ago when you could buy land for $10 an acre almost anywhere in Big Bend. Now the price can be $2,000 an acre and up.

"Historically, the locals get weeded out in a place like this," he says. "It's pretty scary. Not many people will be able to hold on, because they won't be able to afford the taxes, and that's when you truly lose the community and the authentic part of Big Bend."

And that has Alex worried about keeping her home.

"Lajitas trophy homes will make my home 23 miles away so expensive I won't be able to live here, because I won't be able to afford the taxes when I retire," she says. The locals are seeing dollar signs because it's the first time they've ever been paid a living wage and they get hospitalization, too. "But every one of them owns land and owns a house. What happens when their living wage can't pay the taxes?"

County officials hope the tax base will increase, because so far taxes haven't kept pace with the demand on services, says County Judge Beard.

That's been made even more important since the federal government cut back on the annual amount it pays Brewster County in lieu of taxes for the national park.

"It's a loss of $75,000 for us," Beard says. "That's a drop in the bucket for a metropolitan area, but for us it's two and a half jobs."

Many Big Bend veterans worry most about another drop in the bucket: their water supply.

Last year, the loudest sound a Lajitas visitor would hear early in the morning was the wind blowing across the graveyard or a rooster crowing across the river in Paso Lajitas.

Today, the visitor will hear those roosters accompanied by the chugging of water sprinklers. Warnock notes that fairways on the Lajitas golf courses will be green and thirsty. Manicured lawns at the amphitheater and picnic area by the river crossing will want daily drinks as well.

"Where are they going to get all that water? Whose well is going to go dry when they pump out all the water Lajitas will need?" Warnock asks.

It's a question he knows more than a little about. His family's alfalfa farm near Fort Stockton was wiped out when rancher Clayton Williams pumped Comanche Springs dry. The city was once a true oasis in the desert but is now little more than a place for motorists to gas up, Warnock sighs.

It's happened in Terlingua Ranch, too. Ament Lake and several private wells were inadvertently pumped dry by road construction crews in the late 1980s. The area has never recovered, Alex points out.

Developer Smith thinks he has the answers. He has gone upriver and purchased several farms and ranches just to get their water rights. Plus he's spent more than $1 million digging new wells.

"I own 23,000 acres, which we discovered sits on its own aquifer," Smith says. "We drilled several wells. Nobody else can drain from it. It can only be tapped by us, and the recharge rate is high enough to do several times what we're planning to do."

However, the amount of water getting into the park has been very low recently, and trips by rafting companies through the canyons have been adversely affected, Dowdy says.

"The lower canyons right now are almost impossible unless you want to hike pulling a boat behind you," he says. "Anything that takes water out above the canyons is going to be a problem. Even El Paso is looking to Big Bend for more water."

Meanwhile, New Mexico cities are using more and more Rio Grande water before it ever crosses into Texas. The burgeoning metroplex of El Paso/Juárez is using so much water that the Rio Grande is little more than a trickle from there south to Presidio.

Most of the water that flows in the river through Big Bend is actually coming from the Río Conchos, out of the mountains in Mexico. It flows into the Rio Grande at Presidio, but even that is lower than a couple of years ago, thanks to growing communities and three dams in Mexico.

Today, so little water flows to Brownsville that the Rio Grande didn't even reach the Gulf of Mexico for five months this year. It does so now only because the sandbar blocking the mouth of the river was dredged up in late July.

Simon, of the park conservation association, says the loss of water will kill off the right kind of visitors, ecotourists, for Big Bend.

"More water means we could sustain the rafting industry, and that's one that belongs in Big Bend, and it's been suffocating," he says. "Keeping more water in the river is better than building a new road."

Fears about the entire ecosystem figured into the park association's decision to designate Big Bend as one of the most endangered parks.

"We have deep concern for Big Bend," says Simon. "For centuries it was the back of beyond. It was about as far as you could get from modern industrial America and the seat of power in both countries, so it was protected by its distance. It always had a low population density and low resource use levels that never stressed the ecosystems to the breaking point."

But other national parks have lost their "splendid isolation"; Big Bend may be on the same road that Yosemite and the Grand Canyon ended up on, he says.

Development almost always affects the entire range of values that make parks special, Simon notes. Air and water quality, the silence, wilderness, biological diversity and migration corridors are all threatened.

Simon blames the Big Bend problems squarely on encroaching civilization and increased occupation and development. As an example, he fears that the Lajitas expansion will soon add another sight to this wilderness: cell phone relay towers.

"Cell phones not working in Big Bend reminds us of our place in the universe," he explains. "You can quickly erase the quality of a park experience the first time somebody whips out a cell phone on the South Rim Trail."

Smith says he doesn't want cell towers in Big Bend. Others wonder how long he'll listen to the complaints of frustrated millionaires -- cut off from their businesses -- before he puts up a tower.

Simon cautions he and the NPCA are not antidevelopment, but that projects going in near national parks should "meet high standards for sustainable design." Some of the threats extend far beyond the borders of Big Bend, however.

Once, the views here could stretch for 200 miles and more. With the increasing air pollution, those vistas have been reduced to as little as eight miles. Initial studies blame power plants in both Mexico and the United States, and some experts say part of the haze may be drifting in from as far away as Asia.

But whether the problem is air or water, the solution must be a binational one, Simon points out. "We are at a watershed point for Big Bend," he says. "If we don't take steps right now to nourish this region, we'll regret it."

Ivey believes Big Bend is big enough to handle it.

"I think there'll be some areas here that will be more popular; some areas where it'll become chic to own a big condo or upscale home," he says. "But there'll always be the Big Bend, and you'll always be able to look for miles and miles and not see much evidence of people.

"At each stage of development we're still pioneering. I think there will always be islands where it stays the same." End Of The Bend?

Jetports and elite resorts may do what border bandits, blistering heat and harsh desert life couldn't: rob Big Bend of it's rugged beauty.


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