he staggering beauty and biological significance of some of the world's greatest places often cannot be contained by national borders. The Nile River does not change direction when it reaches the edge of Egypt, and the gorillas of Virunga roam free from Congo to Rwanda to Uganda. The ancient Bialowieza Forest spans Poland to Belarus, and in the United States, watersheds, forests, deserts, and more, are shared with neighbors, north and south.
When governed jointly—free from politics or rhetoric—these natural areas can serve as powerful diplomats, fostering bilateral scientific collaboration, resource protection, economic stimulation, and general goodwill. They can serve as bridges, when they are not walled.
The more than 1900-mile length of the U.S.-Mexico border passes through four American states—California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas—states which themselves were originally part of Mexico. These four states now are home to dozens of national parks, forests, wildlife reserves, protected rivers, and watersheds, and are protected by a variety of federal, state, and local agencies, including the National Park Service*, Bureau of Land Management, National Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Military, and indigenous tribal lands. The U.S. and Mexico governments have long shared responsibility for protecting these larger natural areas, as have international agencies. And the U.S. has long used these lands as critical diplomatic tools.
"We host maybe 100 or 150 international volunteers in our parks every year," Jonathan Putnam (a spokesperson for the National Park Service's Office of International Affairs) told the Diplomatic Courier. "The bulk of them are university undergrad or graduate students, but a sizable number of them are actually protected area managers; rangers or other protected area staff from around the globe are colleagues who come for a month, maybe longer."
"It's a really amazing program for the volunteer and I also think our parks love hosting them," Putnam said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which, through its wildlife refuges is dedicated to protecting and preserving endangered species, also has an international affairs office. That division works to help inform international policies on wildlife trafficking, distributes grants to help organizations around the world with tracking and monitoring, and works to halt wildlife extinction. They also manage international treaties related to wildlife conservation.
But a representative from the Fish and Wildlife Service told Diplomatic Courier recently that while the international division is still doing important work, the current political climate in the U.S. has made that work much more challenging.
"We have a lot of issues that have been triggered by this administration for what we do in our program," the official said, speaking on background due to a policy that bans staff from speaking to the media about border-related issues. "I think that the rhetoric, especially from President Trump, and what's happening on the border, definitely make things a little bit harder to move forward with Mexico."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has long funded cross-border research, field trips, and conferences, but previous recipients of those funds report that they have been dramatically cut, or in some cases, eliminated entirely.
"I think that a lot of that work has definitely slowed down," the official told Diplomatic Courier. "It's been a struggle to collaborate not only with Mexico, but just more broadly, internationally."
Many people who spoke on- and off-the-record during months of reporting, in the borderlands, in Washington, DC, San Francisco, and remotely, described a changing climate of international collaboration in wildlife conservation and resource protection in the current U.S. presidential administration. Field work, collaboration with international colleagues, travel to attend conferences, have all been curtailed, not only with their Mexican counterparts, but worldwide.
Staffs have been cut at many of the U.S. land management agencies, top posts remain unfilled or have high turnover, and the work itself—protecting some of the world's most treasured spaces—seems to many, like an uphill fight. The erosion of long-standing environmental protection laws, and the destruction of protected land and endangered habitats to build a border wall, is damaging not only the lands themselves, but also their ability to play a critical role in diplomatic relations worldwide.
One longstanding program that has declined in recent years was called Park Flight, a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Park services.
"Mexican and Latin American ornithology students would come and work on bird monitoring and bird education programs in our parks, and park staff in many places would use them to do outreach to Mexican American communities," Putnam said. "Having a Mexican biologist go into a Mexican American community was really powerful. Our superintendents have said it was the best bang for the buck in terms of doing effective outreach that they ever had. And it was to the benefit of the park as well."
Although officially ended in 2011, some parks still participate in a similar scheme on an ad hoc basis. Many of those former students are now working with conservation organizations or in public policy positions.
Former Ambassador of the United States to Mexico, Earl Anthony Wayne, now retired, serves as a Public Policy Fellow and Mexico Institute Board Co-Chair at the Wilson Center, and Diplomat in Residence at the School of International Service at American University. He made establishing cross-border university programs between the two countries a priority during his time in office under the Obama administration, and said such exchanges reap long-term benefits on a global scale.
"I believe that these kinds of exchanges establish a long-term relationship that goes beyond just the business relationship of selling different things or buying different things. People come to understand the other society, its good points as well as its flaws. It's too easy to just see the flaws in another society if you haven't been there and haven't spent any time there."
"So, all of the programs that set up the ability of people to live in the other country are good in the long term. The people you send to the United States come back with an entirely other view of the United States, and that just makes it easier to have dialogues and find solutions, even to very difficult problems."
That changing of perspective is something Putnam is familiar with, as he and his colleagues often have to explain the benefits of international engagement to U.S. government officials, of either party, who, at first, don't quite grasp the significance.
"One of the things I've seen multiple times that people come in (to office) with skepticism but then they get more engaged and realize the importance that managing resource needs to include our international partners.
"I try to remind folks that the greater Yellowstone ecosystem is not just, whatever it is, 10 or 12 million acres, outside of Yellowstone national park," Putnam said. "If you really want to be honest, the greater Yellowstone ecosystem includes Mexico and Central America because you've got dozens of migratory birds that maybe spend three or four months in Yellowstone but the rest of their life cycles is migrating down to western Mexico, to Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia."
That ethos, that the National Park Service learns from—and inspires—other land management around the world, is one that previously came from the top. Jonathan Jarvis served as National Park Service Director under President Obama. He is now the executive director of the Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity at UC Berkeley, helping other countries establish U.S.-style park systems. One of the accomplishments during his time in office, of which he's most proud, is reopening the Rio Grande crossing in Big Bend National Park.
Big Bend is one of the largest, most remote, and least-visited parks in the Lower 48 states. It is part of the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem that includes the Big Bend Ranch State Park in the United States, and Área Natural Protegida Maderas del Carmen and Parque Nacional Cañon de Santa Elena in Mexico, as well as the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, which runs between them all. The vast park offers an opportunity to cross the Rio Grande and experience Mexico firsthand by visiting the tiny village of Boquillas.
The crossing was closed after the terrorism attacks of 9/11, significantly impacting the approximately 100 residents of Boquillas, who otherwise had to drive about fifteen hours across unimproved roads for basic supplies. Jarvis quietly reopened it during the Obama administration, and, working with his counterparts in Mexico, as well as with U.S. Border Patrol and immigration officials, set up a small border crossing station in the park itself, staffed by park rangers.
"Before it was closed, I used to say, you walk down to the river, and get in a boat, and ride across it, get on a donkey, ride it into town, have a great meal and a beer, and come back. And it was all very informal," Jarvis told Diplomatic Courier recently. "And if you were rafting or canoeing, you could camp on both sides of the river, and it was actually a constant flow of Mexican residents across the crossing at Boquillas, to come and shop in the U.S." The crossing was reopened without fanfare, lest it draw the ire of anti-immigration advocates, but is still open and fully functioning.
And as of late last summer, it was still a great place to cross a river, ride a donkey, get a meal and a beer, and easily return to the United States, with a quick stop in the border station.
Big Bend, and its neighbor Big Bend state park, are also designated International Dark Sky Parks by the Tucson-based International Dark Sky Association (IDSA), which works to combat light pollution in an effort to promote a pure night sky. The organization is carefully watching its currently certified areas along the border, as well as those parks that have expressed an interest in gaining the coveted certification. The designations, which also feature prominently on natural areas around the world from Croatia to Taiwan, are themselves a powerful diplomatic tool. But current activity on the border, and the environmental, and light, pollution it generates, is of concern.
"A lot of places out here in the west still retain their natural darkness, and a lot of that is on public land. That's what brings us into conflict with the border wall because there are significant public land holdings in places along the border," John Barrentine, IDSA's policy director, told Diplomatic Courier. "Big Bend is arguably one of the darkest places left in the lower 48 states. If their situation next to the border, and being on public land, makes them subject to whatever the national policy is about the border barrier that includes lighting, and that negatively impacts the park, then yes, their certification would be on the line."
Flora Moir serves as conservation coordinator for private lands with the Mexican land conservation organization Fondo Mexicano Para La Conservacíon de la Naturaleza, and focuses on private/public land partnerships to build wildlife corridors along the border, and throughout Mexico. She's not daunted by the current political climate between the U.S. and Mexico, and has found that occasionally, working around the U.S. and/or Mexican governments to conserve the borderlands can be effective.
"We're starting to work more from the private lands perspective because there's greater continuity in working with private land owners than in working with government and changing policies and changing administrations," Moir told Diplomatic Courier. "In some ways, it's easier, it's like a low hanging fruit even though it's difficult and complicated as well. Working with individuals is always challenging, but once you identify these individuals who are interested in getting into conservation or sustainable management, you already have the willingness, and it's about finding win-win solutions."
"Not protecting these areas is irreversible. We need to keep working at this from all possible angles. It's not a question of giving up," she said. "If you put together all the national parks and public lands that are under conservation, and if you compare that fraction to the surface area of the United States..." she drifted off before continuing, "We just can't give up."
Giving up isn't an option for Putnam, either.
"We continue to work with Mexico and we have a series of sister parks which have been active for twenty or so years now, and they do a variety of things together," Putnam said. "It's challenging on both sides, but I think these personal relationships that have been built up over many years of working together are helping to continue the relationships in spite of those challenges."
*The author is a former National Park Service interpretation ranger.