As tough as it looks, the Chihuahuan Desert is a fragile place. Few humans have stepped here, but footprints fall heavily in the desert. Since the 1800s, the region has been mined, logged, hunted, and overgrazed. Now it is being allowed to heal its wounds, helped along by governments, corporations, and individuals on both sides of the border. In 1944, Big Bend National Park was established, and a joint park with Mexico was envisioned. But it wasn't until 1994 that the Mexican government designated more than a million acres (405,000 hectares) as the Cañón de Santa Elena and the Maderas del Carmen Flora and Fauna Protection Areas. In 1999, a cement company arrived on the scene, not to pave paradise but to preserve it. Cemex, the Mexican cementmaker with operations in 50 countries, has purchased hundreds of thousands of acres along the border to set aside for preservation.
This is a different model of conservation. Mexico lacks the funds to purchase land for parks or wildlife habitat, a situation becoming increasingly common in the United States. So on the Mexico side of the corridor, much of the protected land is privately owned. Mining has been allowed to continue. Rather than removing the 5,000 ranchers and farmers living within the protected areas, as U.S. national parks historically have done, conservationists are teaching them why it's in their interest to protect the land. The goal is to give residents a sense of stewardship that national parks do not. "You have to understand, the concept of wilderness doesn't presently exist in Mexico," says Patricio Robles Gil, an environmentalist and architect of the partnership with Cemex. "In Spanish, we don't have a word for wilderness. This is all new, but it could be the model beyond a national park."
After a long day working in the desert, a group of conservationists gathers for a dinner of steaks and tortillas at the Cemex reserve's main lodge. There is talk of the future. Already, a couple of adjacent areas are being proposed to join the two protected areas on the Mexican side. They discuss reintroducing the grizzly bear, the Mexican gray wolf, and bison—all believed to have been native to the area. Anywhere else, such talk would be dismissed as a fairy tale. In the Transboundary Megacorridor, such dreams seem possible.
And why not? The desert bighorn sheep has been reestablished, as has the pronghorn antelope. Decades ago, only a few remaining black bears could be found tucked away in the isolated mountain ranges of Coahuila. A group of Mexican ranchers decided to quit hunting bears and start protecting them instead. Now you see black bears on the Texas side of the river again. Wildlife pays no attention to international boundaries.
To its true believers, the megacorridor is the whole world boiled down to its essence. It is "pure raw," says a conservationist who has fallen under its spell, one of the last places on the North American continent where wild trumps humanity, and one of the only spots where wilderness is actually expanding instead of contracting. At a time when most of the Earth's stories focus on what is being lost, that is a contradiction worth celebrating.