Big Bend National Park superintendent set to retire this month
The superintendent of Big Bend National Park is retiring at the end of June after being on the job since 2018.
Bob Krumenaker, a longtime National Park Service employee, has overseen the sprawling West Texas park during the pandemic and through a period of record-breaking growth in visitor numbers.
Marfa Public Radio recently talked with Krumenaker about his time at Big Bend and what he thinks the future holds for the park.
On his time at the park and what he views as the park’s long-term priorities
Krumenaker first visited the park in 1982, he said, for a multiday river trip on the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande.
“If anyone had said on that river trip that 36 years later I’d become superintendent, we would’ve just laughed at how absurd that idea seemed,” he said. “But I fell in love with the place, and it was always in my mind that someday maybe I would come back, and of course I was lucky enough to do that.”
During Krumenaker’s tenure, a number of long-term projects have been launched, including efforts to expand the park’s western boundary near Terlingua and designate most of the park’s land as federally protected wilderness, along with a planned multimillion-dollar renovation of the Chisos Mountain Lodge.
The outgoing superintendent described the lodge project as “important to the long-term sustainability” to the visitor experience at the park.
“I also think having a major investment in the lodge will also help people understand that wilderness and development in the park are not incompatible with one another,.” he said.
As the Big Bend Sentinel has reported, some Big Bend area locals have expressed concerns about the wilderness plan.
On the park’s huge growth in visitors
While Big Bend is still far from one of the most-visited national parks in the U.S., the number of people flocking there reached a record high two years ago and has remained above half a million annual visitors since.
Krumenaker acknowledged the surge in visitors has come along with strains on the park’s infrastructure.
“We have this aging infrastructure, which is not sustainable,” he said. “As the visitors go up, we need to do a better job at maintaining what we have and making sure the quality of the experience does not degrade.”
That, Krumenaker said, is why the park has committed millions of dollars to the lodge upgrade and has pumped money into maintaining roads and trails as well. Still, he said, the challenges from increased visitation are not going away anytime soon.
Krumenaker said the park may have to move more toward the kind of reservation systems that much busier national parks have established to manage crowds.
“I think Big Bend is probably, eventually going to have to go in that direction, particularly in those busy seasons like Spring Break and Thanksgiving week and Christmas week,” he said. “Right now, we’re kind of lucky that it’s only a small part of the year.”
On where the visitor number trends are headed
Krumenaker said the question of whether or not the number of people coming to the park will continue growing is “a tough one to answer.”
“I think we have plateaued for a little while,” he said, noting that the park saw a slight drop in visitors in 2022 compared to the year before.
“We look to be on the same pattern thus far in 2023,” Krumenaker. “We’re probably never going to be like the Grand Canyon, or Rocky Mountain National Park, but after you’ve driven six or eight or ten hours to get here, there may or may not be enough campsites, and that’s not easily resolved.”
The challenge, as Krumenaker described it, is keeping up with the growing numbers while not fundamentally altering the experience of the park.
“If we develop more and more facilities to accommodate more and more people, then very quickly, I’m absolutely convinced, those facilities will be overcrowded, and we will erode some of the things people like about the park the best,” he said.
Krumenaker does feel certain that the park’s visitor numbers will not significantly drop anytime soon.
“It’s going to be a challenge for the foreseeable future, regardless of the numbers,” he said.