In the Northeast region of El Paso, Texas there lies more than 7,000 acres of land next to the Franklin Mountains that may be most known for the yellow Mexican poppies that blanket the foothills come springtime.
Now, the golden field of Castner Range may also be known as a national monument thanks to efforts by a coalition of El Pasoans pushing to preserve it for future generations.
The Frontera Land Alliance and the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition teamed up to promote protecting the land from housing and commercial development.
In December 2015, El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke introduced legislation (HR 4268) to establish Castner Range as a national monument. Now, a public push is gaining momentum to urge President Obama to protect the area by using the Antiquities Act to designate it as a national monument. A petition for the Castner Range initiative now has more than 25,000 signatures.
Janae Reneaud Field, executive director of the Frontera Land Alliance, said preservation efforts for the Franklins and surrounding land date back to the late 1970s. The Texas Parks and Wildlife website recounts how concerned citizens formed the Franklin Mountain Wilderness Coalition in response to developers who “began carving roads into the almost pristine mountains.” Their efforts to protect the mountains and provide public access eventually led to the creation of Franklin Mountain State Park by the Texas Legislature in the 1980s. It is the largest urban park in the United States, covering about 40 square miles.
Supporters of the Castner Range Initiative are hoping the special designation goes through in the next few months.
“This is as close as we’ve ever been to protecting the land,” Field said. “We don’t want to wait another 30 years.”
What the designation means
A national monument is a land or historical place that’s been protected by Congress through legislation. If legislators fail to act, President Obama can use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate a national monument. To gain national monumental status, the land must contain historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historic or scientific interest.
Castner Range meets these requirements with its ecology, history and archaeology, as well as unique geology. O’Rourke’s bill points out the area’s “numerous archaeological and historical resources that date as far back as the Paleo-Indian, Archaic and historic Indian groups.”
Richard Teschner, a retired UTEP professor and member of the coalition said that Castner range not only provides a natural habitat for local wildlife, but is also water conservation asset. Dozens of canyons and arroyos help transport rain run-off from the Franklin Mountains to the underground aquifers known as bolsóns that supply El Paso’s water.
“In the hot and dry climate of El Paso, conservation of water is a necessity,” Teschner said.
Amy Wagler, an associate professor in mathematical sciences at UTEP and board member of the Frontera Land Alliance said that while the main objective is to preserve the land, there are economic benefits as well.
“Parks, national monuments, and even Franklin State Mountains can affect house values, so this would be important information for people of the community to know, particularly people in the business community,” Wagler said. “Preserving natural spaces, and having things such as conservation easements within all areas in the city are actually important for our economic growth.”
The drive to show public support
The groups have been working hard to get as many signatures as possible on the petition. Volunteers coordinated events from parades to movie nights and El Paso Chihuahuas baseball games..
“Even though we’ve gotten the attention of President Obama and the Department of the Interior, we need to keep showing public support,” Wagler said. “We can make such a good case for the cultural and ecological importance of this land.”
UTEP student Jazmin Ramirez works as a volunteer to gather support for the project by collecting signatures at community events.
“This project means a lot to me because we want to preserve the natural beauty of El Paso, as well as open up spaces for people to enjoy,” she said.
Timing is critical for this movement. Supporters hope to get Obama to take action on Castner Range before he leaves office in January. A new administration means potential changes in staffing that could set the project back.
“We are celebrating the 100th year anniversary of the parks, and it is an important time in our nation’s history to reflect on what we have done in terms of conservation, and I think this would be a great way to show support for it,” Wagler said.
New vision for former firing range
The Castner Range land is currently the property of the Department of Defense and is closed to the public. It was formerly used as an firing range by Fort Bliss through the mid-1960s.
The coalition seeks to open parts of Castner Range to the public to enjoy. However only areas that have been cleared of unexploded ordnances and are deemed safe will be open. The remainder of the area will be left as is, with signs to let the public know that closed areas are not cleared.
Officials declared that there are at least three safe trails on the land. “We know they’re safe because they’re regularly used by trespassers,” Field said.
For more information visit http://castnerrangenationalmonument.org