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The fight to preserve El Paso’s Castner Range as a national monument

A view from above of the Castner Range, from South Franklin Mountain.
Samat Jain via Flickr
(CC BY-SA 2.0)
A view from above of the Castner Range, from South Franklin Mountain.

El Paso conservationists are fighting to get a 7,000-acre expanse of high desert wilderness designated a national monument. The Castner Range is a former missile range in the Franklin Mountains, renowned for its beauty and historical significance. Yet, it can feel inaccessible for the nearly 1 million El Pasoans living a stone’s throw away.

The majority of the Castner Range is closed to the public, and it’s not the only natural area El Paso residents have been deprived of over the past two decades. El Paso County lost over 18 square miles of its open spaces to development between Texas’s population boom and increasing urban sprawl.

With President Joe Biden’s initiative to conserve 30% of the country’s lands and oceans by 2030, local conservation groups are gaining momentum in their efforts to preserve El Paso’s natural areas, including the Castner Range.

Rachel Monroe, a contributing writer at The New Yorker who covers Texas and the Southwest, joined the Texas Standard to discuss the fight to preserve the Castner Range.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity: 

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit more about the Castner Range. What’s that landscape like, and why is it so important to El Paso from a historical and ecological standpoint?

Rachel Monroe: If anybody’s been to El Paso, they’ve seen these beautiful mountains that kind of split the city in two. The Castner Range is a part of that. Most of those mountains got put into a state park system about 50 years ago. But the Castner Range is kind of the foothills – they’re these beautiful rolling hills and alluvial fans full of cactuses.

I went walking out there. I had heard coyotes, mountain lions go through there, but it was not protected back in the day when they protected the mountains, in large part because it was a missile range. There’s still a question of unexploded ordnance out there. So, it was this part of the mountains that was left off the protected list, and that these groups in El Paso are fighting to make sure it gets protected now.

Where does that effort stand currently? 

They’ve been working on this for decades and decades. With halting momentum, this year seems to be their best bet. You have President Biden announcing that he wants to set aside 30% of the land in the country, and have it be protected. That’s a significant push. You have the secretary of the interior, Deb Haaland – she’s from the Southwest; she’s from New Mexico – she came out here and visited the Castner Range. So, those seem like really big signals that this land might get protected by President Biden.

They’re trying to do it through national monument status, which means it doesn’t really have to go through Congress. The president just has to say, “yes, this is important. I’m signing the paper, this land is now protected.”

If they get that national monument designation, what does that mean for the land itself and the surrounding area? 

The Army has committed to being in charge of cleaning up those unexploded ordnance, so people will hopefully soon be able to walk around out there without worrying about stepping on a bomb or something. I think that the ultimate plan is to build trails and have it be accessible for people in El Paso to actually go out there on this land, and have it be protected from any future development.

Would it be run by the park system or something like it?

It’s currently under federal control. It would still be under federal control. I think the idea is that the [Bureau of Land Management] or the Forest Service would be the ones managing it.

Communities of color like El Paso are much more likely to experience significant loss of natural spaces than predominantly white communities. What effect does this have on residents and their well-being? What do the experts say about combating nature loss in that context?

I talked to a number of the folks who are working to protect the Castner Range, who are young people who grew up in El Paso, who really felt like they didn’t have any access to nature or that it wasn’t something that was available to them. This is something that we see across the country, that communities of color and also poor communities have much less access to nature than their counterparts of other demographics. We know nature has beneficial health outcomes, psychological outcomes … there’s all sorts of benefits to living close to nature. When communities are excluded from that, that’s a loss in many different realms.

What are the next steps to achieving this national monument designation? You say it would be as easy as Joe Biden wielding his presidential pen. Is that forthcoming?

That’s the hope. He’s committed to two national monuments already during his presidency, one in Colorado and one in Nevada, I believe. So, it’s really just hoping that we here in Texas are the next ones on the list and keeping that pressure up and keeping that enthusiasm and that hope alive.

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Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.