See El Paso from above. For example, consider it from the perspective of a golden eagle, a winter resident of the Chihuahuan Desert. Its seven-foot wingspan keeps it aloft as it gazes down at this city of nearly 700,000 people. What he would see if he were interested in human affairs is a sprawling desert city laid out along a valley where a river is struggling to survive. He would see El Paso spreading outward along its highways, engulfing the desert east into far west Texas and north toward the New Mexico state line. Our eagle would soar over Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, which lies across from El Paso on the southern slope of the Rio Grande. From above, Juárez is distinguished by its impressive density – it has more than twice the population of its sister city, but occupies a much smaller area. Everywhere the eagle would see buildings and highways and other things made. Everywhere, that is, except for a void in the heart of El Paso, a ridge that runs 14 miles south of New Mexico, almost to downtown. These are the Franklin Mountains, largely protected by the 27,000-acre Franklin Mountains State Park, the largest urban park in the lower 48. El Paso is the only city in Texas with its own mountain range. They brag about rights.
In Texas, the struggle to protect public lands is almost always fierce, and this is especially true in the Franklin Mountains. The state park opened in 1987 and was saved from development through decades of activism by El Paso’s conservation and civic groups. Now some of those forces are calling on President Joe Biden to preserve one of the last remaining open spaces in El Paso by declaring it a national monument. This 7,000-acre area is called the Castner Range, and it too appears in the eagle’s eye as a void in the midst of urban sprawl, a rectangle encompassing part of the east slope of the Franklins and the shallow basin below. The country is perhaps best known locally for its abundance of Mexican poppies, golden yellow flowers that bloom in a dazzling spectacle each spring. But the poppies are just one of many natural wonders in the Castner Range. The land also contains archaeological sites more than 10,000 years old, rare springs that provide water for wildlife, and some of the region’s last intact alluvial fans – geological features that mark eons of erosion and the replenishment of the Hueco-Mesilla Bolsons Aquifer support financially.
As with the state park, efforts to protect and open Castner go back decades. The Department of Defense owns the land that has been part of Fort Bliss since 1926. The Castner Range was only spared development as an artillery range due to unexploded ordnance from the forty-year period 1926–1966 when the Army used the country. But those mortar shells and other munitions have also kept the area largely closed to the public, for obvious reasons. Step on a piece of UXO, as it’s called in military jargon, and you could lose a leg or your life. Cleaning the UXO is an expensive, time consuming and ongoing process. In the early 1970’s, the Army declared the Castner area “surplus” land and transferred more than 1,200 acres to the City of El Paso, which in turn sold lots for development. El Paso residents have spent the past several years arguing over what to do with the remaining 7,000 acres. Conservationists have suggested several options, including incorporating Castner into the state park or transferring the land to a nonprofit organization. None of these efforts paid off.
A few years ago, however, El Paso residents watched their neighbors achieve a similar environmental victory and decided to try to follow that model. In 2014, President Obama designated a new national monument north of El Paso. Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is a quartet of mountain ranges surrounding Las Cruces, New Mexico. The Organ Mountains, one of the four, almost border the Franklin Mountains and form an important wildlife corridor for deer, mountain lions and spears. The 2014 designation was an aha moment for El Paso conservationists, said Janae’ Reneaud Field. the Executive Director of Frontera Land Alliance: “The Organ Mountains did it; why can’t we do it? But eight years later, they’re still trying. This is the latest push to get Biden to take executive action to designate the Castner Range as a national monument. This would protect the country forever and also provide a way to clean up the UXO, develop hiking trails and other amenities, and eventually open the doors to the public.
It could also help close what researchers are calling a “nature divide” — the unequal distribution of access to nature within and between communities. With its diminishing open spaces, El Paso is a national hotspot for natural gaps. A recent study found that 90 percent of Latinos and nearly 95 percent of low-income communities in the Castner Range area are native. Despite a large state park in the area, many families can’t afford the entrance fees or are looking for easier access. (Franklin Mountains State Park is rugged with little flat terrain, unlike Castner’s.)
Moses Borjas, an El Paso pastor involved in faith-based Por la Creación, says he sees Castner Range as a way to stimulate interest in nature and the outdoors in the binational region’s Mexican and Mexican-American community to revive. Borjas fondly remembers spending time with his father, an immigrant from Zacatecas, Mexico, in the arroyos and hilltops around El Paso, many of which are no longer open to the public. Now he wants to ensure that future generations, especially Latinos, have equal opportunities to enjoy what he sees as God’s creation.
“My father always told me, and I’ll quote him in Spanish, he says: ‘Hijo, el futuro va a llegar‘- Son, the future will come. Therefore, what is very important today is how we will sow the seeds of goodness for the future.”
In July, the Castner Range Coalition, an alliance that includes Spanish-oriented groups such as Por la Creación and the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, traveled to Washington, DC to plead their case. Coalition members met with Defense and Interior Department officials and presented a petition with more than 137,000 signatures to the Biden administration.
Reneaud Field expresses frustration and confusion as to why El Paso was snubbed. Organ Mountains is not alone, she insists. President Obama opened 29 new monuments and expanded 5 more during his two terms in office. One of them is another former military site with UXO problems – California’s Fort Ord National Monument, which Obama named in 2012. And when Biden announced his first national monument in October, it was a former Army training facility deep in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Arizona and California each have 18 national monuments; Texas got a paltry 2. Why can’t we get some love?
Unlike many other environmental struggles, there are no powerful forces — private landowners, wealthy corporations, or unfriendly legislators — trying to prevent Castner Range from becoming a nature reserve. “We just don’t get any resistance,” says Reneaud Field. »We haven’t had one for fifty-one years!« But “you can tell again and again that this community is repeatedly passed over for the national monument. . . . Why don’t we see this land preserved for this community, for this region?”
Reneaud Field and Borjas wonder if it has anything to do with El Paso’s identity as a predominantly Hispanic border town and its political and geographic isolation. El Paso, the second-largest Hispanic-majority city in the United States, is closer to Phoenix than Austin and culturally often seems to have more in common with Juárez and New Mexico than the rest of the state. His congressional delegation includes one representative, Democrat Veronica Escobar, among the 38 members from Texas. El Paso often has to fight for what other areas take for granted. The state park, which opened to the public in 1987, only received a visitor center in 2019.
Reneaud Field and her colleagues believe they got their point across. Now they just want the Biden administration to take action. “It’s just about time, you know,” she says. “There is simply no other reason to hesitate further.”