Nature Notes; Conservationists Push for New National Monument, in the Heart of El Paso

photograph courtesy Frontera Land Alliance

Formerly an Army firing range, Castner Range includes 7,000 acres of mountains, canyons and open desert in east El Paso. Conservationists, with the support of local elected officials, are pressing for the land to be declared a national monument.

It’s been called “the crown jewel of West Texas” and “the heart of the Franklin Mountains.” Castner Range is 7,000 acres of cliffs, canyons and open desert – in the center of El Paso.

The range is famous for its Mexican poppies. When conditions are right, the radiant blooms create a spring display like nothing else in Texas.

El Pasoans have been pushing for preservation of this undeveloped land for decades. Now, conservationists hope President Obama will answer their long effort – and proclaim Castner Range a national monument.

The Franklin Mountains rise above El Paso in cliffs of red and orange. In 1979, the state acquired much of the range. At 24,000 acres, Franklin Mountains State Park is the nation’s largest urban park.

On the mountains’ east side, Castner was planned for inclusion in the park. But from the 1920s to the 60s, the Army had used the land as a firing range. The presence of unexploded ordnance complicated the transfer.

Developments were proposed for the land – a “technology park,” a community college campus. Local groups, including the Frontera Land Alliance, joined to advocate for the open space.

“Because of those continual efforts to try to utilize Castner Range for some sort of development, the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition, and Frontera, and all these other people have really been looking seriously for ways to preserve it,” Scott Cutler, Frontera’s board president, said.

In 2014, President Obama created the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, from federal lands near Las Cruces, New Mexico. National parks and wilderness areas require Congressional action. But under the 1906 Antiquities Act, presidents can create national monuments by proclamation.

National-monument status presented itself as an option for Castner.

Advocates’ first aim is to safeguard Castner from development. But Cutler said some areas could be opened to the public quickly.

“There are trails that are already existing, that have been used, that we’re pretty sure are as free of unexploded ordinance as you could expect,” Cutler said. “We could go over them, have some company go over them, and just verify that they are clear. And that would give people a chance to get out and see parts of it that are really nice and give them good access to some exciting parts of the range.”

The land would offer new outdoor opportunities for El Pasoans and visitors alike. The state park boasts 100 miles of trails – but the steep terrain there can be daunting.

“Castner Range, the lower elevations of it, are relatively flat,” Cutler said, “so you have places that are scenic, where the public can get out and do a lot of visiting. So we think there’s a nice mix of opportunities there.”

Castner offers stunning desert-mountain views. Springs flow in the canyons. But with all its scenic and biological richness, one feature is best known.

As early as 1932, boosters were promoting the poppy blooms. Decades ago, the area was seeded with non-native California poppies. But the range also sustains native Mexican poppies.

When weather conditions are right, the golden spring blooms blanket slopes and canyons. The poppies are likely a relic from the Ice-Age past, when the flowers may have been widespread in the region.

National-monument proposals often draw opposition – especially when the lands have historically been used by livestock producers, loggers or others. But there’s been no organized opposition to the El Paso plan. It’s endorsed by elected officials at the city, county and Congressional levels. Frontera and its allies have collected more than 22,000 signatures of support.

National-monument proclamations often come at the end of a president’s term. The Castner Range coalition is now advocating intensively.

Janaé Reneaud Field is Frontera’s executive director.

“We send groups to Washington, D.C. to meet with the folks, to do it in person, every month now,” she said. “We’re not going away. We want to protect this before the land goes away. So I’m hopeful the president and the administration will get behind this and support it. We live in a community that’s relatively poor. This may be the only national monument people in this region or the city ever see. ”

More information on the proposal is available online, at castner4ever.org.

Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.