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Decades-long efforts to protect Castner Range, a portion of the Franklin Mountains, have been hampered by danger from the old Army unexploded ordnance in the Chihuahuan Desert.
However, conservation groups and U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said Friday the federal government is closer than ever to recognizing the 7,000-acre area as a national monument, an effort started in 2015.
“I’ve never felt more hopeful than I do today,” Escobar said. “Not just because of the incredible work done by the amazing, doggedly determined volunteers, but also we finally have a White House who is placing a premium on preserving land like this.”
Escobar was accompanied by El Paso City Council member Joe Molinar, conservation groups and a mariachi band at the only portion open to the public, a quarter-mile trail loop behind the El Paso Museum of Archaeology.
Escobar filed legislation in April that, if passed, will recognize Castner Range as a national monument. However, most federal monuments are enshrined by the president under the 1906 Antiquities Act and the federal government can only designate national monuments on its own property. Escobar confirmed a meeting next week with the Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior to discuss the parcel.
Castner Range occupies 11 square miles of the eastern slopes of the Franklin Mountains. While the other two-thirds of the mountains make up a Texas state park, Castner Range is a non-contiguous part of Fort Bliss. The area is currently off limits to the public due to decades of use as a live artillery range for anti-tank guns between 1939 and 1966. It was closed to the public because of the threat of unexploded ordnance.
Unexploded ordnance is any type of military ammunition such as mortar shells, grenades and mines that didn’t explode as intended and have the risk of detonating, even years later.
Castner Range is also blanketed in the spring by fields of Mexican golden poppies interspersed with squat barrel cacti. Desert wildlife thrives with more than 100 species calling the area home.
But part of the reason the wildlife area is so pristine is the lack of recreation.
“The big challenge for us, as we all know, is the unexploded ordnance on the property,” Escobar said. “But that is not going to stop us from preserving this important piece of land and history and identity for El Paso.”
That risk has complicated the transfer of Castner Range for decades. Previous efforts to cede the property from the federal government to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department failed in the 1970s and 1980s because of the continued presence of unexploded ordnance, and lean budgets at the state agency. A broad coalition of conservationists, politicians and business leaders pivoted, pursuing federal protection.
Former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, asked the Obama administration to make Castner Range a national monument in 2015. After that effort failed, O’Rourke added a provision to the 2017 federal defense spending bill ensuring road construction or development would not occur in the area in the future. Former President Donald Trump signed the bill in December 2017.
Ángel Peña, the executive director for Nuestra Tierra Conservation project, said in addition to wildlife, the area has historical significance with ceramic pottery sherds from the Pueblo people that date back thousands of years.
He said the meetings with federal Cabinet agencies make him optimistic for the area’s future as a monument, saying it meets criteria the current administration is looking for when it comes to “diversity and inclusion” of sites.
“Our little community of El Paso is finally being heard and seen when it comes to public land and conservation,” Peña said. “We’re very excited to together leverage what this political landscape has to offer.”
While the Army works to remove the explosives, advocates said public land doesn’t mean public access — for now.
“You can have a national monument, even if it’s not open to the public right now,” said Janaé Reneaud Field, the executive director for the local nonprofit land trust Frontera Land Alliance.
Reneaud Field pointed to Fort Ord in Monterrey, California, which still had unexploded ordnance when 7,000 acres was transferred from the U.S. Army to the Bureau of Land Management in 1996 for use as a nature preserve. In 2012, former President Barack Obama made the area a national monument. The Army removed most of the explosives from the protected area and completed remediation in 2020, according to its website. Portions of Fort Ord remain closed to the public.
A report from the U.S. Army Environmental Command in San Antonio said more than 600 potentially dangerous munitions were removed from Castner Range, but work continues.
The Army Environmental Command said that a study that would include the scope, cost and potential solutions will be available in 2023, and additional action on unexploded ordinance would follow.
“The Army is continuing the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund) process at closed Castner Range. The ongoing phase, the feasibility study, is expected to be completed by 2023. The next phases will begin afterwards, culminating with a decision document identifying the remedy in 2025-2026,” Fort Bliss spokesman Gilbert Telles Jr. wrote in an email.
Escobar said she can’t say when the area will be designated a federal landmark.
“I wish I had an easy answer. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” she said.
Cover photo: Tanya Alvarado walks with her daughter Lana, 4, at the public portion of Castner Range. Much of the area was used by Fort Bliss as a former live artillery range, meaning that old munitions still pose a threat. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)