It’s been a year since calls for preserving Castner Range as a national monument “were closer than ever,” an effort advocates say it is even closer now with the support of a top military official — despite the expected years-long process of cleaning the munitions littering this part of the Chihuahuan desert.

U.S. Army Under Secretary Gabe Camarillo visited the area for the first time Tuesday since being sworn in in February. The El Paso native pledged to complete the cleanup of unexploded ordnance left behind when this land was used as weapons testing ground.

“As long as it takes, the Army will maintain responsibility for ensuring that the area gets cleaned up,” Camarillo said.

Camarillo was joined by U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, who has continued the five-decade fight to prevent development on the more than 7,000 acres of U.S. Army-owned land that make up Castner Range.

Escobar said she “remains hopeful” that Castner Range will become a national monument through either legislative efforts or through presidential power. She has urged President Joe Biden to designate the area a national monument using the powers vested to him in the 1906 Antiquities Act — a call she repeated Tuesday.

Camarillo acknowledged the significant community support, saying it’s a factor that the Biden administration will consider as it reviews potential national monument sites. Such places are set aside and maintained by the government for public use for their historic or conservation value. 

“The community here in El Paso is galvanized behind the conservation mission here at Castner Range,” Camarillo said. “And they’re absolutely committed to making sure that it’s protected for many, many generations for public enjoyment.

“As much as we can, we’re doing our part to be a part of those efforts.”

Castner Range, on the northeastern slope of the Franklin Mountains, is largely off-limits to the public due to hazards from the military’s testing of anti-tank weapons there from 1939 until 1966.

Unexploded ordnance — military ammunition such as mortar shells, grenades and mines that misfired or didn’t explode — have the risk of detonating, even decades later.

The lack of development and human encroachment provides a haven for the 100-plus species of desert wildlife, from barrel cacti and ocotillo to javelinas, deer and lizards.

Camarillo told El Paso Matters he could not provide a firm timeline of when the area would be safe for public access. The Army is still cataloging the extent of the munitions, which will be finished by fiscal year 2024. Actual cleanup is expected to stretch for years.

State or local officials are currently not required to pitch in on funding the cleanup, Camarillo said, but added that until the Army’s environmental remediation plan is developed, the costs are unknown.

Escobar reiterated that federal protection for Castner Range could come before the land is cleaned, pointing to Fort Ord in Marina, California, which still requires cleanup of munitions and groundwater contamination. Fort Ord was made a national monument in 2012 during the Obama administration.

The unexploded ordnance has long complicated Castner Range’s conservation and management. Efforts to cede the property to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which manages neighboring Franklin Mountains State Park, failed in the 1970s and 1980s due to state budget cuts and the danger the munitions posed to the public. The coalition of conservationists, politicians and businesses pivoted to asking for federal protection.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke asked the Obama administration for national monument status, much like Fort Ord. In 2017, O’Rourke added a provision to the National Defense Authorization Act to prevent future development on the land.

Similarly, Escobar added an amendment for Castner Range in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act to expand the Secretary of the Army’s ability to give Castner Range to state officials or, if the act is approved, to the Department of the Interior.

Signs warn of unexploded ordinance on Castner Range on the eastern slopes of the Franklin Mountains. The U.S. Army used the area as a live ammunition firing range for anti-tank guns for decades. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

In recent weeks, members from organizations pushing for conservation, such as the nonprofit Frontera Land Alliance, as well as members of Escobar’s staff, met with Department of the Interior and Department of Defense officials.

The unprecedented talks are a good sign, said Janaé Reneaud Field, the executive director of the Frontera Land Alliance.

“I don’t know how close we are. But I can say that with every conversation we get closer and closer,” Reneaud Field said.

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New...