By Richard Teschner
For the last 10 years, El Pasoans working to conserve Castner Range have focused on getting the federal government to declare the range a national monument, just like the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks monument surrounding Las Cruces.
Castner’s 7,081 acres are owned by Fort Bliss, but geographically separated from it. From 1926-1966, Castner was a live-arms firing area where soldiers were trained to shoot different types of munitions. Closed down in 1966 as our city grew around it on three sides, Castner has long been the focus of folks who want to build things there. Indeed, in the early 1970s 1,230 acres of the range were simply transferred to developers, both public (the city of El Paso, El Paso Independent School District, El Paso Community College, University of Texas at El Paso) and private (for homes, stores, restaurants, etc.).
Since then, even more of the range has been developed by government agencies – a 12-acre Texas Department of Transportation lot (and, right next to it, a 14-acre Border Patrol post) plus the city of El Paso’s Museum of Archaeology on Transmountain Road. Efforts to build even more city facilities on Transmountain (such as the old Cohen Stadium) were successfully opposed by the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition, and a combined city/private industry attempt to erect a high-tech office park on the eastern 28% of the range was defeated in March 2006 by an energetic public campaign.
Ever since the Franklin Mountains State Park was authorized by the Texas Legislature in 1979, it was understood that Castner Range could become a part of the park. This was supported by the Legislature’s authorizing document. It stated that the park’s boundaries would not include any other property “except for two tracts, the Castner Range and … the McMath Survey (to the west of the Park).”
Supporting that was what the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Franklin Mountains State Park Management Plan (1994) wrote: The TPWD “will pursue the option of transferring the Castner Range to the State of Texas as a part of Franklin Mountains State Park.” And see the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center report’s recommendation (1998) that the Castner site “be transferred to the State of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for an annex to the Franklin Mountains State Park.”
But there was a hitch: MECs (‘munitions and explosives of concern’) and UXOs (‘unexploded ordnance’), mostly beneath the surface. Thus the 1994 management plan wrote: “The issue of unexploded ordnance must be addressed before any portion of Castner Range can be transferred to the State for use as a state park.”
To put that hitch to rest, in early 2013 Castner Range conservers asked TPWD this question: “Could you once again affirm that TPWD would be happy to accept Castner Range into its state park system when the opportunity arose?” Here is then-Director of TPWD’s Parks Division Brent Leisure’s answer: “(S)ome or all of (Castner Range) would be an appropriate addition to the state park if and when (the MECs and UXOs) have been completely cleared and removed from the site.” And on two subsequent occasions (2017, 2019), TPWD’s response was the same.
For the last 12 years, I’ve sat on the Fort Bliss Restoration Advisory Board, which now meets annually. RADs are required by federal law to oversee military lands contaminated by MECs and UXOs among other hazards. After years of denying there were any precedents for making Castner Range a national monument, our RAD’s federal representatives have finally admitted that a site named “the Fort Ord National Monument” near Monterey on the central California coast might indeed be a precedent.
In 1994, the huge Fort Ord Army base was totally shut down, mainly because decades of neglect had contaminated the base’s underground water supply. And while the closed-down Fort Ord simply languished for years, residents and tourists began going there – illegally – to hike and bike, despite the presence of MECs and UXOs beneath the surface of 50% of the Fort Ord land. (Just like Castner Range.)
By 2004, a local movement to conserve the Fort Ord land had begun. And in April 2012, that movement succeeded when President Barack Obama used the 1904 Antiquities Act to declare Fort Ord to be a national monument.
So what’s the Fort Ord National Monument like nowadays? I was invited to spend a day there in July 2015, and I’ve stayed in touch with its personnel since then. Info from several websites – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Ord and https://www.fortordcleanup.com among others – repeats what I observed in person: Roughly the western half of the monumentis “currently closed to the public—munition hazards” and is called the “U.S. Army Managed Portion of (the) National Monument” in documents.
It remains off-limits to visitors because it’s the part of the base that contains the most MECs and UXOs, now identified and carefully removed by private firms such as those who’ve been studying Castner Range for the last 25 years. These firms would continue their work on Castner.
But what about direct military presence? To quote the website, “a small portion of the former Fort Ord still remains under U.S. Army control, originally called the Presidio of Monterey Annex. It is now called the Ord Military Community …” And one more quote: “The military is still present at Fort Ord, in the form of several California Army National Guard units, facilities administered by the Presidio of Monterey, the Defense Manpower Data Center, and the continued operation of the base Army and Airforce Exchange Service PX and a Commissary catering to the active duty military stationed in the Monterey area as well as reservists, national guardsmen, and military retirees. …”
So if – finally – Castner Range becomes a national monument, the Army will not cease to play a role. The Army will not lose jobs; it will not lose federal appropriations; it will never lose influence, since it’s required by federal statute to retain a presence on all contaminated former military land even after it ceases to play a military role.
Now what about the U.S. federal government in general? As a national monument, Castner Range would be under the aegis of the Bureau of Land Management, a component of the federal Department of the Interior. And a transfer from Army to Interior is a transfer from one federal entity to another, easier to achieve than a federal-to-state transfer would be.
So who gains by the creation of a Castner Range National Monument? We El Pasoans do!
A quarter of the Franklin Mountains lie within the boundaries of Castner Range. Thousands of El Pasoans already hike in our beautiful Franklin Mountains State Park. Think of all the extra hiking we would get once MEC- and UXO-free trails were created on the range!
And think of the joy we’d experience, seeing those beautiful poppies close up, and not just from driving on Transmountain Road!
And then there’s the pride we would feel by knowing that conserving Castner Range protects many millennia of history and culture, and the honor we would feel by knowing we’d conserved a big part of Planet Earth, right here in our city.
Richard Teschner is a professor emeritus of language and linguistics at the University of Texas at El Paso and a member of the Castner Range National Monument Committee.