President Biden declared El Paso’s Castner Range a national monument on Tuesday, capping years of efforts by political and environmental leaders to protect the former Army training range from development, the White House announced.
“The people of El Paso have fought to protect this for 50 years. Their work has finally paid off,” Biden said in announcing the monument designation during the White House Conservation in Action Summit.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso was present at the announcement. “Today’s historic announcement has been decades in the making. Generations of activists have dedicated countless hours and resources toward achieving this once seemingly impossible goal. It brings me such joy to know that El Pasoans will soon be able to enjoy the beauty of this majestic, expansive landmark for years to come,” she said in a statement.
Richard Teschner, a retired University of Texas at El Paso professor who has been involved in Castner Range preservation efforts for more than 50 years, said Biden’s announcement “is proof once again that ceaseless well-planned action can finally reap its reward.”
The Castner Range National monument will be managed by the Army, the first time a national monument will be managed by the military since national battlefields were transferred to the National Park Service in the 1930s, the White House said.
Maj. Gen. James Isenhower III, the commander of Fort Bliss and the 1st Armored Division, said the public won’t see immediate changes with the monument designation because remediation efforts are needed to clear unexploded military ordnance in the area.
“It will be a years-long process where we eventually garner more access so that others can enjoy Castner Range safely,” Isenhower said at a media briefing Tuesday
The monument designation “is a testament to the perseverance of our community in asking for Castner Range to be preserved as a national monument,” said Eric Pearson, CEO of the El Paso Community Foundation, part of a partnership of community groups advocating for the monument. “EPCF’s commitment has been more than a decade in the effort, but our work is in the shadow of the real leadership of many people, including Richard Teschner and especially Judy Ackerman. I am personally so sorry that Judy could not be with us.”
Ackerman, an Army veteran and one of the key champions of preserving Castner Range, died in November.
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, also saluted Ackerman’s role. O’Rourke had unsuccessfully pressed President Obama to declare Castner Range a national monument.
Among the organizations pushing for national monument status were Frontera Land Alliance, Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, Hispanic Access Foundation, Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition and Conservation Lands Foundation.
The president today also is expected to declare a national monument of 500,000 acres around Avi Kwa Ame, a sacred tribal site in Nevada. The designations were first reported by the New York Times.
Biden invoked authority in the 1906 Antiquities Act to establish national monuments on existing federal land. The national monument designation prevents development on such lands and obligates the federal government to take a number of protective measures.
Biden’s announcement will protect more than 6,600 acres of historic and environmentally sensitive land in Northeast El Paso that is the site of a Mexican golden poppy bloom each spring.
Castner Range was used as an Army training site from 1926 to 1966 and still is littered by unexploded ordnance. The federal government created a national monument at a similar site at Fort Ord, California, in 2012.
Preservationists have sought to protect Castner Range for years, but over the past decade the effort has focused on getting a presidential designation of a national monument.
Castner Range has been home to the Apache and Pueblo peoples and the Comanche Nation, the Hopi Tribe, and Kiowa Indian Tribe of Oklahoma, the White House said. The range contains more than 40 known archeological sites including living structures, hearths, remnants of pottery and other tools, as well as a myriad of petroglyphs and images.
The White House announcement said the Army, which in the past has resisted the national monument designation for Castner Range, “will commence a land management planning process with robust public engagement in the next 60 days.”
Isenhower, the Fort Bliss commander, said it will probably take the Army 12 to 18 months to develop a stewardship plan for Castner Range. Although this will be the first time in almost 90 years that the Army has managed a national monument, the military has deep experience in managing public lands, he said.
“One of the things that Forces Command is always concerned with is to make sure that it doesn’t affect our ability to project force or power project from Fort Bliss and El Paso if the nation calls, given our requirement to defend the nation’s interests. So we’ll balance that,” Isenhower said. “But I think we’ve got plenty of precedent over time where the military has stewarded responsibly public lands, and we’re going to use that example to figure out the right way to do this over the course of the next year or two.”
The White House said the Army will work with tribes and the community to secure public access to the monument in phases, as it is safe and appropriate.
Disclosure: El Paso Community Foundation and Richard Teschner are financial supporters of El Paso Matters.