Consider El Paso from above. Consider it from, say, the perspective of a golden eagle, a winter resident of the Chihuahuan Desert. His seven-foot wingspan holds him aloft as he gazes down at this city of almost 700,000. What he would see, if he were interested in human affairs, is a sprawling desert city arranged along a valley where a river struggles to survive. He would note how El Paso spreads ever outward along its highways, gobbling up the desert eastward into far West Texas and northward toward the New Mexico state line. Our eagle would soar over Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, which sits facing El Paso on the south slope of the Rio Grande. From above, Juárez is distinguishable by its impressive density—it’s more than twice the population of its sister city, yet it occupies a much smaller area. Everywhere, the eagle would see buildings and highways and other made things. Everywhere, that is, except for a blankness in the heart of El Paso, a mountain spine running 14 miles south from New Mexico, almost to downtown. These are the Franklin Mountains, and they are largely protected by the 27,000-acre Franklin Mountains State Park, the largest urban park in the lower 48. El Paso is the only city in Texas with its own mountain range. Them’s bragging rights.
In Texas, the fight to protect public land is almost always a tough one, and that’s been especially true in the case of the Franklin Mountains. The state park opened in 1987, saved from development by decades of activism on the part of conservation- and civic-minded El Pasoans. Now some of those same forces are asking President Joe Biden to preserve one of the last remaining pieces of open space in El Paso by designating it a national monument. This seven-thousand-acre tract is called Castner Range, and it too appears in the eagle’s eye as a blank space amid urban sprawl, a rectangle that encompasses part of the eastern slope of the Franklins and the flat basin below. Locally, the land may be best known for its profusion of Mexican poppies, golden-yellow flowers that bloom each spring in a dazzling display. But the poppies are just one of many natural wonders in Castner Range. The land also contains archaeological sites dating back more than 10,000 years, rare springs that provide water for wildlife, and some of the region’s last intact alluvial fans—geological features that mark eons of erosion and promote recharge to the Hueco-Mesilla Bolsons Aquifer.
As with the state park, the effort to protect and open Castner goes back decades. The Department of Defense owns the land, which has been part of Fort Bliss since 1926. Castner Range has only been spared from development because of unexploded ordnance left over from the forty-year period—from 1926 to 1966—when the Army used the land as an artillery range. But these mortar shells and other munitions have also kept the area largely closed to the public, for obvious reasons. Step on a piece of UXO, as it’s known in military parlance, and you might lose a leg or your life. Cleaning up the UXO is an expensive, time-consuming, and ongoing process. In the early seventies, the Army declared the Castner tract to be “excess” land, conveying more than 1,200 acres to the city of El Paso, which in turn sold off parcels for development. El Pasoans have spent the intervening years arguing over what to do with the remaining 7,000 acres. Conservationists have proposed various options, including making Castner part of the state park or conveying the land to a nonprofit. None of those efforts panned out.
A few years ago, though, El Pasoans watched their neighbors achieve a similar environmental victory, and they decided to try to follow that model. In 2014, President Obama designated a new national monument just north of El Paso. The Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument is a quartet of mountain ranges around Las Cruces, New Mexico. The Organ Mountains, one of the four, are almost contiguous with the Franklin Mountains, forming an important wildlife corridor for deer, mountain lions, and javelina. The 2014 designation was an aha moment for El Paso conservationists, said Janae’ Reneaud Field, the executive director of the Frontera Land Alliance: “The Organ Mountains did it; why can’t we do it?” But eight years later, they’re still trying. Thus the latest push to try to get Biden to take executive action to designate Castner Range as a national monument. Doing so would protect the land forever and also provide a pathway for cleaning up the UXO, developing hiking trails and other amenities, and eventually throwing open the doors to the public.
It could also help close what researchers call a “nature gap”—the uneven distribution of access to nature within and among communities. El Paso, with its diminishing open spaces, is a national nature-gap hot spot. A recent study found that 90 percent of Latinos and almost 95 percent of low-income communities in the area around Castner Range are nature-deprived. Even with a large state park in the area, many families can’t afford the entrance fees, or are seeking easier access. (Franklin Mountains State Park is rugged, offering little in the way of flat ground, unlike Castner.)
Moses Borjas, an El Paso pastor involved with the faith-based Por la Creación, says he sees Castner Range as a way to rekindle an interest in nature and the outdoors among the binational region’s Mexican and Mexican American community. Borjas fondly recalls spending time with his father, an immigrant from Zacatecas, Mexico, in the arroyos and hilltops around El Paso, many of which are no longer accessible to the public. Now he wants to make sure future generations, Latino ones in particular, have the same opportunities to enjoy what he sees as God’s creation.
“My dad would always tell me, and I’m going to quote him in Spanish, he says, ‘Hijo, el futuro va a llegar’—son, the future will come. So today is very important in how we are going to sow the seeds of goodness for the future.”
In July, the Castner Range Coalition, an alliance that includes Hispanic-focused groups such as Por la Creación and Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, traveled to Washington, D.C., to plead its case. The coalition members met with officials from the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior and delivered a petition with more than 137,000 signatures to the Biden administration.
Reneaud Field expresses frustration and confusion about why El Paso has been snubbed. Organ Mountains isn’t alone, she points out. President Obama opened 29 new monuments and expanded 5 more during his two terms in office. One of those is another former military site with UXO issues—California’s Fort Ord National Monument, which Obama designated in 2012. And when Biden announced his first national monument in October, it was a former Army training facility deep in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Arizona and California each have 18 national monuments; Texas has a paltry 2. Why can’t we get some love?
Unlike with many other environmental battles, there are no powerful forces—private landowners, wealthy corporations, or unfriendly legislators—trying to stop Castner Range from becoming a nature sanctuary. “We’re just not getting any opposition,” Reneaud Field says. “We haven’t had any for fifty-one years!” Yet “we keep noticing that this community is passed up over and over and over again for the national monument. . . . Why are we not seeing this land preserved for this community, for this region?”
Reneaud Field and Borjas wonder if it has something to do with El Paso’s identity as a majority-Hispanic border city, as well as its political and geographic isolation. El Paso, the second-largest city in the U.S. with a Hispanic majority, is closer to Phoenix than Austin, and it often seems to have more in common, culturally, with Juárez and New Mexico than with the rest of the state. Its congressional delegation consists of one representative, Democrat Veronica Escobar, among Texas’s 38 members. El Paso often has to fight for what other areas take for granted. The state park, which opened to the public in 1987, didn’t get a visitors center until 2019.
Reneaud Field and her counterparts believe they’ve made their case. Now they just want the Biden administration to take action. “It is just time, you know,” she says. “There’s just no other reason to keep delaying.”