The top third of the photo has clouds and a blue sky. To the left of the frame, halfway down, are mountains. In the bottom third is a field of golden Mexican poppies in bloom.

Mexican poppies bloom during springtime in Castner Range on the eastern part of the Franklin Mountains. Photo by Mark Clune, courtesy of the Frontera Land Alliance.

Among the many things bringing El Pasoans together these days, nature is hardly one of them. A 2018 analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found El Paso had 3 square meters of green space per capita. Compared to Houston’s 3,900 meters per capita, that’s not much.

Among the cities located along the southern border, El Paso ranks as one of the highest for having a deepening “nature gap,” a term used by the Center for American Progress to describe how historically marginalized communities are commonly deprived of access to the outdoors.

However, it could be different in the near future. The news of President Joe Biden designating Castner Range as a national monument last month signifies great changes to come from the long-awaited (and necessary) protection of 6,672 acres of land on the eastern slopes of the Franklin Mountains. Whereas Congress establishes national parks, the 1906 Antiquities Act enables presidents to certify monuments, which are typically smaller spaces but no less important.

“I think there’s an awareness and an education process that’s happening,” says Janaé Reneaud Field, executive director of the Frontera Land Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to protecting natural spaces across El Paso. “A lot of El Paso has developed over the years. You have one development adjacent to another; as that’s happening, corridors and open spaces just weren’t the norm. I could see [the designation] help the community have a mindset change about the outdoors.”

Since 2004, the Frontera Land Alliance has spearheaded the recent efforts of a 52-year battle to federally safeguard Castner Range, an area most emblematic of El Paso’s oft-overlooked ecological and historical significance. Field joined the organization in 2011 to manage a grant received from the Office of Economic Adjustment devoted to exploring different avenues for preserving Castner Range.

“I know one gentleman that was involved way back in the late ’70s, and I know of others that have passed away that were highly dedicated and involved in the effort over the years,” Field says.

Conducting research, hosting volunteer events, and gathering letters of support, the alliance has broadened its horizons by working on other environmentally conscious projects in the area. Still, its focus has always remained on Castner Range.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, reason for protecting the site is its natural beauty. The usual copper tones of the high Chihuahuan Desert are famously disguised by a golden veil of Mexican poppies stretching across Castner Range every spring. When rainfall is most abundant, the entire landscape is transformed into a sweeping sunset of its own kind.

Furthermore, Castner Range serves as a migratory corridor with its high concentration of natural springs supporting a diverse selection of rare and even endangered flora and fauna. It’s not uncommon to see golden eagles or American peregrine falcons soaring overhead, or to find Texas horned lizards scurrying past Sneed pincushion cacti into the cover of creosote bushes.

Castner Range also harbors  the last undeveloped alluvial fan—a triangle-shaped sedimentary deposit—of the Franklin Mountains, making the land vital in recharging the Hueco Bolson Aquifer that helps alleviate the strain of rising temperatures on local water infrastructure.

Beyond its natural wonders and unparalleled beauty, 10,000 years of history are embedded through the limestone formations and steep-sided arroyos of Castner Range. The Franklin Mountains are sacred for various Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples like the Mescalero Apache and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, according to Sebastian Ribas-Normand, director of the El Paso Museum of Archeology.

“It was the Franklin Mountains, and Castner Range included, that was like a refuge for them during their foraging outings,” Ribas-Normand says. “When European settlers arrived, the land was also used as a hideout by the natives. The Apache and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo always speak about the land as their location for where to go for natural supplies, whether it be minerals or plants for medical use. Not only Castner Range but the whole mountain range has significance for all the Native Americans still living in the region.”

Petroglyphs, pottery fragments, pit houses, and different stone tools are among the many remnants unearthed from the 41 archeological sites identified throughout Castner Range, suggesting humans have inhabited the area as far back as 9500-6000 B.C. But older El Pasoans are more familiar with Castner Range as a training facility from 1926 to 1966 under Fort Bliss, the second-largest installation of the U.S. Army.

Because Castner Range is owned by the Department of Defense, it will be the first national monument in over 90 years to be managed by the military rather than a federal agency like the National Park Service. It may seem unconventional, but the Army is best equipped to navigate the biggest challenge Castner Range presents before being fully open to the public.

That challenge is the possibly hundreds of explosive artillery remnants, also known as unexploded ordnance (UXO), permeating the land from its days as a firing range. These hidden munitions have been both a blessing and a curse: While they deter vandals, the process to remove them has undermined previous preservation efforts, such as proposals that would have included the area within the Franklin Mountains State Park. Sweeps to recover the remaining UXO have occurred periodically since the 1970s, but it’s still unclear if potential complications from current remediation could alter any plans for the monument. It’s also why an opening date for the monument is undecided.

A feasibility study being conducted by the Army isn’t expected to conclude until 2025. Results will then determine the best cleanup methods, and then public access to Castner Range will gradually increase in phases.

The wait seems like a small price to pay for the many benefits of preserving Castner Range. Numerous trails and other outdoor amenities are envisioned for the monument. Those eager for a glimpse of what’s to come don’t have to wait. The El Paso Museum of Archeology sits on land originally part of Castner Range and hosts the annual Poppies Festival in March. The museum also maintains a 0.6-mile Chihuahuan Desert Trail for visitors to enjoy the same scenery that they’ll soon find on a grander scale inside the national monument.

“The monument will help people realize that spaces like these are protected for and by the community,” Field says. “As we’re looking forward and doing the planning and programming, educating others will help convey the importance and significance of being respectful of this land for its culture and history. Hopefully it will get more people outdoors, too.”

The March 2024 cover of Texas Highways Magazine

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