Cover Photo Credit: Judy Ackerman
Outside El Paso, Texas, home to 679,000 people and many large businesses, sits the peaceful 7,081-acre Castner Range. Known for its unique plants and rock formations, Castner Range is part of the Southwest's Chihuahuan Desert.
Every spring, bright yellow poppies bloom, blanketing the mountains in vivid color. Alongside the poppies, sand prickly pear cacti explode into similarly bright colors. Light brown horned lizards and burrowing owls share this remarkable ecosystem as well.
Photo Credit: Scott Cutler
Unfortunately, Castner Range is the only part of the majestic Franklin Mountains that is not protected by the Franklin Mountains State Park. To conserve this ecosystem and expand our access to nature, President Joe Biden should use the authority provided by the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate Castner Range as a national monument. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited El Paso in March 2022 to meet with local supporters of the monument designation, a promising sign that the administration is considering taking action to preserve the Castner Range.
Indigenous communities, most recently the Comanche and Apache Nations, have lived around the desert mountains since 6000 B.C. By 1926 the U.S. military began using the range as a weapons testing site. After the site closed down, control of the mountains was transferred to the city of El Paso in 1974. The mountains have been off-limits to humans ever since because of the danger posed by unexploded ordnances. But they have not been off-limits to wildlife and, as a result, many species have thrived.
Castner Range is the home of a variety of special animals and plant species. The range contains between 60 and 100 species of birds. One inhabitant is the ferruginous hawk, a regal animal with very large, "distinctive" rusty shoulders and legs and a spectacularly white underside. The mammal species living in the Castner Range include deer, mountain lions, foxes and rabbits. Poppies are not the only striking plants on Castner Range. Another is a fascinating type of cactus called the desert night-blooming cereus, which looks more like a flowering plant than a traditional cactus.
Photo credits: Credit: Ian Davies (ferruginous hawk), Desert Mountain Community (desert night-blooming cereus)
The largest threats to Castner Range come from expanding urban development. For over 50 years, El Pasoans have stopped attempts to build everything from sports stadiums to community colleges on or near the mountains. Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, an El Paso native, included a section in the National Defense Authorization Act that banned a few activities on the range. However, development has not been outlawed. There are 27 species living on the mountains that are considered endangered, threatened, sensitive or of concern (including ferruginous hawks and desert night-blooming cereuses). If development succeeds, then these species will lose their habitats, facing a more uncertain future.
The new national monument would benefit El Pasoans by providing them with more nature in their hometown. El Paso is the 22nd-largest US city and one of the fastest-growing. However, the Trust for Public Lands ranked it as 62nd-best (out of 100 cities) for access to the outdoors. Over 274,000 residents, 40% of the population, are not within walking distance of green spaces. A national monument designation for Castner Range would provide easy-to-access recreational opportunities for the local community.
Photo Credit: K. Steiner
Many El Pasoans agree that Castner Range is worthy of federal protection. A group of eight veterans have encouraged President Biden to declare it a national monument. One of them, Paul Eaton, says, "The land has served us well over the centuries [as a military site], and it’s time to make sure it continues to serve the people of this country for generations to come [as a national monument]."
Owners of local businesses have been supportive. Rose Ortega, the owner of the Postal Solution, says, "Castner Range has the ability to create more trails to walk, to create opportunities for citizens to go hike, mountain bike, camp, backpack, or take scenic routes to appreciate our city."
The designation of Castner Range as a national monument would be a great decision for both El Paso’s environment and local residents. If President Biden makes this decision, the species living in the mountains will thrive and we will have more nature for everyone to enjoy.
This blog was co-authored by Environment America Intern Asha Dhakad