Cover photo: Judy Ackerman
Outside of El Paso, Texas, home to 679,000 people and many large corporations, lies the peaceful 7,081-acre Castner Range. Known for its unique plant life and rock formations, the Castner Range is part of the Chihuahuan Desert in the southwest.
Each spring, bright yellow poppies bloom, bathing the mountains in bright colors. Next to the poppies, prickly pear cacti explode in similarly bright colors. Tan horned lizards and burrowing owls also share this remarkable ecosystem.
Credit: Scott Cutler
Unfortunately, the Castner Range is the only part of the majestic Franklin Mountains not protected by Franklin Mountains State Park. To preserve this ecosystem and expand our access to nature, President Joe Biden should use the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate the Castner Range as a national monument. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited El Paso in March 2022 to meet with local supporters of heritage 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 been in existence since 6000 BC. Around the desert mountains. In 1926, the US military began using the mountains as a weapons testing ground. After the site was closed, control of the mountains was transferred to the City of El Paso in 1974. Since then, the mountains have been closed to people because of the danger of duds. But they were not closed to wildlife, and many species thrived as a result.
Castner Range is home to a variety of unique animal and plant species. The range includes between 60 and 100 bird species. One resident is the long-tailed buzzard, a majestic animal with very large, “distinctive” rusty shoulders and legs and a spectacularly white underside. Mammal species found in the Castner Range include deer, mountain lions, foxes and rabbits. Poppies aren’t the only showy plants on the Castner Range. Another is an intriguing species of cactus called Desert Night Blooming Cereus, which looks more like a flowering plant than a traditional cactus.
Photo Credit: Credit: Ian Davies (Common Buzzard), Desert Mountain Community (Desert Night-Blooming Cereus)
The greatest threats to the Castner Range come from urban expansion. For over 50 years, El Paso residents have stopped attempts to build everything from athletic stadiums to community colleges on or near the mountains. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso native, inserted a section into the National Defense Authorization Act that banned some firing range activities. However, the development was not banned. The mountains are home to 27 species listed as Vulnerable, Threatened, Vulnerable or of Concern (including Northern Buzzards and Desert Cherry). If development succeeds, these species will lose their habitats and face a more uncertain future.
The new national monument would benefit El Paso residents 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 62nd best (out of 100 cities) for access to nature. Over 274,000 residents, 40% of the population, are within walking distance of green spaces. Designation as a national monument for the Castner Range would provide easily accessible recreational opportunities for the local community.
Photo credit: K.Steiner
Many El Pasoans agree that the Castner Range is worthy of federal protection. A group of eight veterans encouraged President Biden to designate it as 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 serves the people of this country for generations to come [as a national monument].”
Local business owners have supported. Postal Solution owner Rose Ortega says, “Castner Range has the ability to create more trails to provide opportunities for citizens to hike, mountain bike, camp, backpack, or take scenic routes to appreciate our city. “
Designating the Castner Range as a National Monument would be a great decision for both the El Paso area and local residents. When President Biden makes that decision, mountain species will thrive and we will have more nature for everyone.
This blog was co-authored by Asha Dhakad, an intern at Environment America