Rising above El Paso in west Texas, the Franklin Mountains hold cultural and historical significance for surrounding communities, with archaeological resources including rock art, stone foundations, and bedrock mortars for grinding grain and other food. The mountains also offer ecological and economic value by conserving vital water resources and providing habitat for rare and endangered Chihuahuan Desert wildlife, along with myriad outdoor recreation opportunities. Today, two-thirds of the mountains are safeguarded as the Franklin Mountains State Park, but the rest—known simply as Castner Range—remains unprotected.
For more than 50 years, members of the local community have advocated at all levels of government for conservation of this range and access to the lands for recreation and cultural uses. Now, a diverse group of supporters—including local elected officials, Indigenous leaders, veterans, area business owners, faith leaders, and community groups—are urging President Joe Biden to designate this approximately 7,000-acre area as the Castner Range National Monument. Aside from securing the benefits mentioned above, national monument designation would advance environmental justice and promote equitable access to nature. It would also help address climate change—protected natural areas sequester and store more carbon than developed areas do—and allow the land to continue to collect and filter precipitation, which local communities rely on for drinking water.
Safeguarding Castner Range as a national monument would also facilitate important cultural and ecological landscape connections for the world’s largest binational, or cross-border, community—more than 2 million people, with more than 25 million yearly crossings between El Paso and the neighboring Mexican city, Ciudad Juarez.
And the designation would also safeguard cultural sites and practices dating back 10,000 years, increase the representation of Latino heritage sites in U.S. protected areas, and honor the land’s military legacy.
During the last century, Castner Range was used for military training. Although that has waned, some of the range’s lands are still part of Fort Bliss and remain closed to the public. Other parts of Castner Range have been included in various proposed development plans that would threaten the range’s natural, cultural, and economic value.
The community-proposed monument designation would transfer the range to the federal Bureau of Land Management and bring about the restoration and conservation of the landscape, which in turn would benefit wildlife, preserve cultural objects, boost the outdoor recreation economy, and protect open space—with its associated health benefits for those living in developed areas in the region.
This February, eight retired senior military officers sent a letter to President Biden, asking that he designate Castner as a national monument. They wrote, “This move would ensure military and cultural heritage sites, endangered species, scientific and environmental wonders, and an awe-inspiring landscape are permanently protected. Moreover, a national monument designation of Castner Range … would benefit marginalized communities, specifically [I]ndigenous and Latino peoples. These communities have been paramount to our military’s success but disproportionately bear the brunt of climate impacts and traditionally have less access to nature” than do White people in the U.S.
Conserving Castner Range is also an investment in the El Paso economy, because national monument designations have been shown to boost local business and job creation in the West. As Rose Ortega, vice president of the Northeast Business Alliance, noted in an opinion piece in the El Paso Times, a 2018 study found that southern New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument helped boost the local economy there in the prior year by $1.7 million in spending and more than $500,000 in wages related to monument visitors. “Preserving Castner Range in perpetuity for the public is about more than conservation,” Ortega wrote. “The case for Castner also comes down to dollars and cents.”
Moses Borjas, senior pastor of Living Covenant Church in El Paso, believes it’s important to leave a natural legacy for future generations. He shared his thoughts in January in his own opinion piece in the El Paso Times, in which he wrote, “One small step, like protecting Castner Range, can cause a big impact. It's like a mustard seed that looks so small but can grow into a big tree where birds nest and lay their eggs and families come to enjoy the shade.”
The broad group supporting designation of Castner Range National Monument represents varied interests. But the supporters agree that these mountains are an integral part of both the history and the future of their community and deserve federal protection.
John Seebach is a project director and Jackie Feinberg is a principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.