On Tuesday, March 21, 2023 President Joe Biden used the 1906 Antiquities Act to declare El Paso’s Castner Range a national monument. This brought success to a campaign begun 52 years ago to conserve the 7,081-acre property, which contains twenty-five percent of El Paso’s six-peak Franklin Mountains Range.
Most of the rest of the peaks—whose highest reaches 7,192 feet and marks the western boundary of Castner Range—also lie within the boundaries of the Franklin Mountains State Park, surrounded entirely by the municipality of El Paso and easily accessible to El Pasoans, 85 percent of whom are Hispanic.
Castner Range National Monument
Photo by Mark Clune
In 1926, the Castner Range property was purchased by the United States Army as an addition to its enormous Fort Bliss military base, El Paso’s largest employer. Castner Range—named after Brigadier General Joseph Compton Castner, Commanding General of Fort Bliss at the time—was used as a live artillery-training facility until 1966, when El Paso’s neighborhoods began to grow in the vicinity. Since 1966, Castner Range has been officially off-limits to the public, given the subsurface and even the on-surface presence of MECs (munitions and explosions of concern) and UXOs (unexploded ordnance’ from the Range’s artillery-training days.
In 1979, the Texas legislature created the Franklin Mountains State Park, which gave rise to a campaign to make Castner Range a part of it, but a third of a century later the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (which owns and runs state parks) decided it would only annex the Range if all its MECs and UXOs were first cleared away. Hence our national monument campaign, which met with success largely because of the efforts of the Frontera Land Alliance, the El Paso area’s only 501(c)3 nationally-accredited land conservation organization, its Executive Director Janaé Reneaud Field, its President Scott M. Cutler, and the El Paso Community Foundation (Eric Pearson, Executive Director/President). El Paso’s three-term Congresswoman Veronica Escobar (TX-16) played a key role at the federal level. Her strong connections with both the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior and whose membership on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus contributed greatly to her and our success. Representative Escobar has built upon the national monument campaign effectively energized by then-U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke, who introduced the first Castner Range National Monument bill in 2016.
The poppies of Castner Range
Photo by Mark Clune
Throughout our region, Castner Range is best known for “the poppies,” the argemone Mexicana flowers that bloom every spring, profusely after strong winter rains. El Paso lies in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert where the average annual rainfall is eight inches. Castner Range is also home to the following threatened species: the Sneed’s Pincushion Cactus (Escobaria [Coryphantha] sneedii), the Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) and the Chihuahuan Desert Lyre Snake (Trimorphodon vilkinsoni). Also found on Castner Range are Agave Lechuguilla, Ocotillo, Southwestern Barrel Cactus, Sotol, Texas Sacahuista, Pricklypear, Desert Willow, Texas Rainbow Cactus, and many others. Hundreds of animal species call the Range their home, including walking desert tarantula, scorpions, millipedes, several species of beetles and several dozen reptiles including the Greater Earless Lizard, the Great Plains Skink, the Chihuahuan Spotted Whiptail, the Trans-Pecos Rat Snake, and the Western Coachwhip. Birds include the Greater Roadrunner, the Cactus Wren, and the Canyon Towhee.
Following the precedent set by California’s Fort Ord National Monument, the Castner Range National Monument will open up to public access those parts of the Range that have been cleared of MECs and UXOs. The public can hike on yet-to-be-constructed trails, which will mostly connect with the already-built Franklin Mountains State Park trails. As is true of Fort Ord, the uncleared parts of the Range will remain off-limits.
Richard Teschner, a native of Milwaukee, is now a Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Spanish at the University of Texas-El Paso., where he’s taught since 1976. Over the last twenty years he’s been active in local land conservation and—since 2008—in the recently-successful campaign to make Castner Range a national monument. By hiring a lobbyist, he was instrumental in the Texas Legislature’s allocation of several million dollars for a new Franklin Mountains State Park visitors center and headquarters. For his activities and donations, Richard has received awards from the City of El Paso such as the Conquistador, the Star on the Mountain, and the Lifetime Achievement of the El Paso Environmental Services Department.