By Laurence Gibson, El Paso Group chair
On Dec. 12, President Trump signed a provision to permanently protect Castner Range in El Paso’s Franklin Mountains into law.
El Paso’s U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who introduced the act, called it a monumental victory for those who have worked decades to preserve the “crown jewel of West Texas.”
The provision is a big deal – it saves a huge piece of land from commercialization, giving El Paso a very visible green belt on its east side to be enjoyed by all. Hopefully, we’ll be hiking there soon.
El Paso is divided by the nation’s largest urban park, running along the west side of the Franklin Mountains, created by Sierrans and other hardworking environmentalists 40 years ago. The northeast side of the mountains is another story, with the Mountain Park residential area at the north end and Government Hills on the south. In between lies the ugly Cemex quarry still eating away at our Franklins, and the 7,081-acre Castner Range sweeping from the heights all the way down to U.S. 54.
Really, this land had the ultimate in protection: a random sprinkling of unexploded ordnance left behind after the Army stopped target practice there. It was off limits to all.
Nevertheless, developers and chamber-of-commerce types drooled at the prospect of buying pieces of it to “grow El Paso.” Several years ago funding was finally approved to study clearing the unexploded ordnance from this beautiful land that blooms with yellow poppies most every spring. Then finally the clearing operation began in early 2017, and with it the clamor for land sales along U.S. 54.
El Pasoans turned out by the thousands, overflowing meetings to show the Army we wanted to preserve the beautiful poppy fields and roadless slopes leading up to the crest of the Franklins. We thought perhaps Obama would give us a National Monument designation in the waning months of his presidency. But word was the Department of Defense wanted to keep the land.
So last spring, Rep. O’Rourke cleverly inserted protection for the land into this year’s National Defense Authorization Act. Naturally, the president signed it, no National Monument stigma to raise his ire. The provision prevents commercial enterprise, roads, use of vehicles and the construction of buildings on the land.
“Today’s environmental win ensures Castner is preserved for all El Pasoans, Texans and Americans to enjoy,” O’Rourke said, “Further, it preserves an important former military training facility – a reflection of El Paso’s strong relationship to Fort Bliss and its longstanding military and veterans’ community.”