TEXAS VIEW: Castner Range monument preserves, and opens, a scenic wonderland

THE POINT: National monument designation excites scientists and tourists.

Unseen but not unknown, Castner Range represented a hidden treasure in the West Texas town of El Paso.

That is about to change. What was once vivid only in the imagination will now become bright and gleaming in real life. The city cannot wait.

President Joe Biden has designated Castner Range as a national monument, protecting 6,600 acres that were once home to Native American tribes, including Apache and Pueblo peoples. The move has excited both scientists and tourists. It will help facilitate research into important archaeological sites, as well as the geology and wildlife of the area.

“We’re ecstatic about it,” said Eric Pearson, CEO of El Paso Community Foundation, which helped push the designation. “The region is just amazing, and it’s been a big team and a lot of years. And this is the culmination of that. We’re very proud to be here today.”

Biden also declared Avi Kwa Ame, 500,000 acres of land in Nevada considered sacred to Native tribes, to be a national monument. Both designations utilized the 1906 Antiquities Act to preserve national monuments on federal land. The assignations will prevent private development on the lands, while ensuring that the federal government will enact measures to protect the areas.

“It brings me such joy to know that El Pasoans will soon be able to enjoy the beauty of this majestic, expansive landmark for years to come,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said.

While the designation was the product of a community effort decades in the making, the public must wait before it can enjoy the fruits of that labor. The range, a Fort Bliss training site from 1926 to 1966, remains full of unexploded munitions that must be removed. It will make the first time a national monument will be managed by a military branch since the 1930s; the Army and the White House will launch a management plan, including public engagements with Native American tribes, over the next two months.

“Protecting Castner Range is not only protecting our mountains and wildlife, but it’s protecting our history, heritage and our legacy,” Moses Borjas, a conservation advocate who is pastor of Living Covenant Church in El Paso, said in a statement.

Nature is a towering presence in El Paso — literally. The Franklin Mountains bisect the city, from the northeast to the southwest. They stretch from one end of town to the other, 14 miles long, three miles wide, with elevations reaching as high as a mile.

The range lies in the foothills of these mountains, which form an awe-inspiring backdrop. Mexican poppies bloom in the valley during the spring, producing a yellow carpet that seems as bright as the sun. The scene, which most El Pasoans have seen only through photos on the internet, is stunning.

If a simple viewing on the internet evokes such wonder, imagine the majesty of the real thing, Will visitors feel a deep connection to the past, to the awe and reverence Indigenous peoples felt thousands of years ago? Will the land become a conduit to eternity?

“When we conserve our country’s natural gifts, we’re not just protecting the livelihoods of people who depend on them … we’re protecting the heart and the soul of our national pride,” Biden said in his declaration, adding that it is also “telling our story that will be told for generations upon generations to come.”

The president is right. Nature is not mute; it tells a story, a narrative as expressive as the best poetry. As Texans, we recognize the natural beauty of this state, from Big Bend to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park less than two hours from San Antonio. It is up to us, as caretakers of the land, to make sure the beauty — and narrative — are preserved.

San Antonio Express-News