Letter to Representative Beto O’Rourke
We appreciate your efforts to ensure that Castner Range is conserved with public access to areas determined to be safe from an explosive safety perspective. Given your tireless efforts to work with your constituents on this important issue, we wanted to provide a short summary of some of the work that has been done or is currently underway…
In El Paso, Texas there is a community effort to make Castner Range a National Monument. The Frontera Land Alliance, Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition and El Paso Community Foundation are leading this effort. We also are asking President Obama to declare Castner Range as a national monument through the Antiquities Act. Efforts are under way collecting local support from individuals, groups, business, veteran groups, to show a diverse community support and desire to conserve this land in perpetuity. Castner Range has significant ancient rock imagery sites, ancient cultural deposits, and historic military sites that are located on the 7,000 acre Castner Range at Fort Bliss in El Paso Texas. We now have an opportunity to protect these sites through creation of a new national monument. The goal is to establish Castner Range as a national monument so that it will be protected in perpetuity. Castner Range has exceptional scientific, cultural, ecological, geological, water ways and historical values. To learn more see the following report: Castner Range National Monument.
The Mountain Range
The Mountain Range: The Franklin Mountain Range contains six peaks: its highest—North Franklin—rises 7,192 feet above sea level. The Franklins begin east of downtown El Paso and just north of Interstate 10. Two thirds of the mountains, which run 17 miles north to the New Mexico state line, are conserved within the 40-sq.-mile Franklin Mountains State Park, created from mostly private property by the Texas Legislature in 1979 after 16 months of El Paso City Council negotiations. (The FMSP is America’s only state park surrounded by a municipality.) The remaining third of the Franklins are within the 7,081-acre/11-square-mile Castner Range, whose long western boundary is the State Park’s eastern boundary for several miles. The Range is a non-contiguous part of Fort Bliss, which with the Army’s adjacent White Sands Missile Range constitutes—at more than 4,900 square miles—the largest military base in the United States. El Paso lies at the far western end of Texas and borders Ciudad Juárez, Mexico on the south and the state of New Mexico on the west and north. Located entirely within the 140,000-square-mile Chihuahuan Desert, El Paso’s climate is dry (annual rainfall 8”) with mild winters, windy springs, hot summers and temperate autumns. The Franklin Mountains rise from the desert and the views from—and of—them are spectacular, especially on the broad alluvial plain at the eastern end of the Range and just beyond, the working-class “Northeast” neighborhoods.
The Military Presence: Between 1926 and 1966, the Department of the Army used Castner Range for the live firing of small arms, assault weapons and field and air-defense artillery. By 1966 the City of El Paso had grown around the southern and eastern boundaries of the Range, which was then closed off to further military use except for the small “Vietnam Village” close-combat training area (1966-1971). In 1969, the state completed Transmountain Road (TX Loop 375), which runs east and west through the Franklin Mountains and Castner Range connecting I-10 to the US 54 Patriot Freeway. Seventeen acres of Castner Range land were transferred in 1971 to the Department of the Interior and then to the City of El Paso and are the site, today, of the City’s Museum of Archaeology and the privately-owned and -operated Border Patrol Museum. Construction of a new Franklin Mountains State Park Visitor Center/Headquarters will begin on this City land in 2016. The far southeastern corner of Castner Range is home to a Texas Department of Transportation maintenance yard, a 45-acre Homeland Security Border Patrol station and the Northgate Retention Dam. Since the 1970s local environmentalists have turned back all attempts to build an arena, a stadium, a high-tech park and other commercial developments on the Range. In 1971 the Department of the Army sold 1,247 acres east of the freeway to the City of El Paso, which retained some land for parks and schools and sold the rest to the County, the Community College district and to developers for subdivisions and commercial zones.)
Potential for Public Access Paradise: Thanks to its 40 years of use as a live artillery range, Castner is home to more than just a small amount of OE (‘ordnance and explosives’). For that reason, Castner Range has always been closed to the public. However, the immediately-adjacent Franklin Mountains State Park (FMSP) boasts over 100 miles of hiking and biking trails, 14 tenting sites, five RV sites, two group-camp areas and two designated rock-climbing zones, so recreational opportunities are available in the area. Other popular activities in and around the FMSP include horse-back riding, wildlife viewing, star gazing and hang gliding. Several long trails originating and terminating in the FMSP briefly cross into Castner Range land—sometimes more than once—and are thus officially closed to hikers.
Rainfall and Run-off
Water Protection: El Paso’s rainfall is often heaviest in the Franklin Mountains and especially on their eastern side, where Castner Range is located. It is no accident that the Range features a dozen natural canyons, arroyos (‘gullies, washes’) and alluvial fans which efficiently transport run-off from the heights through seepage into the large underground Hueco Bolsón (‘aquifer’, which along with the West Side Mesilla Bolsón supplies much of El Paso’s water). Water from Castner also flows—just east of the freeway—into City-owned channels that lead to large retention ponds not located near neighborhoods. The largest canyons/arroyos are Indian Springs (to the north of Transmountain Road) and Dripping Springs (to the south). The springs in question lie entirely on Castner Range land. By conserving Castner we also conserve the drainage “systems” that Nature has created over the centuries. We reduce the volume of water that would otherwise flood city streets, and we increase the amount of water that seeps into aquifers underground.
Historical Significance: Castner Range contains numerous archaeological and historical resources that date as far back as the Paleo-Indian, Archaic and historic Indian groups. The Paleo-Indian complex lasted from about 8000 B.C. to 4000 B.C. and was initially characterized by big-game hunting. When big game diminished, Paleo-Indians entered into the Archaic period (4000 B.C.-1000 A.D.) characterized by rock shelter habitation, open campsites and rudimentary surface shelters of wood, brush and earth, evidence of which is present throughout Castner Range. The Hueco and the Mesilla phases (through 1200 A.D., and also found on the Range) were characterized by the domestication of plant foods, the introduction and subsequent improvement of various pottery types, the adoption of the semi-subsurface “pit houses” and the formation of villages. In the next time/cultural unit (the Doña Ana Phase, 1100-1200 A.D.) the pit house gave way to a sturdier, erosion-resistant surface structure made from reeds and adobe. The introduction of corn and the control of surface-water resources established an agricultural base on the Range in those years. In the final pre-Hispanic period (the El Paso Phase, 1200-1450 A.D.), weather-resistant one-story contiguous-room “pueblo”-style dwellings were erected to serve what had become a mainly agrarian society. On Castner Range, the most common archaeological artifacts found are bedrock mortars for milling or grinding plant foods, rock shelters, rock art, and pottery. Three zones especially rich in archaeological material are the White Rock Shelter area, the Indian Springs Canyon and the Fusselman Canyon Petroglyph Site. Nor did the twentieth century fail to make its mark on Castner Range; recent historical properties include stone foundations, remnants of moving-target rail systems, mining remains, a heliograph site, military firing berms and residues of pre-1926 ranching days.
Wildlife and Vegetation
Endangered Wildlife: Castner Range provides habitat for an extremely diverse aggregation of wildlife. Twelve common mammals inhabiting the Range include bobcats, mountain lions, mule deer, coyotes, grey foxes, kit foxes, badgers and rabbits. Sixty-two bird species have been observed on the Range including turkey vultures, nine species of sparrows, four kinds of hawks, four types of wrens, three species of doves and owls, plus quails, sandpipers, roadrunners, kingbirds, ravens and more. Of the reptile and amphibian species seen on the Range we find five types of toad, 20 types of lizard (including such exotics as the Chihuahuan spotted whiptail, the Southwestern earless lizard and the Texas horned lizard), two types of turtle and 29 types of snake (among them the Trans-Pecos rat snake, the Texas night snake, the western coachwhip and the western diamondback rattlesnake). Twenty-seven wildlife or plant species listed as “threatened or endangered” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may be present on the Range, including the ferruginous hawk, the Texas horned lizard, the Franklin Mountains talus snail and the desert night-blooming cereus. Wildlife/plant species of special concern that are thought to inhabit Castner Range also include the sand prickly pear, the Texas lyre snake and the western burrowing owl.
One-of-a-kind Vegetation: Because Castner has remained in its natural state since live-fire exercises ceased (1966), the Range now supports a typically diverse Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem. The Range is home to three distinct primary vegetation communities. The mountainous areas—which include land within yards of the Franklin Mountains’ highest elevation (North Franklin peak at 7,192 feet above sea level)—are characterized by the Agave-Lechuguilla Community. The cactus lechuguilla (‘little lettuce’ in English) forms dense clonal clumps on slopes, ridges and mountain benches. The Alluvial Fan-Creosote Bush Community is found on the Range’s numerous alluvial fans. Its vegetation is characterized by the presence of creosote bush, whitehorn, tarbush, Spanish sword yucca and so forth. Grasses are absent or rare—and this Community’s soil is quite thin—and range from one to 30 centimeters in depth. The arroyos and drainage areas are moister than elsewhere and support different vegetation types including desert willow, Apache plume and little leaf sumac. The third Community (Draw-Yucca Grassland) is found in the Range’s lowest elevations adjacent to the freeway. These areas’ soil is generally deeper—up to 50 centimeters—and has greater silt and clay content than elsewhere. Thus grasses and shrubs are common and include: gramma, dropseeds, yucca elata, all-thorn, chollo and Mormon tea.