Monday, March 29, 2010

County Commissioners Approve Castner Preservation Resolution

By a unanimous vote, County Commissioners of El Paso County voted this morning to approve the resolution endorsing the preservation of Castner Range. Supporters present offered words of thanks. One of those supporters, Ursula Sherrill of the Frontera Land Alliance (and an elpasonaturally contributor), gave these reasons for approving the resolution:

Good morning honorable County Commissioners and Judge Anthony Cobos.

I speak as a board member of the Frontera Land Alliance and a frequent hiker in the Franklin Mountains. Frontera’s mission is to protect in perpetuity a network of lands in our region chosen for their natural and cultural values. I want to discuss briefly three reasons why I believe it is important to preserve Castner Range.

First, these majestic mountains are a deep part of the natural and cultural heritage of El Pasoans. I came to El Paso 7 years ago and fell in love with the rugged desert landscape. I did and still do find the Mountains of Castner Range breath-taking. There is a sense of wonder and mystery that I feel when I drive on Trans-mountain Road and look up at these ancient peaks. They are a part of what gives me pride in our city. If I ask other El Pasoans what they think of these mountains, their eyes light up as they talk.

Second, preserving Castner Range is an investment in El Paso’s future health and prosperity. I believe that, as in the words of the noted biologist and author, David Orr (1994), “climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity” are critical to the welfare of humankind. We take an important step in support of these elements in keeping Castner Range wild.

Lastly, we demonstrate our values and priorities as a city when we choose to preserve a part of the landscape that is such a treasure. Visitors to our city and potential new residents take note of this and sense a deep commitment to meet the human need for something beyond growth and development, elements that are important, but something more that I call the need to see and experience wilderness. The human spirit yearns to see the natural world. This is what preserving Castner Range is about. Great thanks to Commissioner Dan Haggerty for his proposal to preserve Castner Range.

The effort to preserve the range continues to be a struggle as Judy Ackerman reported later today:

The $300,000 appropriated for preservation must be obligated by the end of the fiscal year (September 30, 2010) or it expires.

The current hold-up is the lack of certainty about the status of Castner Range. Is Castner Range excess, surplus or other status? The conservation conveyance law says that “surplus” land may be transferred. When the Army does not need land, the first step is to declare it “excess” to the needs of the Army. At that time, other Federal agencies that are interested have an option on the land. If no Federal agencies are interested, then the land is declared “surplus” to Federal needs and State and Local entities have an option to the land. At that time, the land would go to General Services Administration (GSA) for disposal.

Although it has been declared "excess" (see document), that status may have expired. If so, it may be necessary to start over to declare Castner as excess.

Judy concludes: "The fun continues."

Friday, March 26, 2010

County to Vote on Resolution to Preserve Castner Range

Castner Range carpeted with Mexican poppies

The very first item on the agenda for Monday's County Commissioners meeting is a resolution "advocating the preservation of Castner Range for future generations." The meeting on Monday, March 29, begins at 9:30 a.m. Those who wish to show support for the resolution should plan on arriving before the meeting begins.

The El Paso City Council passed a similar resolution in 2006. The Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition has long been advocating for the preservation of the range. Judy Ackerman, Secretary of FMWC, has tirelessly worked on this issue for several years now.

FMWC has published a white paper on the conservation conveyance of Castner Range.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Development Ponds Are Protecting What Is Downstream

We've talked much about Arroyo 41A as it relates to the Jobe Quarry on GLO land by the State Park. There is far more to this story - especially as it goes downstream to the proposed developments of Desert Springs, Enchanted Hills, and 118 acres of land at the intersection of I-10 and Transmountain. 18 acres at the northeast corner of I-10 and Transmountain is owned by Transmountain Investors. Just to the north of this corner is a 100 acre parcel owned by George Gary Duncan, Atty. - George Gary Duncan Profit Sharing Plan, Santa Fe, NM.

Today let's focus on the land just to the east of those 118 acres: Enchanted Hills which is being developed by Doug Schwartz. Mr. Schwartz recently went to the City of El Paso's CPC to get approval on the platting of a portion of that property. (See the CPC agenda, major preliminaries 2 and 3. Be sure to review the attachments.) The issue will go back to the CPC now that the Open Space Advisory Board has reviewed it. In essence, Schwartz is changing the land study and staff and Open Space agree that his request should be denied.

During the March 22, 2010 Open Space Board meeting, Chairman Charlie Wakeem gave a slideshow presentation which led to the conclusion that Enchanted Hills Plats 1 & 2 should be denied. (Go here to see the full slideshow.)

But more was revealed than just the reasons for denying the plats. Two large ponds created inside of Arroyo 41A, are not for the drainage from the development (water would have to flow uphill), they seem to have been designed to protect the flooding of commercial property at the corner of Transmountain and I-10. Rather than creating a design that preserves the arroyo, the developers (along with City Engineers such as our old friend Kareem "Concrete" Dallo) are striving to protect commercial interests.

One of the large ponds in Enchanted Hills was originally claimed as open space under the Desert Springs study. The land was transferred to Schwartz by O'Leary so it could no longer be a required open space. In it goes a pond. Farther down on the Schwartz Enchanted Hills property is another pond. So much for Arroyo 41A.

City Engineers argue that the massive flooding west of I-10 during the 2006 storm were the result of uncontrolled flow from 41A. It may be more the case that 41A to the west of I-10 was forced to meet up with several other arroyos. On top of that, maintenance on culverts that was the responsibility of the State of Texas was not done. It wasn't 41A that caused the flooding; it was the alteration to the flow paths and the lack of maintenance to the culverts! Thus, the ponding at Enchanted Hills isn't necessary and can only be necessary if what is being protected is the commercial property on the NE corner of I-10 and Transmountain.

What about all of the owners of these developments - commercial and residential. One source tells me that Doug Schwartz of Foster Schwartz Development owns not just Enchanted Hills but Desert Springs with Randy O'Leary. And who are some of the investors in the George Gary Duncan Profit Sharing Plan? Don't know - but I bet I could venture a guess.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Comments to TxDOT about Wildlife Crossing

First of all, Mary Telles-Goins of TxDOT is telling people not to email her but to send written comments to: Antonio Uribe, EIT<>
I'm betting that a formal request such as these sent by some of you will have to be accepted at any time:

"I too would like to make an official correspondence for two purposes: 1) consider this a formal request that I be provided the draft NEPA document that evaluates this project so that I may provide public comment in accordance with 40 CFR 1500-1508; 2)I am hereby going on record as notifying TxDOT of the danger to public health & safety to the public that accrues from ignoring the hazards associated with not providing large mammal crossings across the proposed 4 lane expansion of loop 375."

Frankly, public comment should be taken at any time especially about this issue. Why? In an email to Ms. Telles-Goins, ecologist Kevin von Finger says it well:

"I am aware that the issue of an underpass that would accommodate safe passage of large mammals has been brought to the attention of TXDOT by a Texas Parks & Wildlife Urban Biologist, and also by myself at a city Open Space Advisory Board meeting. The comment from the TXDOT project engineers was that this wasn't in the plans since their staff didn't tell them that it was an issue. Note that in one month (February I believe) there have been 5 vehicle-deer collisions. I now understand that TXDOT says that a properly designed large mammal crossing is too expensive. What appears to have happened is that nobody at TXDOT did their homework regarding environmental & health & safety impacts so now the item may not fit in the budget.

TXDOT has been made aware of the dangers of vehicle-large mammal collisions. This is not only an environmental issue but one of health & safety. The state is liable if TXDOT neglects to remedy this danger and God forbid someone dies [which] happens all over the country & will sooner or later here if status quo is accepted. There will be one hell of a price to pay. If a human life is not a sufficient price to get a properly designed large wildlife crossing, then perhaps the guarantee of a future lawsuit should be motivation. Pay now or pay a hell of a lot more later.

Vehicle-wildlife collisions must be analyzed as an impact in the NEPA document and an argument can be made that this is a significant environmental impact as defined in the CEQ NEPA implementing regulations 40 CFR 1500-1508. The underpass must be properly designed or large wildlife will not use. I & others can provide guidance. Mary, sorry to burden you with this but it is serious. When I lived in Illinois I saw vehicle-mammal collisions actually happen & it wasn't pretty. There were horrible injuries & a death. Please provide me with the NEPA document when it becomes available for public review."

Perhaps many of you will want to write similar requests. TxDOT cannot and should not just ignore public comment at whim.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Update on Arroyo 41A and the Lower Sunset Trail

Arroyo 41A from Picnic Area 39

Last week the Franklin Mountains Park Superintendent, Mr. Cesar Mendez, took me and several other people on a hike on those portions of the new Lower Sunset Trail that are now completed.

Our hike began at Picnic Area 39 in the Tom Mays Unit. That area overlooks Arroyo 41A. The new trail begins by going down toward the arroyo and then winding west and south to that portion of the Lower Sunset that is in the State Park. The other portion, of course, was destroyed by Jobe's bulldozers.

Click to enlarge image. You are looking west toward GLO land. The clear path was created by Jobe's bulldozer. You can see the Jobe "No Trespassing" sign. Arroyo 41A is to the left (south) of the picture. The buffer should run somewhere along here past the hill in the foreground. That hill and hundreds of other acres will be no more once the quarry operation begins. To the left (north) of the picture is where the old Lower Sunset Trail crossed Mile Marker 6 and Arroyo 42 back up to the trail to the entrance of Shaeffer Shuffle. Many mountain bikers and environmentalists would also like to see that area preserved as well. That path was actually the originally proposed Mountain to River Trail as these maps reveal. At this time, Mr. Jobe is adamant that he will not grant an easement of that area as well.

We then retraced our steps and some of the hikers continued on a different fork not far below the picnic area. That fork skirts some beautiful limestone cliffs above another arroyo. It eventually will hook up with the Avispa/Lower Sunset Trail and return to the park up the steep hill just past Schaeffer Shuffle.

Mark Johns walks a portion of the new Lower Sunset that will hook-up with the trail to Schaeffer Shuffle

All agreed that the new trail layout will make for a beautiful hike. Although disappointed by Mr. Jobe's planned destruction of the land leased to him by the Texas General Land Office, everyone agreed that the new trail would be even better than the older trail. Tommy Young exclaimed: "My overall impression was WOW! It will be fantastic when completed."


So where do things stand with Arroyo 41A Go here and here to read about Jobe's plan to grant an easement to the Public Service Board and create a buffer between the arroyo and his future quarry. At his expense, Stanley Jobe agreed to survey the area to the north of the Arroyo where an the buffer will go. The GLO must approve the easement and the survey before it can be submitted to the PSB.

I asked Mr. Jobe whether the survey had been completed and whether I could see a copy of the survey. He replied by email and a phone call and told me that the survey had been done. Once the GLO approves the plan, he will submit it to Representative Ann Lilly who will take it to the PSB. He declined to show me a copy of the survey until after the GLO approves it. I did not push the matter but will ask him again in a month, if I hear nothing back from him.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Poppy Display Promises To Be One of the Best

The poppies are beginning to pop! Photo courtesy of Judy Ackerman

This Saturday is Poppy Fest - one of the best annual celebrations in El Paso. I've been getting calls all week from people who tell me how great the poppies are looking on the east side of Trans Mountain and throughout Castner Range. Go here for more information and a schedule of events.

The poppies this year promise to be as refulgent as some of the best years in the past

Monday, March 15, 2010

TXDoT Needs Your Comments

Following the public meeting last Wednesday, TXDoT is soliciting public comments. A form for commenting is available for downloading here.

Send comments to Mary, at The form isn't required, but can be used as a template or downloaded and filled out. If you would prefer just to send a letter, you may do that as well. The letter/comments should be addressed to Antonio Uribe, Jr., EIT, TxDOT, 13301 Gateway Blvd. West, El Paso, TX 79928.

Comments must be received on or before March 24, 2010.

In addition, you can also write Rep. Joe Moody at 6600 N. Mesa, Suite 603, El Paso, TX 79912.

Here's what went down: Mr. Uribe explained that the project is required because of growth and development. I know people who live on one-side and work on the other. They describe nearly nightmare commutes. Before long Doug Schwartz will begin developing Enchanted Hills and Randy O'Leary will begin Desert Springs - both on the north side of Transmountain, west of the Franklin Mountains State Park and east of I-10. There will be development as well on the south side of Transmountain.

The project consists of expanding the current two-lane undivided roadway to a four-lane divided roadway with two-lane frontage roads and grade separations at major intersections: Northwestern Drive, Resler and Paseo Del Norte Drive.

There will be paved hike and bike trails on both sides. One person reported not seeing the bike trail connection with the existing culverts on the plans. However, Rick Bonart emailed me and said:
"The ramp [hike/bike] is to be constructed on the south side of Transmountain where the culverts are about 6 feet above grade. It is being called a drainage erosion ramp. On the north side, the culverts are on grade.

"The culverts will connect hike-mountain bike trails like other trails in the park that have been blessed by Texas Parks and Wildlife and will be constructed by BMBA [Borderland Mountain Bike Association] and volunteers.

"Both sides of the culverts are in TXDoT ROW (right-of-way) and the trails are Texas Parks and Wildlife ROW."
The full plans can be viewed at the TXDoT office, 13301 Gateway West. Construction will begin February 2011 and will be completed in 2013.

There is no provision for a wildlife crossing.

Urban Wildlife Biologist, Lois Balin, points out signs of deer feeding along Transmountain

When he was a grad student in Wyoming, Mike Mecke had experience with wildlife crossings. He says:

"WYDoT had pushed through I-80 west from Laramie across major big game migration routes instead of taking another, better route advocated by ranchers and game department. So, they were having many collisions with deer, antelope and elk - not good for them or people.

"So, they high fenced I-80 for many miles - solved problem for motorists, not wildlife. They thought the game would be forced to use small existing 6-8 ft high culverts - nope. Scared them, like a dark tunnel and they stacked up. I worked for Rocky Mountain Research Station on weekends trying to count animals using newer versions - enlarged culverts with fenced wings guiding them. We installed night cameras and I watched, counted tracks, etc. Little use. I graduated and moved, but I think they finally enlarged them more and got the wildlife to using it- but not easy to do.

"I may be wrong - but, I do not foresee wildlife using the same crossings as bikers and hikers - think you will have to keep those groups far away or they will scare the wildlife and leave behind their scent, trash, etc. too.

"Leave the current ones for them and build larger, more open ones for wildlife at a good distance and in sites that would seem to be natural deer, javelina trails - draws, etc. Might have to use wildlife protein and mineral blocks to draw them in. Even construct small rainwater catchments w/troughs for wildlife at entrance."

Currently, TXD0T does plan to pave the bottom of the culverts. However, ". . . those pipes will never work except maybe for rattlers or rabbits," according to Mecke. "A deer or javelina will never go through those." What is needed is a local, natural soil floor on any underpass for wildlife. They must have the right scents and feel.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Wildlife Crossing for Transmountain Road?

Culverts on south side of Transmountain - ramps are needed for access. Pictured: Jamie Ackerman and Bill Hoover

Culverts on north side - no ramp necessary. Pictured: Judy and Jamie Ackerman

There can be a way for hikers and mountain bikers; but will there be a way for wildlife, especially deer, to safely cross under Transmountain Road?

As I mentioned in my last elpasonaturally e-letter, TXDoT is holding a meeting this Wednesday, March 10, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Canutillo High School "to present new design information and to solicit public comments for the proposed improvements to Loop 375 [Transmountain] from I-10 to east of the Franklin Mountains State Park entrance . . . " For more information and meeting location go here.

The concern with the expansion of Transmountain is having a crossing for hiking and bicycling. Bob Medley of the El Paso Ridgewalkers says: "Now would be a great time to include an underpass for a trail to make it possible to hike from the southern end of the Franklin Mountains all the way to Las Cruces, New Mexico via the Sierra Vista Trail."

In fact, TXDoT has previously committed to such an underpass. The plan is this: just to the east of the entrance to the Tom Mays Unit of the Franklin Mountains State Park are three culverts that pass under Transmountain road. Ramps will be constructed to give hikers and mountain bikers access to the culverts on the south side of the road.

Dr. Rick Bonart, formerly with the Open Space Committee then Board and now on the Public Service Board, is an avid mountain biker and open space advocate. Several years ago he single-handedly negotiated with State Park planers from Austin and TXDoT officials to build the ramps. "It took years of negotiation between the State Park and TXDoT to get the ROW, permission and money to plan and build the ramp," Dr. Bonart told me.

There is also interest to create a wildlife crossing especially in light of the fact that recently five mule deer have been killed in the past four weeks crossing over Transmountain Road.

The drawback to the existing culverts is the fact that they are not suitable as a wildlife crossing. According to Lois Balin, the Urban Wildlife Biologist for this area with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the culverts aren't high enough. The height of the culverts should be a minimum of 10 feet and fencing to funnel the animals toward and into the crossings must also be a minimum of 10 feet high.

Ms. Balin points out another drawback: "The deer will not walk on the corrugated metal. Concrete or packed soil would be better for them."

Master Naturalist, Judy Ackerman, finds signs of deer nibbling brush on the north side of the culverts not far from the State Park entrance.

This past Saturday, the Ackermans and I visited the site of the culverts and went through them. On the south side of the road, we looked for deer sign and found plenty of indications that the deer are there. However, on that side, there is no means for them to access the entrances to the culverts and there is an eight-foot plunge to the pool floor beneath.

As Gary Williams of the El Paso Community Foundation says: "A wildlife crossing is a must at this location."

Hopefully, Wednesday evenings meeting will be attended by wildlife advocates as well as members of the hiking and mountain biking communities.

Mule deer doe and young buck at Fusselman Canyon 4 August 2009