Friday, January 20, 2017

What Now?

Photo by Shane C. Canada

In less than two hours Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States which means, of course, that the presidency of Barak Obama will be history. The chances of Castner Range becoming a national monument are now zero. So, what now? 

One of the leading activists behind preserving Castner, Judy Ackerman, told me that efforts will now be in the direction of making Castner part of the State Park. "There were too many complications," she said about Obama's decision not to make it a national monument mainly the unexploded ordnance. However, she assured me, no one is stopping in the drive to preserve Castner. Work has been going on since 1978, she said, and will continue. There is an "outpouring of support" from over 35,000 El Pasoans who signed letters. Judy also said that Beto O'Rourke has made it known that he will pursue other avenues.

So the cause to preserve Castner is not over. In some ways, it has really just begun.

Hope was one of President Obama's themes. It is now ours as the community pursues the preservation of the beautiful Castner Range.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Like Saving Money? Make Castner Range a National Monument!

Dr. Teschner is an annual volunteer as a server at the annual Southside Neighborhood Association’s free Thanksgiving Dinner, always held at the Centro de Trabajadores Agrícolas on Ninth Avenue.

[Below is an op-ed piece by my friend, Dr. Richard Teschner. It appeared in this morning's El Paso Times under the title "Status Change Is Best Solution". The Times also edited the piece. What appears below is the unedited original by Dr. Teschner. The title of this blog post is likewise his title. We are now T-12 days until the end of the Obama presidency. That is also T-12 days for Castner Range to be designated as a national monument.]

Castner Range has something in common with the 1970’s TV show “All in the Family.” As Archie Bunker might have said, “You can have your cake and Edith too.” Along those lines, Castner Range can become a national monument without undergoing the clearance changes that would alter the landscape and cost many millions. Everyone knows that Castner—even now a part of Fort Bliss—was an active Army artillery range from 1926-1966, and though the Range was closed in ‘66 it still contains a lot of the OE (‘ordnance and explosives’) shot there by soldiers training for active duty. Since closure, some OE has been removed in surface sweeps but it wasn’t until the 2000’s that the Department of the Army included Castner in a “Wide Area Assessment” (WAA) that applied a Military Munitions Response Program (MMRP) to the Range. (The MMRP’s main goal: To identify—by LIDAR and other techniques—which parts of the Range were most heavily seeded with OE and which were largely free of it.) Over the last ten years, dozens of WAA/MMRP meetings were held in El Paso, along with the annual RAB (‘Restoration Advisory Board’). We Castner conservationists attended them all and now largely know where OE ended up.

In years gone by, two assumptions were made. The first was that all OE could be removed from Castner Range and that this would be good. The second was that once the Range was totally cleared, it could be incorporated into the adjacent Franklin Mountains State Park to make the nation’s largest urban park—40 square miles—even bigger by adding Castner’s eleven. But then came Sam’s Club. In late 2012 as a member of the Castner Heights Neighborhood Association I learned that Wal-Mart Stores sought to build a “Club” on the southeast corner of Diana Drive and the US 54 Patriot Freeway. The land was zoned commercial and the store was wanted by most neighbors. The land was also part of the 1,248 acres of the original Castner Range that the City of El Paso acquired in 1971 and that now must meet stricter federal standards before development can occur. Once a week I drove by the Club site. First the land—off-limits to the public—was stripped of all vegetation. Next, ca. foot-deep holes were dug at foot-wide intervals throughout the entire property. When the job was completed, the surface of Mars looked lovely by comparison—but that didn’t matter, since a large store, a gas station, a parking lot and a loading dock would permanently cover it all within months.

Not so Castner Range. Stripping then digging the Range would leave permanent scars plus a surface that would quickly erode in the summer monsoons and blow away in the spring dust storms. Vegetation would need years to take root and fully grow. All of a sudden, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s offer to annex the Range to the Franklin Mountains State Park “provided the land is cleared of all OE” looked very unattractive, quite apart from what that operation would cost—at least $75 million, as we learned at the MMRP. But then we heard about California’s Fort Ord National Monument, dedicated in 2012 and similar to Castner Range in all ways except luck. (The Fort Ord Army Post was closed in 1993 by the second BRAC.) The eastern half of the FONM is open to the public if it stays on marked trails, all of which are cleared of OE; the FONM’s western half—home to much OE—is off-limits. The Army maintains a presence on the FONM, and participates in decisions involving it.

“But why not sell those parts of Castner Range that are flat enough for development?” as some El Pasoans proposed in late 2005. “Think of the money the Army would make!” But think of the money the Army Corps of Engineers would spend on dams located up-arroyo from the flatter turf. Completed in 1973 on Castner was the Northgate Dam, which protects from flooding the TxDOT maintenance yard on Hondo Pass in the Range’s far southeastern corner (and—more recently—the adjacent Border Patrol station). If further development took place throughout flatter Castner, four more dams would have to be built and paid for. Since the Department of Defense is responsible in perpetuity for all OE-generated mishaps on Castner and any formerly-used artillery range, the dam-site lands and their access roads and equipment parks must be cleared of OE before construction could begin. That too would cost millions.

In sum, a Castner Range National Monument modeled on Fort Ord’s is the most cost-effective solution to the “problem” that is Castner Range. It is also the only way to preserve, in perpetuity, a tract of land that all El Paso loves—the Jewel of Far West Texas.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Take a stand for wolves in Texas

The El Paso Sierra Club Return the Wolf to Texas Education Initiative is seeking volunteers to help educate and involve school children in efforts to save critically endangered Mexican wolves. The historic range of the Mexican wolf included El Paso.  It was 46 years ago in December that the last two wild Mexican wolves were killed in the United States.  It happened not in Arizona or New Mexico where many government officials can’t agree on how to move forward in continuing a twenty year wolf recovery effort, but in Texas, just north of Big Bend National Park. With news of both New Mexico and Arizona wanting to take control of recovery efforts from the federal government, the possibility of new wolf recovery efforts in Texas and other states takes on new meaning.

Conservation leaders in Texas need to stop ignoring the scientific facts clearly indicating the importance of conserving apex predators like the wolf. Here in the largest international city surrounded by former wolf habitat, the El Paso Sierra Club Group is taking a stand for the wolf by launching a new campaign urging Texas Parks and Wildlife to develop and execute a scientifically reviewed plan to return the wolf to the wilds of Texas to benefit the ecosystem and ecotourism. For more information on how you can get involved contact Sierra Club Executive Committee member Rick LoBello at

The fate of this critically endangered species hangs in the balance and today the only wolves known to Texas survive in zoos.  In one short century what took nature eons to perfect, came to a crashing end when the last Mexican wolves were killed in Texas.  It took nearly twenty years for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to develop and execute a plan to put captive bred wolves back in the wild in 1998. Unfortunately the current effort continues to struggle because of bureaucratic meddling.   Today, a little over 100 critically endangered wolves survive in parts of northern Mexico and a small area of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.

We are living at a time when Americans are showing that they are fed up with the establishment, not just in Washington, but also in State Capitals like Austin. Join the new movement to conserve our wildlife heritage, take a stand for wolves.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Countdown Begins

Poppies on Castner Range. Picture by Mark Clune

Will a Castner Range National Monument be set to launch in the next two weeks or is it down for the count? President Obama now only has 19 days left as President. Will he declare Castner Range a National Monument . . . or not?

Recently Mr. Obama made Bears Ears in Utah and Gold Butte in Neveda national monuments. 

According to the Portland Press Herald: "Administration officials are eyeing an expansion of the California Coastal National Monument and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument as well as the establishment of one monument in South Carolina and two in Alabama to commemorate the Reconstruction and civil rights eras, respectively."

No mention has been made about Castner Range.

However, Congressman Beto O'Rourke told this anecdote in public:

"Amy and I were waiting in line to greet the President at the White House’s annual Christmas reception. I said to Amy: 'I just can’t bring up Castner Range to the President on an occasion like this. I’ll just shake his hand and wish him a Merry Christmas.' But Amy said: 'You have GOT to bring up Castner Range! This may be your last face-to-face with President Obama!!' So when I shook the President’s hand I said: 'I really want you to declare Castner Range a National Monument.' To which he responded with one word: 'Okay.'"

Nineteen days to find out. Nineteen days.