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 AgrĂ­colas 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.

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