From the 1920s through the mid-1960s, the mountains outside El Paso known as the Castner Range were used for weapons training by the U.S. Army. Once it was no longer used by the Army, the question of what to do with the range lingered.
For decades, there was tension between those who wanted to protect the mountains’ natural beauty and those who eyed them for commercial development. On Tuesday, that debate was settled when the Biden administration designated the Castner Range as a national monument.
Scott Cutler, the president of the Frontera Land Alliance, which has worked to protect the Castner Range, spoke to the Texas Standard about the designation.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit more about the range itself. What makes it such a special place?
Scott Cutler: Well, I think for all of your listeners, especially those in El Paso, the poppies are the thing that is most noticeable and everybody recognizes the range for that. But it’s a beautiful slice of history – geologic history, but also the human history of the area, because this has a number of springs on it that attracted Indigenous people thousands of years ago and of course was very popular with ranchers and other folks at that time. There’s also a history of people using the pass. It’s kind of the lowest pass in the Franklins, sort of a thoroughfare for folks to get back and forth across the mountain.
Over the years, what kinds of threats has the range faced as a natural space?
Well, there’s been development going on. When the range was declared excess by the Army in 1966, there were over 8,000 acres. The city was very interested in acquiring all of Caster range, but ultimately they only acquired 1,200 acres on the east side of Highway 54, and that was all developed. There was another 17 acres that was designated, cleared for a couple of museums. And then there were other proposals through the years to put a baseball stadium, a community college on the range; a number of other things, even a big sports complex. And those would have destroyed the natural environment there, the views and everything that people enjoyed about it. So there’s been this very longstanding commitment to protecting Caster Range because of the beauty and the history that was there.
So what does this national monument designation mean for the mountains long-term?
Well, for Caster range, it means that it is protected and there will be no more threat of development on it, which is really what the community has strived for. Down the line, we’re hoping that we’ll be able to have public access to it and be able to utilize parts of it. Natural area – the Franklin Mountains State Park, that’s preserved, and then the Caster Range and then a number of properties along the mountains will ensure that there’s wildlife corridors that go through the area, possibly hiking paths that go from downtown El Paso all the way to the state line. It’s kind of got a lot of potential.
Why do you think this designation happened now? What was it that the Biden administration considered? The previous efforts were not recognized.
Well, I think it’s because the community here in El Paso was so persistent with trying to get this preserved. You know, we’ve been doing this for over 50 years, and trying to get the national monument status for it has happened in the last probably 10 years or so. And, you know, I think we were very patient and persistent in our efforts. And I think the Biden administration finally saw that this was a good time to do it. And I would add that President Biden’s initiative, the America the Beautiful initiative, was certainly a big factor.
What did it feel like when you got the news this was happening?
Oh, we were ecstatic. This is something, as I said, we’ve worked for decades. And to finally have it happen, this is really gratifying and very exciting for our community. And we know that the whole country will be able to enjoy it. And we look forward to having people come and visit us and enjoy Caster Range National Monument.