The fight for a new national monument in Texas

Rocio Ronquillo grew up in El Paso, a city crossed by a mountain range she never set foot on. In their rugged seclusion, the Franklin Mountains seemed beautiful but utterly unreachable. “I thought you just didn’t have access,” she told me. “You can’t go there. You can’t touch them. You’ll probably have to pay a fee that my parents couldn’t afford at the time.”

Ronquillo, who is twenty-nine, eventually became the kind of person who carries around a water bottle covered in national park stickers and preaches hiking. When she was studying environmental science at the University of Texas at El Paso, a mentor encouraged her to gain hands-on experience in the field. After college internship in Alaska, CO measurement2 Flux in an arctic pond, Ronquillo took on conservation jobs in New Hampshire and Colorado. Last year, she returned to El Paso to accept a position as an open space manager for Frontera Land Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the area’s natural areas from which she once felt so disconnected.

In El Paso, Frontera’s central goal is to get the Castner Range, a 7,000-acre stretch of alluvial fans and a vast, high desert field that is designated a National Monument. Preserving this natural space is a goal that grassroots groups have been working toward for nearly fifty years. The Franklin Mountains descend into the shrubby flatlands of the Castner Range; together they are part of an important wildlife corridor frequented by mountain lions, mule deer and spears. In spring, when conditions are favorable, tens of thousands of Mexican golden poppies cover the lowlands. When I visited the area in March 2020, one of the richest years in recent memory, flowers were creeping up the flanks of the mountains in psychedelic profusion; It was the first time the term “superbloom” made sense to me. “The poppies have become a part of El Paso’s identity,” said Representative Veronica Escobar, who has a Castner Range poppy photo prominently displayed in her Washington office. “I’ve seen newlyweds, people out there taking quinceañera photos.” (I daresay the poppies make for a far more eye-catching backdrop for photoshoots than the ubiquitous Texas Bluebonnet.)

Texas’ population has boomed over the past decade, adding more residents than any other state in the nation. The spread of El Paso, coupled with interest from Washington, DC, has added momentum to the fight to protect the Castner Range. “People are looking at every available open space, and there’s not much available except for the lots bordering the mountains,” said Alexsandra Annello, an El Paso City Councilman. “It’s not unrealistic to think there might be some development there one day. As you grow, these things become a big risk.”

Last week, Ronquillo and two of her Frontera employees, also native El Pasoans, took me on a walk through the portion of the mountain range that is currently open to the public. The land is owned by the Department of Defense and is part of Fort Bliss, the country’s largest military training area. It served as an artillery firing range until the mid-1960s. The flat gravel path was lined with “DANGER/PELIGRO“Signs warning us not to stray from the path; There are still unexploded ammunition scattered everywhere. After a gloriously rainy summer, the grass was knee high and locusts swooped out of our way. Kathia Gonzales, Frontera’s 28-year-old director of development, pointed to the backbone of the Franklins just beyond the grassland and explained that she, too, only started exploring it as an adult. “I went to Colorado to do my masters and saw that outdoor recreation was something thing. It’s a lifestyle. I was like, ‘Whoa, can I have this?’ And I started to see that there are opportunities here too.”

According to a recent study, much of El Paso can be considered “naturally disadvantaged,” meaning the community is experiencing an above-average loss of natural areas. Across the country, access to nature is unevenly distributed along racial and class lines, and lack of access can lead to lack of engagement. In El Paso, a majority Hispanic city where the average annual household income is less than $50,000, barriers to entry are high. “People have three or four kids, and parents work Saturdays — even Sundays,” Gonzales said. “And if you tell them, ‘Hey, explore the mountains,’ they might not have a car to take their whole family there, and then they pay a fee and expend the physical energy hiking or doing things that the family does here.” in El Paso doesn’t see that as quiet. . . . It’s tough. And people don’t protect what they don’t care about.”

It’s not surprising that Ronquillo and Gonzales would have viewed the Franklins as beautiful but unapproachable. This is often the case in Texas, where around ninety-five percent of the land is privately owned. I later asked Annello why El Paso doesn’t have a reputation for being an outdoor town. “We’ve never really invested in it,” she said. The city has some popular places for cycling and hiking, “but most of those places don’t have trailheads. People have been using them for years, but there is no signage or official parking. If you get lost out there and get hurt, it’s like, ‘Hope someone comes around!’ There are just no amenities.” As of 2020, Franklin Mountains State Park — one of the largest urban state parks in the country — did not have a visitor center.

The struggle to preserve the Castner Range and its environs began in the 1970’s. More recently, it was picked up by a die-hard local activist named Judy Ackerman, who fell in love with El Paso while stationed at Fort Bliss in the 1990s. “She went to every single community meeting, day and night, with her clipboard and her petitions, year-round, collecting signatures,” Escobar said. In 2015, then-Congressman Beto O’Rourke pushed for the Castner Range to be designated a national monument. Since Theodore Roosevelt, presidents have used the Antiquities Act to unilaterally demarcate states of particular historical or scientific importance. (The law allows presidents to issue proclamations without congressional approval, a process that also has its own flaws. President Barack Obama constructed Bears Ears National Monument in 2016; less than a year later, President Donald Trump reduced the monument’s size by eighty-five percent. In 2021, President Joe Biden restored his borders.)

Obama constructed twenty-nine new monuments during his tenure, including the nearby Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico, but the Castner Range was not one of them. When Escobar took over the seat from O’Rourke in 2019, she continued to campaign for the appointment, although she understood it was an uphill battle. Doing a favor for El Paso, a solidary Democratic city in a solidary Republican state, may not be high on a national politician’s agenda. A week after Biden’s inauguration, he signed an executive order pledged to protect at least 30 percent of U.S. land and water by 2030, in what seemed like an encouraging sign. Then, last spring, Home Secretary Deb Haaland accepted Escobar’s invitation to visit the Castner Range. Haaland wandered through the bush and posted pictures of desert plants. “Access to nature and our public lands is essential to connecting with nature,” she says tweeted. “The El Paso community is pushing forward with locally-led conservation to ensure everyone has a connection to this special place.” A few months later, Gabe Camarillo, the undersecretary of the Army, visited the Army and publicly pledged that the Army for disposal of the remaining ammunition would be responsible.