Frontera Land Alliance

What to do with Castner Range in Northeast El Paso still up in the air

Looking at the expanse of the Franklin Mountains from the Walmart parking lot in Northeast El Paso, all but the distant high peaks are within the boundaries of Castner Range.

Not so long ago, the Walmart parking lot itself was part of the former Army training range, along with land that is now home to Cohen Stadium and miles of residential development.

After some debate about what to do with the lowest and flattest part of what remains — a stretch along U.S. 54 north of Hondo Pass where thousands of Mexican gold poppies bloom every spring — city, county and state elected officials declared that it should be preserved.

“We want the range to become a permanent part of the (Franklin Mountains State) Park,” said Richard Teschner, Frontera Land Alliance vice president.

Preservation, however, is not a done deal.

A new $180,000 report, commissioned by the alliance and the Franklin Mountain Wilderness Coalition, provides a blueprint for preserving the land in perpetuity. The Franklin Mountains State Park is already the nation’s largest urban park at 24,247 acres, but the Castner Range parcel, at slightly more than 7,081 acres, includes most of the land on the eastern slope bordering Trans Mountain Road.

Messages left with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Fort Bliss seeking comment were not returned Friday.

Castner includes at least three natural springs that support vegetation and wildlife in the area. The alluvial fan, where water runs off the mountain and soaks into the aquifer, is the largest in the Franklins. It has been disappearing as development encroaches.

Another unique Castner feature presents a problem. Some areas are filled with jagged shards from spent artillery shells, unexploded live shells and other dangerous munitions. That included hand grenades, small-arms ammunition, rockets and artillery shells. Those areas still are off limits to the public. For that reason, Castner has mostly been left to nature in recent decades.

The Army acquired the land in 1926, according to the report. Soldiers maneuvered there and shot all types of weapons, using the Franklins as a backstop. By 1955, there were 27 shooting and ordnance disposal ranges on Castner. During the Vietnam War, a 20-acre village built on the northern part of the range allowed soldiers to practice close-combat tactics.

But as El Paso grew around it, shooting and shelling were no longer considered safe. Those activities were moved to ranges away from the city. Eventually, Fort Bliss decided it had no use for Castner. In 1971, according to the report, 1,247 acres of the lowest and flattest land was transferred to the city of El Paso. It was used for commercial and residential development.

About five years ago, after a proposal to put an office park amid the poppies, public sentiment began to shift.

In 2006, the El Paso City Council voted unanimously to ask the Army to preserve the land. And in 2010, El Paso County commissioners followed suit. This year, both chambers of the Texas Legislature adopted resolutions calling for permanent conservation of the range.

“The preferences of the people of Texas are clear regarding how they want to see Castner Range managed and used in the future,” the report concludes.

The report states that the “best possible path” for preservation involves a U.S. statute giving authority to the secretary of the Army to transfer the property “to a state or local government or a conservation organization.” The land would first have to be offered to other federal agencies and if there is no interest, it could be transferred. Payment can be reduced from fair market value based on “the value of the natural resource conservation benefit that has accrued to the United States,” the report says.

Castner also could be conveyed through special legislation enacted by Congress, it says.

Whoever owns the land, environmental cleanup of “munitions and explosives of concern,” or MEC, will ultimately remain a responsibility of the federal government, the report says. Liability could be shared.

“While the potential for these (unexploded) items is greatest on the desert floor and low foothills, these items have also been found in the steeper canyons,” the report states. And “some ordnance and explosive hazards may be detonated without direct physical contact.”

A 1980 environmental law requires the secretary of defense to maintain a MEC inventory and assign cleanup priorities based on risk to the general public.

“Castner Range has a score of three out of five, which puts it in the middle of the 3,674 sites in the MEC inventory,” the report states.

A 1998 analysis quoted in the study estimated a cost of $15 million “to have the entire site remediated and transferred to” the state parks department.

So the next step is to work the state parks department on a “conceptual land-use plan,” said Michael Gaglio, land alliance president.

It could include everything from trails to campgrounds to parking lots. Ideally, the group would like to see the entire area cleaned up.

“That’s pretty lofty,” Gaglio said. “But the conceptual-use plan helps drive at least some of the initial cleanup.”

The report advises that Fort Bliss form a “transfer team” that includes representatives from the post and the community to begin exploring the possibilities. The report says it might be possible to transfer clean portions first, followed by other parcels after munitions and explosives are removed.

If the project were to be approved, it would take at least a year, and possibly as long as 10 years, to complete the transfer, the report says.

“It depends on the political climate,” Gaglio said.

Nonetheless, it is important to keep the momentum for preservation, he said.

“If we took a long nap,” Gaglio said, “somebody (with development plans) would jump into action.”

Chris Roberts may be reached at chrisr@elpasotimes.com; 546-6136.

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