Deep in West Texas, in the heart of the Franklin Mountains just north of El Paso, conservationists have been fighting to protect a 7,000-acre swath of land for decades. Now, thanks to Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), the Castner Range is one giant step closer to being off limits to development—and the final hurdle, the stroke of President Trump’s pen, might actually be surmountable.
At a moment when the Trump administration and GOP-led state governments are dead set on rolling back environmental protections, especially on federal lands in the West, this is a rare development in the other direction.
As a congressman, O’Rourke fought hard to get Castner Range, best known for its fields of yellow poppies that are part of a fragile Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem, designated as a national monument by former President Obama. While efforts proceeded all the way to Obama’s final days in office, without the designation a new approach was needed under Trump, who seems more interested in shrinking national monuments than creating new ones. That’s why this week, when the House passed O’Rourke’s provision protecting the range as part of this year’s $700 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by a bipartisan 356-to-70 vote, O’Rourke was so enthused.
“Today, the House of Representatives passed my proposal to protect Castner Range for generations to come,” the congressman wrote in a Medium post on Tuesday. “The provision will conserve ecological, scenic, wildlife, recreational, cultural, historical, natural, educational and scientific resources within Castner Range. The legislation also ensures that there will be no commercial enterprise, permanent or temporary road, use of motor vehicles or aircrafts and structure, building or installation of any kind on the land.”
According to O’Rourke’s post, the NDAA along with the Castner Range provision, Section 2846, is supposed to pass the Senate before the end of the year, where it will then head to the president’s desk to (likely) be signed into law.
Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas, told Earther that O’Rourke’s amendment is a critical step to protecting the area.
“The legal protections are similar to that of monument status, so it’ll be a monument in all but in name,” he said. “The next step will be cleaning up the site so it can be used for recreation and eco-tourism. That’ll take money, so we still have work to do.”
Local lawmakers have been pursuing protections for the mountainous landscape, which was formerly a U.S. Army artillery range, for decades. Ron Coleman, who represented El Paso in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 1997, came out of the woodwork to push Obama on the national monument designation last year, emphasizing its importance as an urban outdoors space along with other nearby public lands like Franklin Mountains State Park.
“My greatest success came in 1979, when as a state representative I helped create the Franklin Mountains State Park, the largest urban park in the nation,” he wrote as part of an op-ed. “Back then builders were going full-speed ahead to develop this region; we stopped development on the mountain range.”
“But we could not preserve Castner Range. In fact, during the past four-plus decades, these same developers have been successful on portions of Castner Range, which is why I am asking President Obama to preserve what remains of this piece of land, including its archaeological and historical resources that date back to 8000 B.C., when some of the first Americans called it home.”
Elizabeth Doyel, Executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters, recently said that development of the Castner Range is a constant threat.
“Business expansion continues to encroach along the western side while the northeast is separated from commercial business only by a U.S. highway,” she told the Texas Tribune. “Establishing it as a national monument will protect it forever, ensuring the safety of the water, air, wildlife, vegetation and other resources that spring from this fragile and breathtaking land.”
The designation could also play a bigger political role down the road, as O’Rourke is seen as Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) main threat to reelection in 2018.
Senator Cruz appears to have not spoken publicly about Castner Range, but he was a strict opponent of Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act to create national monuments, and supports reforms to the act to make such designations more difficult.