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The Hill: Public lands that look like America

By Rep. Veronica Escobar and Mark Magaña

For more than a century, conservationists fought to protect our wide-open American spaces from the degradation of humanity.

This movement established what many called America’s Best Idea, but also reproduced many of the inequalities we see so clearly in so many of our institutions — our federally protected lands, waters, and oceans have for too long been overwhelmingly inaccessible, stripped of their cultural significance to indigenous people, and often unwelcoming to people of color and immigrants.

Now, in 2021, we have the opportunity to rethink our conservation priorities to protect land for all the people.

Castner Range has all the hallmarks of a 21st century conservation movement centered on justice and equity. It will connect underserved communities of El Paso to the Franklin Mountains and one of the largest urban state parks in the country, where tens of thousands of families enjoy hiking the arroyos, biking, camping — cooking carne asada surrounded by Mexican poppies, barrel cactus, and long views into our sister city of Juárez.

National Monument protection is the best use of this parcel that El Paso residents have sought to protect since the 1960s, when the Army stopped using the range for military exercises. The range serves as a water conservation sanctuary, recharging the Hueco Bolsón aquifer which supplies much of the city’s drinking water. The range is also home to natural springs, numerous archaeological and historical sites paying homage to the ancestral residents of the cactus lechuguilla and draw-yucca grassland. It is filled with diverse wildlife and plant species including the sand prickly pear, the Texas lyre snake, and the western burrowing owl. Lastly, Castner Range is a testament to the strong presence of Fort Bliss in Texas’ westernmost corner, which has launched so many of our proud El Paso sons and daughters.

Protecting Castner Range is one plank in a growing list of Latino environmental priorities before the new administration. This Latino Conservation Week and every day, Latino communities want:

  • Access to clean, affordable drinking water, and a strengthened Clean Water Act.
  • Protection for coastal communities and ecosystem restoration, including creating green jobs in Latino communities, and remedies to curb plastic pollution.
  • A focus on clean cars and transit, in an effort to protect air quality in our communities.
  • A voice for frontline and border communities in the development of new public lands across the United States.

El Paso, and the border region as a whole, is a land of bridges — bridges between cultures, nations, and time; it is proudly home to the world’s second largest binational community. Castner Range represents a new era in the American conservation movement, an era of bridge building between our communities and the land. Because nuestra tierra y agua — our land and water — is where we meet to play, to grow together, and to find the soul of the nation.

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