On Tuesday, President Joe Biden declared a historic and ecologically rich piece of land in El Paso a national monument.
The announcement that Kastner Range, a landscape of nearly 7,000 acres along the Rio Grande, is a national monument has been welcomed by residents and groups who have campaigned for its preservation for more than half a century.
“After 52 years and so many letters of support – a lot of work has been put into all this – from members of the community [to] volunteer staff,” local pastor Moses Borjas told NBC News.
Borjas is a member of the Por La Creación Religious Alliance, a group of environmentalist religious leaders that is part of the national non-profit Hispanic Access Foundation.
The Kastner Range has been found to be the ancestral land of several First Nations groups, including the Comanche and Apache Nation. Latin American conservationists have long touted the land as sacred to indigenous and indigenous communities. It is home to dozens of archaeological sites, as well as a wildlife habitat.
But Kastner Range, located at Fort Bliss, was also an Army training and testing ground for decades until it closed in 1966. The area still contains unexploded ordnance. Castner Range will be under the control of the US Army.
“Once the area has been sufficiently restored to make it safe for public access, Castner Range will offer unique opportunities for the El Paso community to experience, explore and learn from nature,” the White House said in a statement.
In an area where more than 8 out of 10 residents are Hispanic, groups are touting the importance of the landscape as a place of relaxation and mental health resource. The area is bordered by many communities that lack economic resources.
“We are committed to making this dangerous and inaccessible landscape a safe and accessible region for respite for the first time in generations,” said Mark Magagna, CEO of environmental group Green Latinos.
According to a report by the Hispanic Access Foundation, Hispanics in El Paso who live near Kastner Range have a disproportionate rate of asthma and chronic disease. Designating the land as a national monument will help protect important open space and bridge the gap in nature, the report says.
“The problems our city is facing, such as poverty, pollution, inequality, climate change, are the result of broken relationships,” said Maite Arce, president and CEO of the Hispanic Access Foundation. “Protecting the Kastner Ridge is not just about protecting our mountains. and wildlife, but it is the protection of our history, heritage and our heritage.”
Conservation efforts first began in the 1970s, and calls for this landscape to be declared a landmark date back about a decade. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Tex., first introduced the Kastner Range National Monument Act in 2021.