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Defense bill includes national park designation for White Sands National Monument

Visitors walk along a sand dune at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.

PAM LEBLANC, AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN/TNS

By SCOTT TURNER | Albuquerque Journal, N.M. | Published: October 14, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — White Sands National Monument may only be a few weeks away from becoming a national park.

Amendments to change its designation are included in both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act. The defense spending bill is in conference committee, where lawmakers are working to reconcile the versions.

“We are hopeful it will come out of conference,” U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small said. “It is something that is overwhelmingly supported.”

She is one of the sponsors of the House amendment. Should the amendment remain in the bill signed into law, she said White Sands would be declared a national park.

The national monument is in the 2nd Congressional District, which Torres Small represents.

“It’s really important that we support the community in investing in something that makes Alamogordo and southern New Mexico unique,” she said. “It is included in the NDAA because it involves military land. White Sands Missile Range is in support of the legislation.”

Aaron Morales, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, said the change in designation would not be a change in management.

“Entrance fees and access would stay the same,” he said.

“The difference will be in resources and staffing options,” Torres Small said. “It changes the availability of grants. It also helps expand the marketing reach.”

Morales said changing the national monument to a national park “would immediately bring new attention and prominent inclusion in global and domestic travel materials.”

“More international and out-of-state visitors would bring in more revenue, allowing for even better resource protection, interpretation, and visitor services,” he said.

The legislation would complete a land exchange between the Army and the National Park Service that has been in the works since the 1970s.

Exchanging the land would simplify management, ensure invaluable cultural resources are better protected, and provide new capabilities at the missile range and the new national park, Heinrich’s office said.

Heinrich worked with Department of Defense officials in crafting the Senate legislation, his office said. Existing agreements between the military and the National Park Service to protect use of critical airspace and testing grounds for White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base and Fort Bliss would remain in place.

The national monument is home to the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. White Sands has seen more visitors than any other National Park Service site in New Mexico the past two decades, Heinrich’s office said.

White Sands averages more than 500,000 visitors a year. In 2017, more than 600,000 people visited, spending $31.7 million in the local economy, with over 98% of that coming from non- local visitors, according to the National Park Service.

©2019 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)
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