NM county briefed on White Sands possible transition to national park
By JACQUELINE DEVINE | Alamogordo Daily News, N.M. | Published: January 13, 2018
ALAMOGORDO (Tribune News Service) — Otero County Commissioners were briefed on a proposal to establish White Sands National Monument as a national park during their first meeting of the year Thursday.
Dara Parker with Sen. Martin Heinrich's office returned to update commissioners on the White Sands National Park Establishment Act, a piece of legislation proposed by the senator, to integrate the monument as a unit of the National Park System.
The bill was developed in close consultation with White Sands National Monument, the National Park Service, White Sands Missile Range, the Army and Holloman Air Force Base.
WSNM was established on Jan. 18, 1933 by President Herbert Hoover. Since then, the monument has been recognized as a major unit of the National Park System which is enjoyed by more visitors each year since 1995 than any other park service unit in the state.
According to the bill, the designation of the monument as a national park would increase public recognition of the diverse array of nationally significant resources and increase visitation and economic growth to the region.
Parker said the bill also completes a land exchange between the monument and White Sands Missile Range, a process that has been ongoing since the 1970s.
In 1996 Congress authorized a land exchange but never completed it.
The new bill will reflect a new agreement reached by WSMR and WSNM in February 2017, which optimizes boundaries to address current needs better than the 1996 legislation. The Army will be able to retain approximately 2,500 acres to the northwest of the monument that the previous legislation would have transferred from WSMR to the monument. Keeping this land allows for better management of various military facilities within the parcel.
According to the bill, the land exchange will not affect roadblocks supporting military tests, testing will continue as normal. However, since the monument would acquire some additional resources outside the test evacuation area in the exchange, visitors would have opportunities to learn and explore outside the roadblocks, which is currently not possible. The move will keep visitors in the area longer, potentially leading to increased economic impact.
County Commissioner Lori Bies asked if there were currently any other national monuments that have transitioned to a national park to compare the language.
Parker said there were none to her knowledge and that the White Sands National Park Establishment Act would set a precedence for future monuments.
"This is setting a precedent. We have received some comments of concern for setting that precedent but we as a staff feel Sen. Heinrich wanted to be responsive to the county's expression of concern first," Parker said. "We want to make sure that the county has a say. Sen. Ron Griggs was one of the first people to bring up this idea re-designating the monument into a national park."
Parker re-addressed commissioner's concerns regarding the possibility of the national park becoming a World Heritage Site, a place that is listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as of special cultural or physical significance.
Commissioners said they would fear an overreach of government if it were to be nominated for the World Heritage List.
Parker said the bill specifically states that a nomination could not occur unless both Otero and Doña Ana counties support the nomination.
"If this bill passes, your concurrence will be required by law before a nomination can move forward," Parker said. "So essentially the county would have a veto on whether a nomination could occur or not."
In addition, Parker said if the bill were to pass, jurisdiction of the military airspace above the park and related rules would remain the same. All WSNM documents, contracts, permits and agreements will apply to the new park without any action required, including agreements with U.S. Depart of Defense (DoD) entities. Existing rights will also be honored.
Before introducing the new legislation, Heinrich, along with Sen. Tom Udall, recently proposed a letter to the Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke, requesting that he withdraw his proposal to dramatically increase national park entrance fees.
The opposition stems from the secretary's proposal to cut the National Park Service budget by over $300 million. The senators requested Zinke to provide Congress with the analysis and his justification for recommending a fee increase at a time when the Trump Administration is proposing to slash the National Park Service budget.
According to the letter, under the proposed National Park fee, the peak-season entrance fee will increase to $70 per private non-commercial vehicle, $50 per motorcycle and $30 per person. These fees are, in most cases, two to three times the current levels.
"We are unable to see how doubling or tripling a park entrance fee is anything other than an effort to exclude many Americans from enjoying their national parks," the letter states. "This proposal seems directly contrary to your often-stated goal of improving public access to our public lands."
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