Push renewed to elevate White Sands to national park status

This Feb. 8, 2019 photo, shows the historic building that greets visitors at White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, N.M. U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, both New Mexico Democrats, are sponsoring legislation to elevate the monument to national park status. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
This Feb. 8, 2019 photo, shows the wind-formed ripples in the gypsum sand dunes at White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, N.M. U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, both New Mexico Democrats, are sponsoring legislation to elevate the monument to national park status. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
This Feb. 8, 2019 photo, shows the gypsum sand dunes at White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, N.M. U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, both New Mexico Democrats, are sponsoring legislation to elevate the monument to national park status. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The push to elevate a vast expanse of shifting white sand dunes in New Mexico to national park status was renewed Tuesday as members of the state's congressional delegation reintroduced legislation aimed at boosting the profile of the already popular tourist destination.

"Like no place on earth" is how the National Park Service describes the world's largest gypsum dune field.

The monument sees hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, more than any other park service location in New Mexico. In 2017, White Sands logged more than 600,000 visits and spurred more than $31 million in spending for the local economy.

"By designating White Sands as a national park, we have the potential to make it an economic powerhouse in southern New Mexico, creating new jobs and bringing much needed services to our rural communities," U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small said in a statement.

The federal legislation, first introduced last year by U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, comes as New Mexico formalizes its effort to join other Western states in tapping into the lucrative outdoor recreation industry. State lawmakers recently passed — and the governor is expected to sign — a measure that calls for the creation of a dedicated division in state government that would focus on expanding outdoor recreation and related economic development.

Acknowledging competition from neighboring Colorado, Arizona and Utah, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said that New Mexico has just as much natural beauty and can be a beacon for people looking to explore.

New Mexico's effort also will focus on closing the gap among those who have the opportunity to experience the outdoors through programs for low-income families and other underserved populations.

From the village of Tularosa to Las Cruces, elected leaders throughout the region have voiced their support for national park status. However, the Otero County Commission in a letter sent last year to Heinrich suggested that making White Sands a park wouldn't necessarily increase visitation and that there were still questions about the proposal.

The legislation includes provisions for a land exchange between White Sands and the U.S. Army, which operates an adjacent missile range.

Efforts to establish a national park in the area go back more than a century as some locals wanted to protect the dunes from commercial interests that were attempting to mine the gypsum. They argued the dunes could be profitable in other ways.

It took three decades before White Sands was established as a monument in 1933 by President Herbert Hoover to preserve the dunes and additional features of scenic, scientific and educational interest.

"Making it a national park is a super smart move. It's the next level," said state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, a Las Cruces Democrat who was among the sponsors of the outdoor recreation bill.

Today, supporters say the monument contains a more diverse set of archaeological and scientific resources than were first known, including recently discovered Ice Age fossilized footprints and sloth tracks.

The monument has the largest collection of fossilized tracks in gypsum in the world, from saber-toothed cats and woolly mammoths to ancient camels. Thousands of hearth sites where early inhabitants built campfires also have been preserved in the dunes in ways not found elsewhere.

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