You may now use the phrase White Sands National Park to refer to a relatively small and totally awesome portion of the stark desert landscape south of here.
As of Dec. 20, White Sands National Monument has a new name and a new function. It’s a national park now, nestled within the expansive and forbidding Tularosa Basin in Southern New Mexico where the United States Department of Defense has established the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, places as remote and formidable as any in The Land of Enchantment.
The redesignation of this bit of federal land offers better outdoor recreation opportunities for New Mexicans and visitors to our state who want to experience one of the the Earth’s true geologic treasures. It also provides for more environmental protection and stewardship for the area—preventing some oil and gas exploration within its boundaries, for example—which was unavailable under its previous “monument” designation.
The new designation also came with a land swap between the National Park Service and the Department of the Army which will allow both parties better access to the area as well as the chance to improve cross-departmental relationships and citizen outreach, too.
Last week, Weekly Alibi sat in on a press call with US Senator Martin Heinrich and US Representative Xochitl Torres Small. They were on the phone to talk about the new national park and the effects it will have on the citizens of The Land of Enchantment.
In brief, the new designation comes as part of the ratification of the Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (S. 1790). This legislation contained many amendments, 648 to be exact. Some made it and some didn’t. For instance, Senators couldn’t agree on US Senator Tom Udall’s amendment concerning use of force in Iran and so that provision didn’t make it into law.
On the other hand, US Senator Martin Heinrich’s amendment, calling for the redesignation of White Sands National Monument as a National Park—and related matters—did make it into the final version of S.1790, which President Trump signed into law two weeks ago.
But before we get into the nuts and bolts of that good old governance thing, here’s a brief look at an area of the state—and in particular, a National Park—that should be essential visiting for New Mexicans, one and all.
• Those white sand dunes, all 275 square miles of them, are made of pure gypsum crystals. That field of gypsum is the largest of its kind on Earth and the National Park only covers the southern tip of the entire white field. The area was not explored by Europeans until the middle of the 19th century.
• The town of Alamogordo—or “fat cottonwood” in Spanish—is nearby. In the 1930s a businessman from the New Mexico town that now sports a giant pistachio on the road between Downtown and Tularosa convinced the federal government to make that land into a monument under the US Antiquities Act.
• The new national park is still surrounded by some of the mightiest military operations in the nation; White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base are significant contributors to our state’s economy. In early July 1945, the Feds claimed the area surrounding the monument as White Sands Proving Ground. In the hot middle of that same July, just a week later— at the northern edge of the proving grounds—the first atomic device was detonated. If you plan your trip right, you can experience both sites—The Trinity Site and White Sands National Park—on the same day.
• The park is amazingly beautiful, starkly bright during the day and filled with rare creatures and geologic formations and, yes, it’s sometimes dangerous. In summertime, the lack of shade and the reflection of the gypsum crystals in the New Mexico sunlight can be deadly. A French couple died while hiking the Alkali Flat Trail in August 2015; even more recently, a German visitor died in June while trying to traverse the same naturally sublime yet unforgiving environment.
The call heralding the change in status for one of our state’s great legacies took place on the day the legislation was presented to the executive branch. Since the White Sands Measure was included in a very important funding bill, everyone present was confident that the whole schmear would be signed into law the following day. It was and by way of documentation and debriefing, here is what our New Mexico delegation had to say about a long overdue change to our environmental culture.
Due to technical difficulties Weekly Alibi didn’t jump on the line until 2 minutes into the press conference. US Senator Martin Heinrich was already waxing poetic about this important legislative and environmental victory, telling those on the line about the potential economic benefits the state will reap because of the redesignation.
“Increased visitation at White Sands National Park would certainly also be a major boost for the local economy in places like Alamogordo, Otero County broadly and all of Southern New Mexico. In fact a recent study by Headwaters Economics found that making White Sands a national park could potentially attract as many as 100,000 additional visitors per year and contribute as much as $7.5 million in additional tourism spending in the area. We will certainly be working hard with our partners at the state and local level to realize those numbers.”
The Park is already managed by the federal government. The United States Park Service oversees the administration of both National Parks and Monuments across the United State, Heinrich reiterated, signaling that the present upkeep and managment of White Sands will not be disrupted by the change and, in fact, will make for easier citizen engagement, including “resource protection, education and visitor services.”
Besides providing citizens and visitors with the rare opportunity to experience and recreate with nature in all its vast and terrifying glory, Henrich told reporters that the site has deeper meaning, too. “White Sands also holds world-renowned geologically, biologically and historically significant resources. We now know that there is evidence that humans have lived there, around this dune field, as far back as 11,700 years ago. Scientists also discover new species of animals and plants at White Sands every single year, many of which are unique to the local ecosystem.”
The reason Heinrich says the measure was passed through the ratification of this year’s Defense Authorization Bill has to do with the military units surrounding the National Park. They’ll find their mission accessibility and manifestations enhanced because of the new law, the Senator added. “Existing agreements that protect the military’s use of critical airspace and testing grounds near White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base and Fort Bliss will remain in place.”
Heinrich’s amendment to the Defense Authorization Act also included a land exchange between the US Army and the National Park Service. Negotiations on that exchange have been ongoing since the 1970s, Heinrich reminded listeners, before describing his solution to the issue. He called the land exchange a win-win for both parties as it will give the military “new capabilities at the range, simplify management [of the area], [and] ensure certain resources are better protected while providing new opportunities for visitors to the Park.”
Heinrich concluded by pointing to his success on the matter of White Sands as part of his work with US Representative Xochitl Torres Small, who sponsored the House version of the White Sands Amendment. He said her commitment, in league with the sustained efforts of local community leaders like Alamogordo Mayor Richard Boss and Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce Director Carrie Hamblin, ensured that the move to make White Sands a National Park would succeed this year.
Congresswoman Torres Small was no less affirmative in her remarks to the press, referring to White Sands National Park as a “national treasure” and recalling recent data that determined that, for the past few years, White Sands has had more visitors than any other NPS-administered site in New Mexico, with about 500,000 entrants per year. In 2017, those entrants spent over $30 million in the surrounding towns and cities and 98 percent of them were non-local, she added.
Torres Small’s most important statement—and indeed the overarching theme of the movement to make White Sands a park—came near the end of her time at the microphone, when she said, “This is how we can grow and continue to support our state’s economy through conservation.”