I’m standing in the heart of White Sands National Monument, in southern New Mexico, the largest gypsum dune field in the world. A sea of sand stretches as far as the eye can see—white waves and crests and curls, all uniformly rippled on the surface. The place is so vast that it’s visible from space.
If new legislation introduced in May makes it out of committee and passes, this area will become our nation’s 61st national park. Achieving that, however, is a feat on par with finding parking in Yosemite. But Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who introduced the White Sands National Park Establishment Act, is on a mission to make it happen. “There is no downside to this legislation that I can see,” Heinrich says.
Of course, not everyone is so thoroughly optimistic.
Once in place, a national park is more or less permanent—unlike a monument, the impermanence of which we saw last year when President Trump shrank Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The good news is that monuments like White Sands should, in theory, make the process of turning them into national parks easier. Of our 60 current national parks, 29 were once monuments. The bad news is that new national parks are incredibly difficult to create because they depend on Congress coming to an agreement, a task that these days seems tougher than ever.
Why White Sands?
The greater dunes cover about 275 square miles in southern New Mexico. The monument itself—designated by President Herbert Hoover under the Antiquities Act in 1933—covers approximately 41 percent of that area. Each wavelike drift can reach 60 feet high, and they’re constantly moving—the winds push them up to 30 feet a year.
On a recent visit, I hiked through soaptree yucca, cane cholla, and tufts of Indian ricegrass with Kelly Carroll, the monument’s chief of interpretation, who is in charge of public education and outreach. As we walked, he pointed out the faint tracks of a bleached earless lizard, a spadefoot toad, an Apache pocket mouse, and a camel cricket, all of which have adapted to life in this bizarre scenery.
Before White Sands was a monument, and before the Mescalero Apache and Jornada Mogollon peoples inhabited the area, now-extinct animals also thrived here. Their tracks are preserved in the alkali flats of the valley floor—mammoth, dire wolf, saber-toothed cat, North American camel, and giant ground sloth, all dating back to the last ice age. In fact, White Sands has the highest concentration of megafauna tracks in the United States. More recently, a team of scientists, whose study was published this year in the journal Science Advances, found fossilized human footprints surrounding circles of giant ground sloth tracks—rare evidence of a Pleistocene hunt.
Today, the monument is the most popular National Park Service site in New Mexico, drawing more than half a million annual visitors and generating $29.3 million for the local economy, according to Heinrich’s office. “White Sands is such a quintessential New Mexican place,” he says. “The question is why is it not already a national park?”
The answer to that lies partly with the park’s peculiar neighbor.
Dealing with the DOD
The monument lies entirely within the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), part of the largest military installation in the United States and the site of the Trinity test, the first atomic bomb detonation. Once or twice a week, the monument, and often Highway 70 leading to it, is closed for military testing for three hours to keep visitors away from any potential hazards, like stray missiles. WSMR only needs to give the Park Service a 24-hour notice prior to testing, so many unsuspecting travelers have found themselves locked out at the gate.
Since the 1970s, the Department of Defense (DOD) has had its eyes on land within the park that would make for easier access to its sites. Congress authorized a land exchange in 1996, but it was never executed because of longstanding disagreements between the Park Service and WSMR over property boundaries. “For decades, there has been an attempt to resolve that,” Heinrich says. “We were able to thread that needle of figuring out how those lands should be divvied up in a way that benefits both.”
The swap Heinrich devised with the bill’s co-sponsor, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, is less an exchange of one chunk for another and more a complex patchwork of trades. In all, the proposed legislation would move 5,766 acres to the Park Service and 3,737 acres to WSMR—a net gain for the park of 2,030 acres.
That deal would give the U.S. Army the transportation access it wants; in return, the Park Service would acquire land outside the evacuation zone so visitors have somewhere to hang out during the tests. Before any of that can happen, the Army would need to clean up unexploded ordnance from its tests, which could be costly and take a while. But that aside, and now that the Park Service and WSMR are in agreement, the land exchange has the support of the DOD, which puts serious political muscle behind the bill.
According to a recent study by Headwaters Economics, national monuments that are redesignated as national parks see about a 21 percent spike in visitation in their first five years.
The study also investigated what such a change could do specifically for White Sands and found that redesignation could attract more than 100,000 additional annual visitors and generate between $6.2 million and $7.5 million in new spending, on top of the $29.3 million the monument generates today. That increase in visitors could create 84 to 107 new jobs and plop between $2.7 million and $3.3 million in extra local labor income into the area.
There’s already a lot of support for the bill, including from the mayor of nearby Alamogordo, the Mescalero Apache Tribal Council, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Southern New Mexico Public Lands Alliance, to name a few. And yet Otero County, which covers about half the monument, doesn’t back the idea. In a letter to Heinrich sent in May, a few county commissioners expressed frustration at not being consulted in the planning process. They said they worried park status would discourage Hollywood filmmakers from shooting in the park because of higher fees and increased regulation. They also expressed concerns about the additional wear and tear to park infrastructure if visitation does increase and the fact that White Sands “does not have camping available for anyone other than backpackers.”
The 11-page letter closed by stating, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”
The Waiting Game
After Heinrich introduced the bill to the Senate on May 7, it was referred to the Committee of Armed Services, likely because of the land-swap element. “So far, this is going quite well and moving quickly,” he says. “But I think that’s an indication of the five-plus years of trying to get the details correct.”
It also helps that Heinrich is one of 27 members of the committee.
As for how and when the bill might pan out, “You never know that in Congress, frankly,” Heinrich says with a laugh. “I’m not in the time estimation business. But so far, my experience on these kinds of projects is get the details right, play the long game, and they will happen.”
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Correction: A previous version of this article misstated how many national parks there were. White Sands would become the 61st, not the 60th national park. We regret the error.