If you’re looking to hit every national park in the U.S., your list is about to get a little longer. On Tuesday, Congress passed a bill that would designate White Sands National Monument, located in southern New Mexico, as the country’s newest national park. The provision is part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, and it’s sponsored by New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich and New Mexico Representative Xochitl Torres Small. It’s now headed to President Trump’s desk, and he’s expected to sign the measure into law soon, perhaps even before Christmas.
“There’s no doubt that White Sands deserves to be a national park, and has for a long time,” Senator Heinrich said during a press conference today.
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White Sands National Monument was established in 1933 to protect the area’s vast field of gypsum sand dunes. At 275 square miles, White Sands is the largest gypsum dunefield on earth. The new law includes a few key changes to the boundaries of the preserve, which is surrounded by White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base.
According to documents released by Senator Heinrich, 5,766 acres of land currently managed by the U.S. Army will be transferred to National Park Service management and added to the park. Another 2,826 acres within the preserve’s current boundaries that are not managed by the NPS will be moved to Parks Service jurisdiction, too. In return, 3,737 acres managed by the NPS will be handed over to the Army. The land swap has been a long time coming: The Army and the NPS have been working on it since the 1970s.
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The preserve has seen an uptick in visitors in the past few years. White Sands hosts more visitors than any other NPS-managed site in New Mexico: over 500,000 people on average each year, according to a press release from Senator Heinrich and Representative Torres Small. In 2018, over 600,000 people visited the monument, generating $32.2 million in spending for the local economy. By designating White Sands as a national park, the lawmakers and local advocates aim to bring even more people and tourism dollars to the area.
“We now have the potential to make it an economic powerhouse in southern New Mexico,” Torres Small said in a statement.
Last year, a study found that upgrading White Sands to a national park could increase visitors by 21 percent, and net up to $7.5 million in additional spending in the local economy each year.
For people looking to explore the area, however, not much will change, Senator Heinrich said. He expects new signage to go up in the spring, but White Sands is already managed by the NPS, and entrance fees and access will remain the same once it becomes a national park. Even so, the new name might help clear up some confusion for people traveling to the area.
“I often heard ‘I thought White Sands was a national park,’ ” New Mexico State Senator Ron Griggs said in a statement. “I guess I won’t hear that anymore.”
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