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Proposal to make New Mexico’s White Sands a national park faces hurdles

Posted at 11:16 AM, Jan 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-03 13:16:14-05

Most national parks across the country remain closed due to the partial government shutdown, but that hasn’t stopped all tourists from visiting. Hundreds of people reportedly scaled fences to play in the dunes at New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument over the holidays. Before the shutdown, lawmakers proposed a bipartisan bill to make White Sands America’s next national park.

The landscape is otherworldly with 275 square miles of sugar-white sand, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann.

The park rangers we rode with into New Mexico’s White Sands national monument assured us this is no mirage, but a geological wonder – the largest gypsum sand field in the world. Sunglasses are a must on this beach without an ocean, although there’s plenty of “surfing” there too.

Park ranger Kelly Carroll said don’t be fooled: White Sands is more than a giant sandbox.

“This is a thriving ecosystem. There’s over 50 endemic species that live in the dunes. That have rapidly adapted themselves to live in the dunes,” Carroll said. “This is an island. This is an island of life.”

That’s because beneath the gypsum basin lies a high water table, a giant underground lake. We found water about a foot below the surface. Carroll said the water is 6,000 years old.

President Herbert Hoover proclaimed White Sands a national monument in 1933. But there’s an ongoing drive to upgrade its status and make White Sands America’s next national park. White Sands superintendent Marie Sauter describes the difference.

“A national monument usually is recognized for a singular research or singular event,” Sauter said. “A national park will frequently have multiple layers, a little more complexity.”

The national park designation also carries more prestige, which would bring more tourists, jobs and revenue.

In nearby Alamogordo – population 31,000 – we met GB Oliver, the president of the local chamber of commerce. Studies show turning White Sands into a national park could mean an extra 100,000 visitors a year, an economic windfall up to $7.5 million for the region.

“National parks just have that much more recognition. People are in the habit of looking for those and going to them and visiting them,” Oliver said.

One potential issue: the monument lies within the White Sands Missile Range, America’s biggest military installation where the first atomic bomb was detonated some 60 miles north of the monument. The Department of Defense and the Park Service had competing interests but agreed to creating a national park with a series of proposed land swaps. The real pitfall is something else.

America now has 60 national parks. Nearly half of them were once national monuments, just like White Sands. Creating a national park requires congressional approval. The challenge is these days is Congress can agree on very little.

New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich introduced the bill to designate White Sands as a national park.

“They know when they go to a national park that they should expect something special. And I think White Sands meets the bill as well as anything I’ve ever seen,” Heinrich said. But Heinrich also knows politics in Washington can feel like a clash of the “Transformers,” which coincidentally was filmed at White Sands.

“I think the odds of this happening are very high. I think the question is when. … And it may take six months or it make take a few years. But there will be a White Sands National Park,” Heinrich said.

White Sands may have a lesson for polarized lawmakers about the dynamic of change: one windstorm, one rainstorm, and every track here is erased for another day.