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White Sands monument closer to gaining national park status

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A national monument in southern New Mexico is one step closer to being re-designated as a national park.

The U.S. House on Wednesday approved a defense spending measure that includes language to boost the classification of White Sands National Monument.

President Donald Trump has said he’ll sign the measure, which is expected to pass the Senate next week at the latest.

Home to the largest gypsum dunefield in the world, 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.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, is among those who have been pushing for the national park designation. He expects the change would boost the local economy and spur more recognition for the unique spot.

“Everyone who visits White Sands marvels at its remarkable geology, spectacular scenery, and outstanding recreation experiences,” Heinrich said in a statement. “Since I introduced White Sands National Park legislation last year, the broad regional support we’ve received demonstrates the endless opportunities this designation would offer to communities and local businesses across southern New Mexico.”

The re-designation would come as New Mexico joins other Western states in tapping into the lucrative outdoor recreation industry. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this year signed a measure that prompted the creation of a dedicated division in state government to focus on expanding outdoor recreation and related economic development.

Aside from the name change, the federal legislation includes provisions for a land exchange between White Sands and the U.S. Army, which operates an adjacent missile range.

Heinrich said lawmakers have worked to ensure all sides were being treated equitably.

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.