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White Sands to become New Mexico's next national park, if federal defense bill passes

Language to re-designate national monument contained in defense spending bill

White Sands National Monument could become New Mexico's next national park, as the National Defense Authorization Act proceeded through Congress with a conference report, following passage in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. 

The bill included language to re-designate the national monument as White Sands National Park, and included specifics about a land swap between the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Army. 

The House and Senate must now vote on the conference report before it is sent to the desk of U.S. President Donald Trump to be signed into law.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) said he expected the item to reach the President's desk by next week.

He said the Senate and House versions of the bill were identical, and were supported by both Republicans and Democrats. 

"We expect that to be successful on both sides based on previous votes and information," Heinrich said. "I really think this will likely be on the President’s desk by next week."

About 2,826 acres of land within the monuments current boundaries would be transferred from the Army's management to that of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, per the bill.  

Another 5,766 acres of "new additions" would also be added to NPS management in White Sands National Park. 

In exchange, about 3,737 acres of land previously managed by the DOI, would be transferred to the jurisdiction of the DOA. 

The boundary of White Sands Missile Range would be altered to reflect the land swap. 

Heinrich said the deal's first inception was in the 1970s, and he, other lawmakers and stakeholders began working to make it a reality over the last five years. 

"Agreeing that there should be a land swap is different than working out the details as to how that should be done," he said.

"We’ve really been making sure both sides were treated equitably, that the land swap makes sense, that it protects the resources and values of the park while at the same time facilitating the mission of White Sands Missile Range and the Department of the Army.

White Sands National Park to boost local culture, economy

Organizations in Otero and Doña Ana counties worked with Heinrich's office to place the re-designation into the bill. 

White Sands National Monument Superintendent Marie Sauter said she supported the re-branding and hoped it would increase visitation. 

"It's legislation that Sen. (Martin) Heinrich and others have supported and the National Parks Service does support the name change legislation," Sauter said. "I think it would be tremendously exciting."

Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce Executive Director G.B. Oliver said the organization endorsed the move as a boon to the local economy. 

"(The Chamber is) excited about (White Sands being named a national park) and what that will do for the economy in Otero County. We view that as a plus," Oliver said. "(The Chamber) endorsed it from the very beginning because we recognized the additional tourism dollars that that will bring into the community."

The designation of a national park at White Sands would put southern New Mexico "on the map," Heinrich said, by increasing national awareness of the site and increasing tourism. 

That could boost the economy of southern New Mexico, both Otero and Doña Ana counties, he said, while increasing cultural awareness. 

"I think it’ll mean more tourism and more visitation but also more attention from the nation and the park service to just what a unique place White Sands is," Heinrich said. 

"It is unlike any other place in the world. There are just no other examples of a dune field this large."

For the State of New Mexico, Heinrich said the move would boost the growing outdoor recreation industry, as New Mexico recently established its Office of Outdoor Recreation and offered funding to support local businesses in that sector. 

"In New Mexico, outdoor recreation and public lands are a huge cultural touchstone, and they’re also an enormous driver of our rural economies," Heinrich said. "This is an achievement that will serve both of those purposes well into the future and for generations to come."

Alamogordo Mayor Richard Boss said he also expected to the local economy would benefit from the move. 

"I'm excited that White Sands National Monument is to be designated a national park," Boss said.

"White Sands is a treasure and the designation change will bring more visitors to our area. More people will enjoy White Sands and our local and regional economy will benefit directly from this increase in visitors."

The City of Alamogordo cited support in an April 2018 resolution, though the Otero County Commission in 2018 voiced opposition with a letter to then Congressman Steve Pearce advocating for only the expansion of the monument's boundaries.

What else does the bill do?

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has passed every year for 58 years as Congress' primary funding mechanism for the U.S. Military. 

Here are some key aspects of the FY 2020 NDAA. 

  • The Fiscal Year 2020 version establishes a base budget of $658.4 billion for the Department of Defense, with $71.5 billion for overseas contingency operations, and another $5.3 billion for emergency disaster recovery. 
  • The NDAA also includes funding to support troops, their families and the civilian workforce, by detailing health benefits, domestic violence services.
  • The bill also included funding to increase the size of the U.S. Navy, restoring military facilities, and modernizing weapons systems. 
  • Russia and China were identified as military threats in the bill, and it included funding to deter Russian aggression in eastern Europe and curb. Chinese interference in U.S. operations. The NDAA also detailed trade sanctions on North Korea, and funding to to support U.S. allies in Asia and Europe. 
  • The NDAA also recognized the U.S. Space Force as the sixth armed service of the U.S., and created a Chief of Space Operations who will report directly to the Secretary of the Air Force.