A vast expanse of shifting white sand dunes in southern New Mexico would be elevated from a national monument to a national park under legislation proposed Friday by one of the state's senators.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, made the announcement while visiting the state as part of a multiday tour that also included looking at the potential for more outdoor recreation elsewhere as New Mexico and other western states promote their wide open spaces in hopes of attracting more tourists and more money.
White Sands already brings in about a half-million visitors each year, and Heinrich said designating the area as a national park has been something that community leaders and local elected officials have been pursuing for years.
"Everyone who visits White Sands marvels at its remarkable geology, spectacular scenery and outstanding recreation experiences," he said in a statement. "And the broad regional support we've received for what could be our state's second national park demonstrates the endless opportunities this designation would offer to communities and local businesses across southern New Mexico."
With national park status, supporters hope the destination would get more recognition. Entrance fees and access would remain the same.
A study released Friday by the nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics found re-designation of White Sands could result in more than $6 million in new spending and dozens of additional jobs.
The group looked at eight re-designated national parks in California, Colorado, Arizona and Utah and found visits increased on average by about 20 percent within five years. The parks also had more overnight visits and spending per visitor than monuments.
The study also suggests that the uptick in visitation at national parks following the recession will persist as long as the national economy continues to grow.
White Sands was established as a monument in 1933 by President Herbert Hoover to preserve the dunes and additional features of scenic, scientific and educational interest.
Supporters have said the monument contains a more diverse set of archaeological and scientific resources than were first known, including the recent discovery of Ice Age fossilized footprints and sloth tracks.
The monument has the largest collection of fossilized tracks in gypsum in the world, from saber-toothed cats and wooly mammoths to ancient camels.
Thousands of hearth sites where early inhabitants built campfires also have been preserved in the dunes in ways not found elsewhere, and scientists are finding new species and subspecies of insects and reptiles that have adapted to the unique conditions.
White Sands is bordered by a military missile range. The legislation would clear the way for a land trade with the U.S. Army that has been in the works since the 1970s.
An additional 9 square miles (23 square kilometers) would be transferred to White Sands and park officials would take over management of another area currently within the monument's boundary. Nearly 6 square miles (15 square kilometers) would be transferred to the Army.
Situated in the Tularosa Basin, the monument currently spans 224 square miles (360 square kilometers) with the dune field stretching across parts of the monument and the missile range.
Under the proposal, existing agreements would remain in place between the military and the National Park Service to protect use of airspace and testing grounds for the missile range, nearby Holloman Air Force Base and Fort Bliss.