LAS CRUCES, N.M. (CN) – White Sands, the world’s largest gypsum sand dune field, may be elevated from a national monument to a national park under legislation proposed Friday by New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich.
“Everyone who visits White Sands marvels at its remarkable geology, spectacular scenery and outstanding recreation experiences,” Heinrich 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.”
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. The monument contains unique fossilized tracks in its gypsum, preserving the tracks of animals from saber-toothed cats and Colombian mammoths to ancient camels. The site also houses thousands of hearth sites where early inhabitants built campfires, preserved in the dunes.
The 275-square mile White Sands dune field is a part of the Tularosa Basin, which was occupied as early as 10,000 years ago by nomadic hunters who followed large herds of mammoths, camels, and bison across the grasslands.
The area was also part of the salt trails of early Spanish occupation, and was the site of the Magoffin Salt War in the 1800s, touched off when landowner James Magoffin used military force against a salt gathering expedition of Hispanos from Doña Ana. Outrage over Magoffin’s use of force prompted the courts to set a precedent for free public access to salt deposits.
The White Sands Missile Range, previously the New Mexico Joint Guarded Missile Test Range, White Sands Proving Ground, and Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, is still in active use today, and access to the dunes is sometimes shut down for safety reasons during testing.
White Sands Missile Range was the site of the July 1945 Trinity nuclear test. In 1975, the National Park Service designated the Trinity Site a National Historic Landmark. The landmark includes the base camp where the scientists and support group lived, the McDonald ranch house where the plutonium core was assembled, and the detonation’s ground zero.
Dara Parker, Las Cruces field representative for Sen. Martin Heinrich, told the Otero County Commission that Heinrich’s bill was developed in close consultation with White Sands National Monument, the National Park Service, White Sands Missile Range, the Army and Holloman Air Force Base. One section of the bill completes a land exchange between the monument and White Sands Missile Range, completing a process that has been in the works since the 1970s.
The sparkling gypsum dunes bring in about a half-million visitors annually, and discussion of designating the area as a national park has been going on for years. Supporters hope that the recognition of national park status will increase tourism and bring jobs to the area.