Two new national parks? A boon for New Mexico

March 31, 2019

New Mexico could have two new national parks under legislation being championed by Sen. Martin Heinrich — Bandelier National Monument in the north and White Sands National Monument in the south.

Sadly, one reason for the change in status is that only Congress can create national parks — no president can reduce the size of a national park, a protection that is not available to monuments. With President Donald Trump’s administration already trying to cut back such important national treasures as Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah — by 85 percent so that resources can be exploited — providing greater protection for our public lands is essential.

Bandelier is a precious resource, one that is important to area tribes as a place where their ancestors lived and where cultural ties remain essential to this day.

Tribal people gather plants and minerals at the monument and need access not just now, but in perpetuity. Heinrich’s legislation would safeguard tribes’ religious rights, as well as require management practices reflecting traditional and historical knowledge. This is precedent-setting.

Pueblo people are supporting the change in status to Bandelier, as are area elected officials. The bill would establish Bandelier National Park and Preserve as a place where both natural landscapes and cultural artifacts are protected. The acres set aside for the preserve would allow hunting as well, acknowledging a traditional use of the land.

Originally, Bandelier was supposed to have been a national park, but that move stalled in Congress and President Woodrow Wilson used his authority under the Antiquities Act to preserve Bandelier as a national monument in 1916. And so it has stood until today, when stronger, more permanent protections are necessary because of the many attacks on public lands.

The legislation specifically prohibits oil and gas drilling or other mineral and geothermal development within park boundaries. Despite restrictions on extractive industries, a national park designation could mean some $2 million-plus in new spending in the area, along with 29 to 36 new jobs, according to a study from Headwaters Economics of Montana.

White Sands National Monument continues to draw more visitors than any other National Park Service site in New Mexico. In 2017, the more than 600,000 visitors to the monument spent $31.7 million in the local economy, the vast majority from nonlocal visitors. The legislation to redesignate White Sands is also sponsored by U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat from Las Cruces.

As a national park, White Sands would attract new attention and publicity, resulting in more visitors and the ability to better protect resources. Supporters of this legislation believe redesignation could increase visitation by 21 percent and bring in an additional $7.5 million to the local economy.

Of course, too much attention and love can be dangerous for fragile areas. Any increase in visitors to the backcountry of Bandelier, for example, would have to be managed carefully to protect artifacts and nature. An overrun of people on the ground is almost as dangerous as the prospects of a president who thinks only of how to profit from wild lands and doesn’t mind slashing acreage to make money.

However, we agree with Heinrich that protecting these monuments by designating them national parks will be good for the resources, the community and the nation. Though it’s one of the more scenic and culturally important states, New Mexico has one national park — Carlsbad Caverns, which also began life as a monument.

For Bandelier and White Sands, national park designation is the best protection possible, security that these significant resources — for New Mexico and the nation — richly deserve.