"Why on earth would you want to go there, it's nothing but sand," my friends said when they called in response to the news of my assignment to White Sands National Monument, "you'll be bored silly in six months." Well that was six years ago and I'm still waiting for the break in the action. The Great White Sands as they were called by Tom Charles, the "father" of the park, can be very deceptive. What appears, at first glance at least, to be a virtual wasteland actually supports a very diverse ecosystem. Cultural resources abound with both a National Register Historic District at park headquarters, and perhaps thousands of archeological sites scattered throughout the backcountry. Dispersed visitation allows travelers the opportunity to experience the park in a unhurried fashion, but total annual numbers rival the nearby, and better-known, Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
By most measures, White Sands should be viewed as a major park operation. It's the largest National Park Service unit in New Mexico. The annual visitation averages just under 600,000. The array of natural and cultural resources is comparable to that found in many areas that carry the "national park" designation. External affairs, due to the required interaction with our military neighbors are exceedingly complex. Yet the park has long-suffered from an "identity crisis," which is reflected in a lack of both the human and fiscal resources commensurate with the need.
Like many, if not most, units of the National Park System, White Sands National Monument was established through the combination of a wide recognition of the unique characteristics of the resources, which exist here, along with the unabashed "boosterism" of the local community. That local support served the monument well in its early days, as evidenced by fact that virtually all of the present infrastructure was in place within six years of the site's establishment. Very soon, however, the region experienced a fundamental shift in its economic base, a change, which had a profound impact on the fortunes of the fledgling park.
In this scholarly study, Dr. Michael Welsh examines the forces that led to the establishment of the monument as well as the extraordinary combination of circumstances, which threatened its very existence during the "War Years," severely hampered development for more than half of its history, and continue significantly to influence park operations.
Dr. Welsh's work is based on his own familiarity with public history in New Mexico as well as his careful review of the documents specific to the White Sands story. Early on in the process it became obvious that we at the park were going to enjoy working with Mike because he shared our enthusiasm for this project. In our opening interviews, for example, he asked what our goals were for this document and I responded that I hoped that he would not only record the history of the site, i.e., capture the names and dates and places, but also help us understand how the present circumstances came to exist. It was a charge that he took very seriously and frequently he would call with a "guess what I found" message. His interest went far beyond that of a typical contractor and was very much appreciated.
Overall, I think Dr. Welsh has captured the essence of the White Sands story. It's a tale of a park born out of seemingly incompatible interests; preservation of a very special place while also securing an important economic boost for the community. It's interesting, and frustrating, to speculate on what the park might have become had that local enthusiasm not been diverted by the overwhelming military development which began in the early 1940s. In the absence of the high energy support provided by Tom Charles and the other early boosters, the park became a strange sort of hybrid whose unique resources were recognized nationally, and even internationally, but which was used mainly for its recreational values locally. The tension between those points of view has shaped, and will continue to influence, the park's management process. Perhaps the future will bring a wider recognition of the resource values represented at White Sands National Monument.
On behalf of the park staff, I wish to extend our thanks to Dr. Welsh for his dedicated pursuit of this story. He truly went above and beyond to insure that the project would be complete.
Dennis L. Ditmanson
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001