Whtie Sands
Administrative History
NPS Logo


In August 1935, Carl P. Russell, chief of the eastern museum division of the National Park Service (NPS), published in the National Geographic Magazine a stunning photographic essay on the White Sands National Monument. Accompanied to the Tularosa basin of southern New Mexico by the park service s chief photographer, George A. Grant, Russell wrote movingly of the ecological treasure that Congress only two years earlier had designated for protection from development. Whether one's interest ran to science, archeology, or history, said Russell, White Sands provided opportunities for research and study. And should one be motivated more by the heart, those whom Russell called "discerning travelers" might find "the loveliness of its white and green, [and] the cleanliness of its vast expanse" that ranked White Sands among what the veteran park service official called "Nature's masterpieces." [1]

The story of White Sands National Monument offers the visitor, student, and public official an excellent setting in which to observe the forces of nature upon human beings, and their reaction to the challenge posed by the dunes. The historian C. Leland Sonnichsen, longtime faculty member at the nearby University of Texas at El Paso, wrote extensively about the daunting features of environment and ethnicity confronting all who entered the arid stretches of the Tularosa basin (so named for the expanse of "tulare," the Spanish word for "red weed"). Sonnichsen once described the high desert between the Rio Grande and Pecos River as "the laboratory for the science of doing without." How the National Park Service developed and maintained a site as striking and dramatic as Carl Russell's "masterpiece" says much about the history of the park service, the state of New Mexico (especially its understudied southern reaches), and the American West down through time. [2]

Within the past decade, historians have sought to join with scientists, photographers, artists, and tourism promoters to assess the meaning of national parks and monuments. The most provocative of these works came from Alfred Runte, who in 1979 published National Parks: The American Experience. Taking issue with the conventional wisdom that the NPS was America's most-cherished federal agency, and that preservation of natural landscapes marked the high point of national altruism, Runte posited three factors motivating Congress and park advocates. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, citizens concerned with destruction by private interests of ecological treasures (primarily west of the Mississippi River) had to convince the nation's lawmakers that potential park land was "worthless." This idea echoed the privatism of the post-Civil War era, known as the "Gilded Age" for its extremes of wealth and poverty, its haste to develop natural resources, and its shift from a rural to an urban society. [3]

Once the nation had accepted the legal fiction that Runte called the "worthless-lands thesis," the concept of "monumentalism" came into play. American pride in its growth and expansion overshadowed doubts and uncertainties about national merit, especially when contrasted with the natural and historical wonders of Europe. Runte saw this "search for a distinct national identity" stemming from self-identification with "earth monuments" such as Yosemite State Park (1864) and Yellowstone National Park (1872). "Scenic impact," said Runte, influenced the rapidly growing nation to call for embrace of aesthetics and utilitarianism, leading in the early twentieth century to the famed "conservation movement" espoused by President Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid outdoorsman, and John Muir, the champion of California's forests and mountains. [4]

White Sands National Monument would be touched by each of these criteria, plus Runte's third concern, what he called "park follies." In order to sustain funding, NPS staff had to accommodate divided logic on the part of visitors, critics, and Congress. Having proven the economic "worthlessness" of a site, park officials then devoted much of their time to calculation of its benefits to the region and nation. This led to exercises, activities, and planning that often contradicted NPS goals, and left the service exposed to the very criticism of Runte and others that culminated in 1991 with the "Vail Agenda;" an impassioned plea for new directions and financial support for the National Park Service. [5]

Runte's overview of the service did not speak directly to the experience of units like White Sands, in part because of his preference for the larger and more popular national parks. National monuments fit a separate category of management, as examined by historians Robert Righter and Hal Rothman. In a seminal article, "National Monuments to National Parks: The Use of the Antiquities Act of 1906," Righter interpreted congressional intent as the signal feature of NPS status. The Antiquities Act, drafted at the height of Progressive concern for efficient and economic management of the nation's resources, sought to avoid the political influence of western landowners and resource developers on Congress, the keeper of what Righter called the nation's "crown jewels," the national parks. [6]

What concerned Righter, and also Rothman in Preserving Different Pasts: The American National Monuments (1989), was the "second-class" status of monuments, from their creation to funding to acceptance by the public. Congress moved too slowly to protect areas of lesser "monumentalism" than Yosemite or Yellowstone, while the Interior department, supervisor of NPS activities, was deluged with requests both frivolous and meritorious from local boosters of a given site. To rationalize the preservation process, the Archeological Institute of America (AIA), and one of its foremost officials, Edgar Lee Hewett, campaigned with Congress to give the President authority to designate areas for NPS protection by executive fiat. This would halt the desecration of Indian ruins in the Southwest, an issue close to the heart of Hewett, whose long career in archeology gave rise to several programs of research and teaching, including the School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico, both in Santa Fe, and the anthropology departments of the University of Southern California and the University of New Mexico. [7]

Rothman's research highlighted the role of natural scientists in the development of national monuments, a factor that White Sands shared with its peers. Committed more to preservation than were boosters of national parks, scientists saw the ecological variety of the smaller sites as worthy of close scrutiny undisturbed by excessive visitation. White Sands, more than most monuments of the West, provided scholars of the natural world with a living laboratory that encompassed fields from botany to zoology. By 1940, the NPS itself would list a bibliography of more than two dozen scholarly and popular works about the dunes. This contributed as much to raising awareness among federal officials as did the advocacy of southern New Mexico officials eager for the economic benefits of tourism to the monument. [8]

Dune Pedestal
Figure 1. Dune Pedestal.
(Courtesy White Sands National Monument)

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001