Whtie Sands
Administrative History
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Advocates of White Sands National Monument secured President Hoover's proclamation not a moment too soon. Unlike other units of the park service, White Sands did not face imminent danger from resource developers. Instead, the presence of a federal agency in the Tularosa basin dedicated to the preservation of natural wonders offered access to public spending at the lowest ebb of the Great Depression. This sense of urgency would persist throughout the years of the Roosevelt "New Deal," affecting all aspects of park service planning, policy, and program development. In this manner, White Sands offered a window not only on the complexity of NPS operations, but also shed much-needed light on the little-known dimensions of 1930s southern New Mexico.

The historian Gerald D. Nash, author of the path breaking The American West in the Twentieth Century (1977), described the impact of the Depression and New Deal on the region as if he were speaking of White Sands itself. Whether one analyzed variables of economics, politics, environmentalism, or cultural change, the afflictions facing the West surrounded the dunes in equal measure. "Everywhere western dreams for sustained economic growth lay shattered," said Nash, "victims of the national economic collapse." Farm and ranch income, dependent upon eastern and international markets, fell by more than 50 percent. So did resource extraction, especially petroleum, a blow to the oil fields of southeastern New Mexico and west Texas where prices dropped from $2.50 per barrel in 1929 to ten cents per barrel four years later. More ominous for the new park service unit, however, was the regional decline of tourism (by more than one-half), the source of visitations that could generate future federal spending at the dunes. The New Mexican per capita income stood in 1933 at $209, or 52 percent of the national average. There would be little discretionary income for local residents, making White Sands' free admission small consolation. [1]

In essence, the monument evolved in the same style of experimentation and uncertainty that marked the policies of the Roosevelt administration. Richard Lowitt, author of The New Deal and the West (1984), wrote that "depression, drought, and dust undermined dependence on the marketplace as an arbiter of activities." In its place were a myriad of federal rules, regulations, and employment agencies that removed control of economic life from county courthouses and state capitols to Washington, DC. For New Mexico and its Tularosa basin, however, public funding offered the only source of investment for private enterprise. Thus it was that local and state officials would devote considerable attention to the growth of the monument, both helping and hindering park service personnel charged with preserving the dunes and catering to a multiplicity of public tastes. [2]

At the close of the New Deal decade, NPS officials would have high praise for the consequences of planning and implementation of service policy. Hugh Miller, superintendent of the "Southwestern National Monuments [SWNM]," reported in September 1940: "White Sands has demonstrated its unquestioned standing as the most important southwestern monument from the standpoint of visitor interest." Within two years of its opening, the monument eclipsed all attendance records for the 23-unit SWNM system that encompassed the "Four Corners" states of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and southern Colorado. Yet no one connected to the park service could have prophesied the organizational debate that ensued in 1933 over the proper functions of the vast gypsum dunes. Some of this could be ascribed to the still-evolving corporate culture of the NPS, which along with other federal agencies had to learn hard lessons about western ecology, economics, and politics. It would not help, as Gerald Nash noted, that federal officials "often openly expressed contempt or hostility for western ways." Monument custodian Tom Charles, his contemporaries in Alamogordo, and the regional and national hierarchy in the park service thus spent seven years defining the standards that would guide White Sands for the remainder of the twentieth century. [3]

Within days of President Hoover's announcement, Tom Charles wrote to Horace Albright about the park service's strategy for assuming control of White Sands. Local civic boosters wished to celebrate their good fortune with a dedication ceremony that summer. Albright encouraged this as "a means of getting wide-spread publicity." The monument would come under the purview of NPS' s famed superintendent of southwestern monuments, Frank "Boss" Pinkley. Because Pinkley worked at the Casa Grande ruins south of Phoenix, Arizona, he doubted that he could travel to southern New Mexico before the spring of 1933. Albright further warned Charles that no congressional action on funding for White Sands could occur until that July. This did not stop Charles from seeking Pinkley's permission to take a highway grader out to the dunes to create an access road into the monument. Pinkley thus had to issue the first of many warnings to the exuberant Charles, asking him to wait until NPS personnel arrived to survey the new monument. [4]

Pinkley's word of caution bothered Charles not a bit, as he believed that the real power in the federal government resided in Congress, not in the park service. He soon wrote to White Sands' benefactor, Bronson Cutting, asking his help in bringing highway construction to the monument. He told New Mexico's senior senator of the "desperate straits" facing Otero County, and wondered if President Roosevelt's "reforestation program" could be stretched to include roads out of the Lincoln National Forest to the dunes. Because the matter involved a powerful senator (to whom FDR had offered the position of Interior secretary that winter), acting NPS director A.E. Demaray had to reply to Charles gently that "there has been some little misunderstanding" on the part of local interests, and that "without doubt Senator Cutting will take this matter up with the proper authorities." [5]

The Cutting-Charles correspondence signalled a wave of politically tinged negotiations between White Sands' boosters and the NPS. Job-seekers like C.C. Merchant of Alamogordo wrote to Senator Sam Bratton asking for information on applying for the position of "caretaker." Merchant knew Bratton only slightly, had never met Cutting and knew little of Congressman Dennis Chavez. More telling was the direct appeal of Emma Fall, wife of the former Interior secretary, to Horace Albright. Her family had come upon hard times during Albert Fall's lengthy legal proceedings and five-year prison term for the Teapot Dome scandal. The depression had wiped out the family investments in real estate, but Emma had opened in El Paso a "Spanish cafe," with a Mexican woman in charge. Local residents and tourists alike praised her cuisine and the cafe received good notices in travel literature. Mrs. Fall wanted the NPS to grant her a concession at White Sands for a branch of her "Amigo Cafe," with perhaps another license at Carlsbad Caverns. Horace Albright had to decline her offer, since plans had yet to be drafted for White Sands, and the caverns had a concessionaire that "up to the present time has not yet earned an adequate income." [6]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001