Whtie Sands
Administrative History
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With the passing of two generations since the end of the Second World War, scholars of the National Park Service are now fashioning the context of life at units like White Sands National Monument. What emerges is both the continuity of issues (economic, political, and ecological) that shaped the park, as well as the patterns of change that rendered the monument distinctive within the national park system. During the war, Johnwill Faris and his small staff would endeavor to provide the visiting public with the aesthetic and recreational experiences that they had come to expect from the dunes. Yet the vagaries of war surrounded White Sands in ways that few other NPS units could imagine. From this emerged a conflict between preservation and development that would persist for the next five decades, only shifting course as the nation in the 1990s faced the duality of declining economic activity and the demise of the Cold War.

White Sands owed its creation to policies crafted in the Great Depression and subsequent New Deal. By 1940 the monument possessed the boundaries and structures that would entertain millions of guests throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Yet the changes brought to the American West by the entry of U.S. forces into war guaranteed that White Sands would remain one of the most-visited parks in the NPS network. Gerald Nash has written that by 1945 "the West had become a barometer of American life." Ten million men and women passed through the region as members of the armed services, while millions more civilians flocked to the West's myriad of defense installations and industrial centers. The Tularosa basin, while not growing on the scale of Albuquerque or El Paso, nonetheless witnessed a large in-migration of service personnel and their families to the Alamogordo Army Air Base (AAAB). The same conditions of environment that had made White Sands so exotic and forbidding in the 1930s (isolation, distance, aridity, and hot temperatures) suddenly became attractive to the Roosevelt administration's military strategists. The War Department would thus transform southern New Mexico in the space of three short years, and alter the course of White Sands' history. [1]

Perusal of the historiography of the park service for the years 1940-1945 reveals a pattern contrary to that of White Sands. Neither Alfred Runte nor Hal Roth man found the Second World War of significant import to chronicle its meaning for the NPS. Rothman's Preserving Different Pasts (1989) devoted a chapter to the New Deal, and only a sentence to the war in the national parks. Yet the passage of people throughout the West made its parks well-known even if visitation nationwide declined. In like manner the encroachment into park ecosystems that Runte and others bemoaned occurred in large measure because of postwar urban growth, coupled with the desire of visitors to escape the very cities they had come West to inhabit. Tourism and "Mission 66" (the NPS strategy to bring park infrastructure up to standards after the lean war years) can be linked to the churning process of World War II. Thus the experiences of Johnwill Faris and his co-workers speak not only to life in the dunes, but also to the redefinition of the park service in the boom years after 1945. [2]

A quick glimpse of the uniqueness of White Sands at war can be grasped from perusal of visitation data for the years 1940-1945. Despite institution in the late 1930s of an entrance fee (adjusted in 1941 from 25 cents per person to 50 cents per vehicle), the numbers remained far greater than those for comparable NPS units elsewhere. Using 1939 as a base for measurement (59,000 visitors), White Sands saw visitation peak in 1941 at 73,000, then decline by 1944 some 54 percent (to 35,000). Yet the number of visitors soon rebounded the following year to 56,000, and then reached a trajectory in the early postwar era (over 100,000) that continued for the rest of the century. Given the fiscal constraints of wartime, the workload facing NPS personnel at the dunes never eased for any length of time, placing pressure on resources, facilities, and staff that few other parks could match. [3]

Visitation for the years 1940-1941 (up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941) showed little change from the preceding decade. Scholars, film crews, and government officials drove through the park entrance on inspections for research, entertainment, or supervision. In December 1940, Paramount Pictures sent a camera crew to film Tom Charles, now the proprietor of the burgeoning concession, as he drove tourists over the dunes. Charles and his "White Sands Service Company" vehicle thus advertised the park to millions of movie goers who saw the Paramount series, "Unusual Occupations," on their neighborhood screens. [4]

Visitors also poured into White Sands on the "Play Days" of 1940 and 1941, lured in the latter year by the landing at the dunes of a commercial airplane owned by American Airlines. The Alamogordo chamber of commerce saw this as excellent publicity for its efforts to connect the basin with the outside world, and park service officials acquiesced, though they warned eager tourism boosters not to expect permission for a permanent landing field. Perhaps ignoring Frank Pinkley's earlier rebukes of Tom Charles' drives over the dunes, Hugh Miller, superintendent of southwestern monuments, identified the "landing strip" as "a satisfactory location, now almost as level as a floor and devoid of vegetation so that no permanent disfigurement of the area would result." Then using words that once brought the wrath of NPS officials down on Custodian Charles, Miller concluded: "Evidence of any special smoothing would be obliterated by the first windy day." [5]

White Sands
Figure 28. White Sands, New Mexico. Laura Gilpin (1945).
(Courtesy Laura Gilpin Collection. Copyright 1981. Negative No. 26231.1. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth TX.)

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001