Whtie Sands
Administrative History
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Figure 44. New Mexico atomic jewelry (1945).
(Courtesy Albuquerque Publishing Company, Albuquerque, NM)

The postwar phenomena of leisure travel and tourism led National Geographic magazine in 1957 to revisit White Sands National Monument to assess the impact of post-World War II visitation. Its editors sent the photojournalist William Belknap, Junior, with his family of four to the dunes to examine the reasons why over one million Americans and foreigners had come to the gypsum deposits in the Tularosa basin. "Enchantment, disbelief, puzzlement" were what Belknap described as "typical questions among startled visitors." His family's response upon entering the Heart of the Sands also represented that of others whom he saw on his visit. His children "shot from the car as if spring-ejected . . . . Then the magic hit Fran and me." As they all raced up the nearest dune in bare feet, Belknap's wife turned to him and said: "I had no idea it could be this beautiful . . . . It's like fairyland." [1]

In that passage the National Geographic summed up the dimension of White Sands that would bless and curse the dunes for a generation after the Second World War. Tom Charles had been proven right: families could not resist the power of the dunes. But recreational use, which had seemed substantial in the hard-pressed 1930s, when local families sought inexpensive entertainment , gave way in the 1950s and 1960s to staggering waves of visitation. Stimulated by forces of economics, politics, military and diplomatic affairs, and social dynamics that changed the nation, the demands upon White Sands testified to the divided mind that Americans would develop about their national park resources. These would also presage the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s that called for preservation to mitigate the excesses of overuse, no matter how benign the intentions of dune visitors.

Three factors after 1945 touched southern New Mexico on a scale and in a form that no one could have predicted. Politically, the nation committed itself to a continued militarization through its diplomatic policy of "containment," an aggressive if ambivalent resistance to the territorial and ideological advancement of the Soviet Union and its Communist form of government. Economically, the massive expenditures of World War II, which poured billions of taxpayer dollars into New Mexico, west Texas, and the western United States, created a boom in science and technology, and also in tourism to release the tensions of a stressful workplace. Socially, pent-up demand during the war resulted in the "baby boom," where returning servicemen and women married, had children in record numbers, purchased houses and household goods, and sparked waves of consumerism that brought highly mobile and large families in their automobiles to White Sands and other scenic attractions in the West. [2]

For White Sands, the triangle of Cold War, military spending, and family recreation caused visitation to multiply exponentially, starting in the spring of 1946. From its low point of 35,000 visitors in 1944, the park saw a doubling within two years, then doubling again in three more years (1949). By 1957, visitation had doubled once more (to 304,000), or ten times the war-era low. From there it did not surprise the staff that visitation exceeded 500,000 in 1965, or that days like Easter Sunday of 1964 had nearly 17,000 paying customers. Park employees noted the growth in attendance each month in matter-of-fact tones, echoing Johnwill Faris's comments of May 1946: "We get little done aside from actual visitor contacts, checking, information, and cleanup of headquarters and the sands." When auto traffic backed out of the entrance station for two miles on the afternoon of Easter Sunday 1964, the staff's reaction echoed their pragmatism in the face of overwhelming demand: they opened the gates and waved in several thousand cars with no attempt to collect admission fees. [3]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001