White Sands National Monument Created (1933)

My atlas shows a long narrow rectangle in purple, extending from the southern border of central New Mexico to the north for about 150 miles.  The purple rectangle is the White Sands Missile Range, and buried inside it is the White Sands National Monument, a place of natural beauty like none other in the world.

The white “sands” are gypsum crystals (photo by Larry Nielsen)

White Sands National Monument was established by President Herbert Hoover on January 18, 1933.  Hoover did so to protect “the white sands and additional features of scenic, scientific, and educational interest.”  He got that right.  The 142,987-acre national monument features a portion of the world’s largest gypsum crystal “sand dune.”  The white sand dune (not sand, but gypsum crystals—the stuff that dry-wall is made of) is 275 square miles in extent; the next largest is 3 square miles!  About half of the dune itself is in the national monument, the rest is in the missile range.

The region has seen waves of habitation for at least 10,000 years.  Nomadic peoples hunted the area when it was covered in grasslands.  When the post-ice-age climate changed, the land dried up, as did human use.  About 1800 years ago, Native American farmers came to the area, only to disappear as had previous inhabitants.  Starting about 700 years ago, Native American Apache groups colonized the arid, unforgiving environment; their descendants remain.

But it is hard to scrape a living from the dry, wind-blown landscape.  Repeated attempts to farm, ranch or mine by Spanish colonists and American pioneers have failed to stake a permanent claim at white sands.  The U.S. government has found a use, however—as a distant, isolated, barely inhabited place to develop and test long-range weapons.  The northern end of the White Sands Missile Range holds the “Trinity Site,” where the first atomic bomb was detonated in tests on July 16, 1945.  The Army tests rockets there to this day, with many successful spacecraft having flown first above these white dunes.

Thanks to President Hoover, a significant portion of the white gypsum dunes are protected as a unique ecosystem and a recreational haven.  More than 800 animal species reside there, most of them nocturnal.  Sometimes called the “Desert Galapagos,” White Sands is home to a variety of white reptiles and insects that have adapted—and are adapting—to the hot, bright days and cold nights of the region.  One unique species is the White Sands pupfish, that survives in four isolated populations in spring fed ponds and streams.

Most recreation at White Sands is for day use only, as the environment is unrelentingly harsh.  Facilities in the park were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, graceful stone picnic shelters that remind us of the great legacy of conservation that grew from the Great Depression.  A favorite outdoor activity is sand-dune sledding, with inexpensive saucer sleds for sale in the park gift shop—it is great fun (I’ve done it!).  From an initial annual visitation of 12,000 in 1933, now more than half a million visitors enjoy the park every year.

A sled run down a white sand dune is exhilarating–and allowed!

References:

Block, Melissa, and Elissa Nadworny.  2017.  Photos: The cream, Sculpted dunes Of White Sands National Monument.  NPR special series:  Our Land.  April 9, 2017.  Available at:  https://www.npr.org/2017/04/09/520874659/photos-the-creamy-sculpted-dunes-of-white-sands-national-monument.  Accessed January 17, 2018.

Conrod, William and Erica Bree Rosenblum.  2008.  A Desert Galapagos.  Natural History Magazine, May 2008, pages 16-18.  Available at:  https://www.nps.gov/whsa/learn/nature/upload/Desert_Galapagos_-287KB_PDF.pdf.  Accessed January 17, 2018.

National Park Service.  White Sands National Monument.  Available at: https://www.nps.gov/whsa/index.htm.  Accessed January 17, 2018

This Month in Conservation

January 1
NEPA Enacted (1970)
January 2
Bob Marshall Born (1901)
January 3
Canaveral National Seashore Created (1975)
January 4
The Real James Bond Born (1900)
January 5
National Bird Day
January 6
Wild Kingdom First Airs (1963)
January 7
Gerald Durrell Born (1925)
January 8
Alfred Russel Wallace Born (1823)
January 9
Muir Woods National Monument Created (1908)
January 10
National Houseplant Appreciation Day
January 11
Aldo Leopold Born (1887)
January 12
National Trust of England Established (1895)
January 13
MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, Born (1935)
January 14
Martin Holdgate Born (1931)
January 15
British Museum Opened (1795)
January 16
Dian Fossey Born (1932)
January 17
Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Environmentalist, Born (1706)
January 18
White Sands National Monument Created (1933)
January 19
Acadia National Park Established (1929)
January 20
Penguin Appreciation Day
January 21
The Wilderness Society Founded (1935)
January 22
Iraq Sabotages Kuwaiti Oil Fields (1991)
January 23
Sweden Bans CFCs in Aerosols (1978)
January 24
Baden-Powell Publishes “Scouting for Boys” (1908)
January 25
Badlands National Park Established (1939)
January 26
Benjamin Franklin Disses the Bald Eagle (1784)
January 27
National Geographic Society Incorporated (1888)
January 28
Bermuda Petrel, Thought Extinct for 300 Years, Re-discovered (1951)
January 29
Edward Abbey, author of “Desert Solitaire,” Born (1927)
January 30
England Claims Antarctica (1820)
January 31
Stewart Udall, Secretary of Interior, Born (1920)
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