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

September 1
Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, Died (1914)
September 2
President Roosevelt Dedicated Great Smoky National Park (1940)
September 3
Wilderness Act passed (1964)
September 4
Fort Bragg, Home of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Established (1918)
September 5
UNESCO Established First World Heritage Sites (1978)
September 6
Alcide d’Orbigny, French Naturalist, Born (1802)
September 7
Edward Birge, Father of Limnology, born (1851)
September 8
UN Millennium Declaration ratified (2000)
September 9
First “Bug” Found in Computer (1945)
September 10
Henry Hardtner, Father of Southern Forestry, Born (1870)
September 11
World Wildlife Fund Began Operations (1961)
September 12
Canyonlands National Park Established (1964)
September 13
Walter Reed born (1851)
September 14
Marc Reisner, Author of Cadillac Desert (1948)
September 15
Darwin reaches the Galapagos Islands (1835)
September 16
Ed Begley Jr., Environmental Advocate, born (1949)
September 17
Edgar Wayburn, Wilderness Advocate, Born (1906)
September 18
Grey Owl, Pioneering Conservationist in Canada, Born (1888)
September 19
Urmas Tartes, Estonian Nature Photographer, born (1963)
September 20
AAAS Founded (1848)
September 21
Assateague Island National Seashore Created (1965)
September 22
Peace Corps becomes law (1961)
September 23
Rose Selected as U.S. National Flower (1986)
September 24
President Kennedy Dedicated Pinchot Institute (1963)
September 25
Pope Francis Addressed the UN on the Environment (2015)
September 26
Johnny Appleseed Born (1774)
September 27
“Silent Spring” Published (1962)
September 28
National Public Lands Day
September 29
Steinhart Aquarium opens (1923)
September 30
Hoover Dam Dedicated (1935)
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