White Sands
Administrative History
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CHAPTER SIX: A BRAVE NEW WORLD:
WHITE SANDS AND THE CLOSE OF THE 20th CENTURY, 1970-1994


Promotional literature for White Sands National Monument, from the days of Tom Charles to the end of the twentieth century, portrayed the enduring and timeless character of the dunes. Daniel Pyne, a movie scriptwriter from Santa Fe, would explain to New Mexico Magazine in May 1992 that he chose the gypsum deposits for the location shooting of his murder mystery, "White Sands," "because [the monument] lends the film a mystical quality, a direct honesty and stark beauty that is indigenous to the West." This fascination with the dunes' ecology, echoing stories from the National Geographic and other major publications, conveyed to audiences worldwide the features of peace and quiet that became more precious, and more elusive, in the tumultuous years after 1970. Thus it did not surprise the readers of the Alamogordo Daily News when columnist Jack Moore wrote in June 1994 that Superintendent Dennis Ditmanson would host three Hollywood film companies that summer, among them industry giants MGM and Walt Disney Productions. [1]

Moore's story, however, highlighted other, more mundane issues that New Mexico Magazine (the state's official tourist publication) chose to ignore: the cost of another generation of heavy visitation, military encroachment, and the competing uses of America's natural resources. Added to this was the erosion of federal financial support for the national parks, a consequence of public dissatisfaction with government, a dislike of paying taxes, and successful political rhetoric to diminish the role of federal agencies in providing services that the American people had come to expect and demand. Jack Moore did note that the administration of President Bill Clinton sought to make good on its promise to eliminate by 1997 252,000 federal positions. Pete V. Domenici, the powerful New Mexico Republican senator, had promised to seek substantial increases in the fiscal year 1994 appropriation for White Sands. Yet even the former chairman of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee could not overcome the imperatives of budget reductions. "There are a lot of things that we could be doing," Ditmanson concluded in his interview with Moore, "that would encourage people to spend more time in Alamogordo and provide for better utilization of the [White Sands] resource." [2]

The historical forces that touched White Sands from 1970 to 1994 were complex and slow to emerge from the confusion of generational change at home and around the world. The "baby boom" of young families reached its crest in the 1970s, when the children of postwar America became adults. They opted for fewer children of their own, thus reducing the overall population growth in the 1980s. This in turn led to economic constraints, as the American consumer devoted more attention to income maintenance. Ironically, this did not impact White Sands dramatically, as these same years witnessed the continuation of the postwar "Sunbelt" migration from colder climates and large urban centers of the North and East, to the open spaces and sunny weather of the South and West. Military maneuvers also affected management at the monument. Withdrawal of U.S. ground forces from Vietnam in the early 1970s had led military strategists to place further emphasis on air power, making missiles and high-speed, high-altitude aircraft even more critical to America's national security. Finally, the twin "energy crises" of 1973 and 1979, where Americans learned of the power of Arab oil-exporting nations to control supply and price for petroleum products, led the Pentagon to prepare for war in the deserts of the Middle East. Thus White Sands would witness another generation of weapons testing, with its encroachment upon the environment, and disruption of daily life at the dunes. [3]

Studying White Sands in these years reveals the dichotomy of federal policies of preservation versus use of nature's bounty. The NPS worked with a host of federal regulatory and resource agencies to protect the historic and ecological treasures of the Tularosa basin, all the while coping with the now-decades-old intrusion of military flights, missile impacts, and recovery crews. Then in 1969 the New Mexico State Department of Game and Fish decided to introduce "exotic" game animals into the Tularosa basin. Jack Turney, superintendent from 1967-1973, met with Frank Hibben of the department to discuss the latter's desire to turn loose a herd of African gemsbok, or "oryx," onto White Sands Missile Range. Hibben, also a professor of archeology at the University of New Mexico, wanted to increase sport hunting in the state to attract well-heeled visitors willing to pay hefty fees to take game animals. The oryx were meant to replace antelope introduced by Game and Fish in the early 1940s, which in turn had been strafed by Army and Air Force pilots flying training missions over the dunes. The oryx also had no natural predators in the basin and consumed much of the ground cover that could have sustained more indigenous animals. By the 1990s this animal had numbered 2,000, posing potential threats to backcountry hikers and at times being spotted near the picnic grounds in the Heart of the Sands. [4]

The oryx invasion ironically ran counter to the larger national effort to mitigate the effects of a rapidly industrializing society known as the "environmental movement." Promoted in 1970 with such events as the first "Earth Day" (April 22), and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this movement fit the "preservation" ethic of White Sands and the NPS. One reads Jack Turney's goals for the monument in 1970-1971 and realizes how easy it could have been for the park service to protect natural resources. A high profile program instituted at the dunes was the "National Environmental Study Area" (ESA) concept, where the park service joined with nearby public schools to promote field research in ecology and in "man's relations with the environment." Two areas of White Sands received students under the ESA program: Garton Lake for "aquatic ecology," and Big Pedestal for "dune ecology." Also demonstrating the uniqueness of the dunes was Turney's hiring of young Mescalero Apache students for the NPS' "Indian Conservation Officer" program. The superintendent sent one Mescalero to the NPS' Albright Training Center at the Grand Canyon, hoping to bring to White Sands a sense of Apache traditions of environmental awareness. [5]

As imaginative and thoughtful as these programs were (the Mescalero hiring reversed the early 1960s banishment of Apache mint-bush pickers), they could not compensate in the early 1970s for the ever-present military usage of the monument. Dietmar Schneider-Hector wrote disapprovingly of Jack Turney's procedures in the White Sands Wilderness Area study of 1972, claiming that rejection by the Pentagon, local civic boosters, and eventually the regional and national NPS was "a startling revelation for the National Park Service because the outcome revealed its limited control over [White Sands]." Schneider-Hector, however, did not place the wilderness study in the context of ongoing military intrusion, nor did he compare Turney's work on wilderness with a similar effort in 1970 to bring Trinity Site into the park service. [6]

nature trail hike
Figure 55. Visitors preparing for nature trail hike (1970s).
(Courtesy White Sands National Monument)


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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001