White Sands is one of the few places that offers sledding in the summer. Guests to this site in southwest New Mexico can rent sleds at the visitor’s center and send themselves careening down the dunes of gypsum sand. But the destination provides so much more.
“We are more than a sandbox,” says Kelly Carroll, the chief of interpretation for White Sands National Park. The park is also a geological wonder, a paleontological research site, and an economic driver for the region. And with the park’s new title, that’s set to grow.
White Sands has been a national monument since 1933, but as of late December 2019, it is now the 62nd national park in the United States, and the second in New Mexico, after Carlsbad Caverns. The park’s name is derived from the gypsum dunefield—the world’s largest—where the park is located. In total, the dunes cover about 275 square miles, and about half of that is preserved and protected by the National Park Service, which manages both national parks and monuments. Calling it a national park won’t change the level of protection White Sands receives, but it will add prestige, and along with that, increased activity for the local economy.
In a study published by Headwaters Economics in 2018, researchers found that changing a protected area from a national monument to a national park has real advantages for local communities. More people visit national parks, they are more likely to stay overnight, and they spend more money when they do. The report shows an analysis of the eight previous parks that have gotten an upgrade from monument to park—Arches, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley among them—and found that visitation bumped up on average by 21% in the five years after redesignation (compared to the five years prior).
In 2019, White Sands received more than 605,000 visitors. “If we see an increase in visitation, the best hope is that those visitors will get to understand the importance and value of our national parks,” Carroll says.
In economic terms, researchers estimate that the redesignation would result in an annual spending increase of about $7 million, along with as many as 100 new local jobs. That’s largely why U.S. Representative Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM) and U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduced the bill in the first place.
“White Sands National Park will put southern New Mexico squarely on the map as a must-see destination for park-seeking travelers and will be a major boon to the whole region’s economy,” Heinrich said in a statement leading up to the official approval. (And that’s saying nothing of the park’s proximity to the roadside attraction of the world’s largest pistachio just 30 minutes down the road.)
In the 12,000 years since the end of the Ice Age, a thriving and diverse ecosystem has developed at White Sands.
The designation of White Sands National Park came as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. That may seem an odd place for a bill on preservation, but it’s fitting considering the park’s location. White Sands is surrounded on all sides by the White Sands Missile Range, an ongoing testing site for the U.S. military best known for hosting The Manhattan Project—the first atomic bomb, which was detonated at the Trinity site back in 1945. This was approximately 65 miles north of what is now the national park.
As part of the redesignation, the National Park Service ceded some land to the U.S. Army and the army ceded some land to the park. The result is a gain of about 5,800 acres for the park. It also allows for the military to do its testing without causing as much disruption to the park’s air space.
But rewinding history a little further makes the site arguably even more fascinating. More unique than White Sands’ military past is its paleontological history. During the Ice Age, what are now dunes was a massive lake, its muddy shores frequented by mammoths, saber-toothed cats, ancient camels, dire wolves, and giant sloths whose fossilized footprints are being revealed by the park’s shifting sands.
Paleontologists’ ongoing work in the park has already uncovered unique discoveries found nowhere else in the world: A study published in 2018, for example, reveals a trail of giant sloth tracks with human footprints inside them. “It is possible that the behavior was playful,” the study authors wrote, “but human interactions with sloths are probably better interpreted in the context of stalking and/or hunting.” The researchers surmise that a group of ancient people pursued this massive beast in an attempt to take it down. Seeing these kinds of interactions between species is incredibly rare, and researchers are racing to find more.
“The fossil footprints are ephemeral,” said Vincent Santucci, senior paleontologist for the National Park Service when the study came out. “Once the overlying sand dunes move and reveal the tracks, they start to weather away and can be gone in months.”
So while the history in the park runs deep, the nature of the ecosystem is fleeting. The dunes naturally migrate up to 30 feet to the northeast each year. And that’s in the best of conditions. Even dunes are living ecosystems that are already being impacted by climate change.
While the dunes give the impression of a dry, desert environment, the geology is actually characterized by its water. Rain and snow washed gypsum minerals down from the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains that ring the park. Once settled in the basin, the dry bed of an ancient lake, the water evaporated, leaving crystals that have since broken down into sand.
An extremely shallow water table is what keeps the dunes from eroding away completely. That’s because the sand is almost pure gypsum—a mineral that dissolves in water. When wet, the sediment anchors the dunes in place. But as temperatures rise in a changing climate, evaporation increases, too. This dries out the sediment, and makes the loose gypsum sand crystals more susceptible to being caught on the wind and whisked away.
But in the 12,000 or so years since the end of the Ice Age, a thriving and diverse ecosystem has developed at White Sands. Today the park is home to some 800 different animal species. Some of those species have evolved in concert with the shifting white grains of sand, eventually becoming white themselves to blend in. A few of these species—including the Sand-Treader Camel Cricket—are endemic to White Sands, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth.
That’s the magic and the mystery of the dunes. And it shows why becoming a park is so important for the site. “I see the value of America’s national parks; it’s one of the reasons that drove me to become a park ranger,” Carroll says. “The redesignation—by virtue of being a national park, capital “N” capital “P”—there’s going to be more people aware of that, and more people aware of their national parks makes me happy.”
Breanna Draxler is the environmental editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice. She has nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines including National Geographic online and Grist, among others. She collaborated on a climate action guide for Audubon Magazine that won a National Magazine Award in 2020. She recently served as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She has a master's degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. She previously held staff positions at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine.