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.) 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.
IT’S OFFICIAL: My legislation to establish White Sands National Park just passed and will be signed into law. For the first time since 1930, New Mexico will be home to our newest national park! #WhiteSandsNP pic.twitter.com/zyJXeyClYS— Martin Heinrich (@MartinHeinrich) December 17, 2019
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.”
It was an honor to join the celebrations at White Sands National Park this weekend. Growing up in Las Cruces, I know what a treasure White Sands is, and I’m proud to have fought for it’s national park designation. pic.twitter.com/OFvbhnzoO0— Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (@RepTorresSmall) December 24, 2019
Breanna Draxler is the climate editor at YES! She covers all things environmental.
Note: This article originally appeared on YES! Magazine. It is published under a Creative Commons license.