A vast stretch of white gypsum sand dunes located at an elevation of 4,235 feet above sea level, the White Sands National Monument is located in the western Otero County, stretching into Doña Ana County in the New Mexico state of U.S.A. The White Sands Monument can be accessed from Alamogordo, a city in the Tularosa Basin located 26 kilometers away from the white sands landscape. The White Sands Monument is currently the largest gypsum field in the world.
The White Sands National Monument was a lush, green landscape in the past and was thus frequented by prehistoric humans nearly 10,000 years ago. Hunter gatherers would stalk big game animals like mammoths and bison that were found in large numbers in this area during such times. Over 1,800 years ago, the Jornada Mogollon people are said to have inhabited the Tularosa Basin as permanent settlers but left the site sometime around 1350 C.E., leaving behind signs of their living in the form of artifacts like pottery and tools. Soon the Apache people arrived in the area over 700 years ago and developed permanent settlements there. With the arrival of the Europeans, skirmishes broke out between the indigenous inhabitants and the Spanish invaders till the 1850s when the first Spanish settlements began to crop up at some sites near the White Sands area. Salt mining and cattle ranching activities became popular in the area in the 19th Century while in the 20th Century, after the World War II, military developments started in the area and continues to this date.
Since the World War II, the Tularosa Basin became an active base for missile and rocket testing as well as other forms of military and extraterrestrial research and testing. The proposal to protect the White Sands National Monument area was made as early as the 19th Century, while on January 18th, 1933 the monument was at last established by U.S. President Herbert Hoover. Since then, the White Sands National Monument has always attracted people to visit the the spot to discover its amazing, raw landscape and thriving, unique wild species.
Habitat and Biodiversity
Though the White Sands National Monument appears to be completely desolate, devoid of all forms of life, this is far from the truth. A number of small, microscopic creatures to macroscopic animals and plants thrive in this arid landscape. Cyanobacterial colonies grow as a microbial mat over the soil surface between the dunes. Some wild species have also developed a white coloration as a camouflage adaptation in the white background of the desert, for example, the white sands prairie lizards, wood rat, and Apache pocket mouse. The most prominent type of vegetation in this landscape includes the soaptree yucca, a plant with an extensive root system that protects it against being uprooted by strong winds blowing over the almost barren landscape. More than 800 species of animals are said to inhabit the White Sands National Monument region. Over 220 bird species are found here including larks, raptors, wrens, and mockingbirds. An endemic species of fish, the White Sands pupfish, is found in the waters here. Coyotes, porcupines, foxes, and bobcats are some of the mammalian species of these habitats. 7 species of amphibians, several reptilian species, and over 600 species of invertebrates also call this desert landscape their home.
Environmental Threats and Conservation
Since the White Sands National Monument is an inhospitable area, completely unsuitable for agricultural purposes and cattle grazing, there is little human intervention for settlement purposes in the area. However, ever since the establishment of the protected status of the White Sands National Monument, there have been several disputes between the military authorities and the conservation personnel of the National Monument. The Holloman Air Force Base and the White Sands Missile Range both surround the monument and misfired missiles from these military bases have often damaged property and natural quality of the White Sands. The proposal to enlist the White Sands National Monument as part of the UNESCO World Heritage List has also been met with a lot of protests on the part of the military who believe that such a status would eventually require the eradication of military bases from the area.