from an essay by Dennis Ditmanson
My introduction to Craig Varjabedian came in the form of a phone call. He explained that he was working on a book, a photographic essay, on the White Sands and that a mutual friend had suggested he talk to me about my experiences while serving as Superintendent at the Park. Intrigued, I agreed to meet for breakfast and was soon drawn into the project by Craig’s enthusiasm and his sincere and genuine dedication to his craft. Through subsequent conversations I’ve come to admire his concern for getting to the core of whatever project he is working on and found myself drawn into this story through his probing questions and desire to make this publication an authentic—as he put it—representation of this landscape. Craig’s photographs speak so eloquently of the spirit of the White Sands that I was at a loss as to what I might contribute until I thought about the mix of people and place that for me, sets the White Sands apart.
As a career National Park Service manager, my introduction to White Sands National Monument was not the usual first view experienced by an incoming Park Superintendent. When Regional Director John Cook appointed me to the position early in 1989, it was with the caveat that I be on hand for the Easter Weekend activities at the park, even though my official reporting date was a bit later in the Spring. He explained that particular weekend was a big deal for the park and it would be important that I see the situation for myself in order to better understand the issues I’d face once I was ensconced in the position. Striving to make the best first impression on my soon-to-be staff I headed for the park at what I thought was an early hour only to find traffic backed up out onto the highway. Good, I thought, people enjoying their National Monument. What I found was pretty much chaos—a smaller version of the Spring Break mayhem usually associated with Fort Lauderdale or South Padre Island. After spending the day wading through a sea of beer cans and paper cups with the Park Rangers while making contacts with the revelers, Director Cook’s message was clear—we had to find a way to balance use with visitor safety and resource protection. White Sands was an area set aside for the protection of a pretty special environment, but people also had a place in that landscape. In retrospect, I find most of the memories of my time there revolve around that interplay between the visitors and the resource.
I think Tom Charles had that same thought in mind. A local businessman, Mr. Charles was also a local “booster” who worked tirelessly to have the White Sands set aside as a unit of the National Park system. He saw economic potential in the dunefield but recognized that its value lay in being promoted, as he put it, “by the inspiration rather than by the railcar load.” Beginning in 1933 as the first caretaker of the new monument he pressed for roads and other improvements that would get visitors into the landscape. Early on in my time at White Sands I happened on the bound copies of the Monthly Superintendent’s Reports prepared by Johnwill Faris, who served as Superintendent there longer than anyone—from November of 1939 until January of 1961. If Tom Charles is to be considered the “Father” of White Sands, then Johnwill Faris has to be its “hero.” Coming on the scene when he did, just at the beginning of the war years, he guided the fledgling monument through that period when the growth of the military presence in the Tularosa Basin threatened its very existence. Johnwill’s reports stayed on the corner of my desk throughout my tenure.
Having seen the abuse of the park on that first Easter, I wanted to get a grasp of how visitor use occurred on a more typical day. Going into “covert” mode—causing much snickering among the staff—I donned shorts and a t-shirt, grabbed a lawn chair, and found a tall dune from which I could observe visitor behavior. Unlike the previous experience, I saw families picnicking, kids surfing the dunes, a volleyball game or two, an artist set up with a sketchpad, and others like myself, alone on a dune, just absorbed with a sense of place. It occurred to me that here was the challenge of the National Park Service mission in a microcosm— “… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” (16 U.S.C., Sec. 1). Linking people and place occupied me for the next eight years, but this session ended when it dawned on me that sitting in a metal lawn chair on the highest point around probably wasn’t the best idea, given the rapidly approaching thunderstorm . . .
My time with the National Park Service ran some thirty-five years and I’m often asked about my favorite park. The assignment to White Sands always resonates as the highlight of my NPS years. Thanks to the relationship with our military neighbors I was able to monitor the resource in ways that would not otherwise have been possible. In particular, professional cultural and natural resource management staff from WSMR were available for consultation and willingly shared data from studies conducted on resources common to both the Range and the Monument. Community leaders came to value the Monument as a significant element of the local economy and would include visits to NPS officials as a part of their annual trips to Congressional offices in Washington, D.C. I was able to experience this place in every way imaginable, on foot, on horseback, on an ATV, by helicopter, through satellite imagery, and through the eyes of the many visitors who shared their experiences. For the most part, however, what made the difference were the many opportunities to get out of the office and to see firsthand the interplay between people and resource. I’d like to think that exposure helped me to make a difference—or to echo Jim Eckles—to make this bit of the country worth defending.
Craig’s lens has captured the stunning beauty of the White Sands but the absolute solitude of the landscape also has room for a family gathering of hundreds. They harbor important cultural resources and have significant historical tales to tell and yet offer unique recreational opportunities. They are home to plants and animals specially adapted to this environment. They allow for the ravages of a Hollywood movie set and seemingly heal overnight with a freshening wind. They seem as dry and lifeless as a desert but a few inches of digging will bring water to the surface. They can seem other-worldly and then overhead will appear the latest in twenty-first century aircraft. They are changeless and yet ever-changing. That dichotomy is worthy of a visit—come see for yourself.
Essay Copyright ©Dennis Ditmanson. All Rights Reserved
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