Manhattan Project Park still possible

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History > Supporters make second attempt to push bill through Congress

By Arin McKenna

All hope was not lost as bills to create the Manhattan Project National Historic Park stalled in Congress last session.
The legislation appears to have a new lease on life and supporters are optimistic about the chances of seeing a new national park by the end of the current session.

The proposed park would encompass historical sites in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash., and together they tell the story of the secret project to build the first atomic weapons during World War II.

New Mexico’s recently retired Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) sponsored the bill in the Senate last session. Bingaman was chair of the Senate Committee for Energy and Natural Resources, where bills regarding public lands receive a first hearing.

The committee’s new chair, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), has expressed support for the proposed park in the past.

Supporters were also excited to learn that newly elected Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who voted for the bill as a member of the House last session, was named to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“The community of Los Alamos and New Mexico has played a central role in our nation’s nuclear history, and a national historic park will help educate the public about our state’s important contributions to this era,” Heinrich said. “The National Park Service has tremendous experience in exploring our complex history and a Manhattan Project National Historic Park would be an important addition to the national park system.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has a spot on the other key committee–Appropriations. The bill has strong backing in the House as well, including last year’s sponsor, Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).

“We are really pleased that Doc Hastings is still chair of the House committee,” said Los Alamos Historical Society Executive Director Heather McClenahan. McClenahan is the county’s point person for the MPNHP project. “And he, of all the congressional people, I think is the most excited about getting this part done. So he is very much on board and I think will be moving it forward in his committee very soon.”

New Mexico’s 3rd District Congressman Ben Ray Luján, who remains a strong supporter, issued the following statement.

“The establishment of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park would ensure that the people of New Mexico, from all cultures and backgrounds, who were instrumental in the project, will not be forgotten. A national historical park in Los Alamos will allow us to reflect on our own history, how this project changed the world, and how we can move forward ensuring peace and prosperity.”

Just over a week ago the proposed park gained more high-level support.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Manhattan Project Historic Sites a threatened National Treasure (savingplaces.org). The National Trust intends to partner with the Department of Energy and local officials to support the formation of a national park to protect the Manhattan Project sites.

“Naming this a National Treasure makes this a priority of the National Trust, and it’s something that they’re really trying to get done,” McClenahan said. “So they’ve got staff people and lobbyists that are working on this.”

The National Parks Conservation Association also has made the project a priority and is actively lobbying for the bill.

Those two organizations have joined with the proposed park’s most ardent supporter, the Atomic Heritage Foundation, to draft a letter to the New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington Congressional delegations, urging them to move new bills forward quickly and use the momentum built up in the last session to get the legislation passed.

“Because we have a new Congress, we have to start the whole process over again,” McClenahan said. “The good news is that this time around people have heard of it and people know about it, they understand it, and so we think we’ll be able to get it moved ahead quickly. And we won’t have the kind of deadline that we came up against before.”

McClenahan said the main concern expressed by House committee members last year was cost.

McClenahan was optimistic about the park’s chances.

“It is very rare that you get a bill that has bicameral and bipartisan support,” McClenahan said. “When we were in Washington last summer we were told by one of the committee staffers–and I don’t know how much hyperbole there was in this–that there were about four bills in the house that had bipartisan support, and this was one of them.”

“I think it would be a tragedy and a travesty if the history of Manhattan Project is not told, because it truly is history that changed the world, for better or worse,” McClenahan said.

McClenahan is in Washington this week attending a conference called “Transforming the Relationship Between Science and Society: The Manhattan Project and Its Legacy.” Representatives from the three Manhattan Project sites as well as renowned historians, scholars and researches will discuss topics of interpretation the new park should address if the project is approved.