Sherry Robinson: Park would recognize nuclear beginnings

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By Sherry Robinson

In October, the President announced that the home of labor leader Cesar Chavez would be a national monument. A month before, the House defeated Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s measure to create the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

The political gods smiled on Chavez’s California farmhouse and 187 surrounding acres because both parties need to show some love to the nation’s Hispanic people, and creating a monument is a lot easier than passing immigration reform.

The A-bomb park, as it was dubbed in headlines, didn’t enjoy that kind of momentum. Co-sponsor Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, promised to try again before year end. I hope he and Sen. Tom Udall take the baton after Bingaman bows out. Although the bill mustered 237 votes in favor to 180 against, it needed a bigger majority.

Some members of Congress objected to cost, and some apparently agreed with Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Ohio, who saw the park as a celebration of “ingenuity that was used to put all humanity at risk.” 

The park doesn’t have to be a money pit. Los Alamos National Laboratory and the community of Los Alamos are well aware of their place in history, and they’ve taken steps to preserve some key resources. The National Park Service wouldn’t have to start from scratch. And a 2009 NPS study concluded it was possible to manage Los Alamos’s landmarks as a park. 

Another option is designating the sites as a national heritage area, managed by public-private partnerships, or as national historic sites affiliated with the national parks system. Some structures are already part of a National Historic Landmark District. The park could be done with a modest visitor’s center (the town’s Bradbury Science Museum already offers exhibits) along with self-guided walks.

As for Kucinich’s argument, the bomb’s dreadful destructive power and its continued threat are certainly deserving of recognition, so that we remember, reflect and understand. There is ample precedent. 

The Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner State Monument is a handsome, thoughtful, culturally sensitive recognition of a miserable episode in New Mexico history – the forced march and containment of some 10,000 Navajos and about 400 Mescalero Apaches at a place on the Pecos River known as the Bosque Redondo. 

The memorial doesn’t celebrate the army’s failed social experiment. It does honor the memory of the many who died there and teaches about that time in history. Staffers at the monument tell me that Navajos at first didn’t visit. In time, Navajo students would stop on their way to Eastern New Mexico University, and later they brought their elders.

In the same vein, the preserved remnants of our frontier forts aren’t a celebration of war, but an honoring of the past. 

It might surprise critics to know there is interest in these places. In southern New Mexico, Trinity Site, which launched the nuclear age, draws hundreds of visitors on the two days a year it opens to the public. And 10,000 people a year visit the B Reactor in Hanford, Wash., which produced plutonium for the first bomb. Visitors come from all 50 states and 39 countries.

Parks and monuments don’t have to be quaint or beautiful. They do have to preserve the relics of significant events and people. 

“The development of the atomic bomb through the Manhattan Project was one of the most transformative events in our nation’s history; it ushered in the atomic age, changed the role of the United States in the world community, and set the stage for the Cold War,” said Herbert Frost, associate director of the Natural Resources Stewardship and Science, during testimony in June.

Bingaman said, “While its legacy is complicated, it changed the course of history and is of national and international significance, and for those reasons I believe it is important for future generations to learn from it.”

Sherry Robinson

New Mexico News Service