Historic event: Signing culmination of years of work behind the scenes
By Arin McKenna
Monday, November 9, 2015 at 8:53 am
The Manhattan Project National Historical Park passes another milestone Tuesday when Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz sign a memorandum of agreement formally establishing the park.
Los Alamos County Council Chair Kristin Henderson, Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Cultural Resources Historian Ellen McGehee, Los Alamos Historical Society Executive Director Heather McClenahan, Fran Berting, a member of Manhattan Project Park Advisory Committee who was active during legislative efforts, and Dr. Ben Neal, also a member of the advisory committee, will travel to Washington for the ceremony.
Los Alamos holds its own celebration Wednesday.
The park is the culmination of 10 years of effort by the three communities included within its boundaries: Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash. The idea originated with Cynthia Kelly, founder and president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation. Attempts at passing legislation began in 2004.
Historical society director emeritus Hedy Dunn was among those whom Kelly approached for support.
“I was there back in the days of working with Cindy Kelly when all of this was a pipe dream,” Dunn said. “There were so many years of rejection and slow votes and no votes and adverse votes and that sort of thing. It got kicked around for a long time.”
Dunn credits McClenahan in particular for “going so many times to Washington and meeting with folks and pleading and begging and hoping and dreaming,” as well as many local delegations, congressional delegates and the county council for making the “pipe dream” a reality.
“The celebratory is very easy for those of us who were on the periphery,” Dunn said. “The people in the trenches deserve the kudos.”
President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law Dec. 19, 2014, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Just three weeks earlier, McClenahan received news that the public lands legislation that included the MPNHP had been stricken from the NDAA. Supporters leapt into action, bombarding their congressional delegates with requests to restore the legislation, and by 10:30 p.m. that night, their goal was achieved. The bill passed the House on Dec. 4 and the Senate on Dec. 12.
The roller coaster ride of those final weeks was typical of the ups and downs supporters experienced over the years.
When the legislation passed, McClenahan − who served as the county’s point person during those efforts − told the Monitor: “To know that the park is actually going to happen is a great fulfillment, and I’m so excited, because I’m a little bit passionate about this history. I’m a lot passionate about this history. And I get so excited talking to people about it, and now I am thinking about hundreds of thousands more visitors every year who are going to get to learn about it, and that just thrills me to no end.”
Nancy Bartlit, who was the historical society president when Kelly began her efforts in 2004, is also pleased.
Bartlit served on one of the Washington delegations and took every opportunity to ask New Mexico’s congressional delegates for support.
“I just think it’s a wonderful opportunity for historians to tell what happened and then for people to make up their own minds about the bombs,” Bartlit said.
“I feel that the whole story should be told, maybe virtually, so we know how and why the bombs were developed and then how they were used.”
For McGehee, this moment is intensely personal.
“For me professionally, it’s really a highlight of my 30 years at the lab, to have this designation for these historic buildings that I’ve been working on over the years − working on saving them, working on preserving them, restoring them, interpreting them − these buildings have been a big part of my professional career,” McGehee said.
McGehee began work on preserving V-Site and identifying the most significant Manhattan Project buildings in the 1990s.
“The intent, though, was just to protect them and interpret the history. We really didn’t ever think they would be part of a park,” McGehee said.
As of Nov. 11, McGehee will be exclusively managing LANL’s park eligible buildings and working with NPS to interpret those sites and get them park ready.
NPS is wasting no time before launching the next phase for creating a viable park: producing a management plan; determining strategies for proving access to DOE sites; and developing interpretation.
McGehee and McClenahan will spend two days in Washington next week as part of a scholars forum composed of Manhattan Project historians and researchers, who will help NPS identify interpretive themes for the park.
Some have expressed fears that the new park will glorify the atomic bomb or minimalize the impacts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Victor Knox, associate director for NPS planning, facilities and land, worked to assuage those fears at an event last summer.
“The National Park Service is America’s storyteller. We tell the stories of our country’s great triumphs, as well as those things that we aren’t so proud of, such as slavery, Japanese internment during World War II and some of the massacres and battles with American Indians,” Knox said. “We are committed to telling the story for the Manhattan Project in all its complexity and controversy, and to let each person that visits the park reach their own conclusions about the Manhattan Project and the atomic age it started.”
Henderson is glad to see that history being told.
“We’re all so aware of what happened and why this town exists, but it’s important for our nation that we commemorate the Manhattan Project and the work that was done, and the consequences to world history,” Henderson said.
Henderson thanked those who had the foresight to preserve the town’s history long before the park was even considered.
“I’m so appreciative to the people over time in our town who have saved our history and worked for that so that we still have a lot of those stores and a lot of the artifacts, things we wouldn’t have had if they hadn’t worked so hard over the years, knowing it was an important story that needed to be saved.”