Editor’s note: The National Park Service is celebrating its centennial this year, as August 25, 2016 marked its 100th anniversary. This is the first of three posts in an Edge Effects series about the National Parks.
In the depths of New Mexico’s Pajarito Plateau lies one of the newest units of the National Park Service: the Los Alamos part of the Manhattan Project. Here, decades ago, J. Robert Oppenheimer returned to the countryside he’d once traversed as a boy scout to build the world’s first atomic bomb.
Unlike most National Parks, this site is closed to the public, now and for the foreseeable future, as it is currently within the boundaries of Los Alamos National Lab, a still-active nuclear weapons repository.
Through a series of fortunate events, I got to visit these sites of the Manhattan Project on my fifth day as an intern for the National Park Service. As a historian, I am quite familiar with the history of the bomb’s development and its trajectory into the Cold War and beyond, but even this could not prepare me for the feeling of standing in the canyon, looking at this landscape filled with ancient Indian caveats and pottery shards, ranching log cabins, and the concrete bunkers of the atomic age.
By their very definition, cultural landscapes reflect the ever-changing relationship between humans and the environment. All national parks reflect this, even though we often romanticize them as being pure, untouched nature. Standing in the bunker where the U.S. government did implosion testing for the Fat Man bomb—which would later detonated over Nagasaki—forced me to think of the National Park’s history and legacy in a new way. What does it mean for the NPS’ next 100 years when they are preserving the history of the atom bomb under the same legislation as Old Faithful?
This summer, I worked with the NPS to improve the resiliency of parks’ cultural landscapes in the face of ongoing threats, such as climate change. While I visited several parks and studied even more, I began to see the evolution of the NPS over its 100 years. Originally, the majority of parks preserved great tracts of land in the West, filled with natural wonders. Over time, we entrusted the NPS with sites of historic and cultural significance, greatly increasing the diversity of parks in theme and locations, from Yosemite and Yellowstone and Grand Tetons to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum National Historic Site, the African Burial Ground National Monument, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
In light of the Centennial this August, the NPS endeavored to truly bring our nation into our parks, from the Find Your Park/Encuentra Tu Parque program to President Obama’s Every Kid in a Park program. By all accounts, these and other campaigns have been wildly successful, with many parks already reporting record visitation and hoping to top the 305 million visitors from 2015. Instagram is flooded with photographs of people exploring our nation’s heritage, tagged with #findyourpark and #nps100 and the wonderful #rangerspointingatthings.
Yet as wonderful as the Centennial celebrations are, they bring to light one of the fundamental issues facing the NPS: many think of the National Park System as encompassing only National Parks. These 59 parks includes some of the most well-known sites such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Badlands, Glacier, Denali, and Sequoia. These are the parks Randy Olson used for his map that explored an epic park-to-park road trip. These are the parks that reporters cover most prominently. A recent Washington Post piece that covered only the 59 wonders is a good example of that limited reputation.
Yet America’s heritage is far greater than the sum of our 59 natural wonders. These 59 parks only make up a small fraction of the 413 places preserved for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people,” as the act of Congress read that created Yosemite. The remaining 354 are instead designated as National Monuments, Battlefields, Seashores, Trails, Parkways, Preserves, Memorials, and Historic Sites, among others. Nonetheless, they are still part of the National Park Service. This June, President Obama designated Stonewall Inn as the newest Monument, making it the first site in the NPS preserving the history of the LGBT community. “That all of us are created equal is the star that guides us still,” Obama said during his second inaugural address in 2013, “just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” These three monumental sites in US history are now all part of the NPS, but they—and other sites like them—are typically not included when people think of our nation’s parks.
This difference, while somewhat semantic, represents one of the main challenges the NPS needs to address. We need to make our parks more inclusive, which means recognizing how few Americans actually can afford to travel to, and explore, the “traditional” national parks. The majority of the official National Parks are typically far away from cities and thus virtually inaccessible by public transportation. High costs for lodging, food, and gear makes the picturesque family vacation to one of the 59 park too far out of reach for many Americans.
Our national parks encompass so much more than breathtaking geysers and majestic bison grazing at sunset. These parks preserve more than just nature, but a complex history of humans and their environment. Walking down the streets of Los Alamos I wondered if the scientists of the Manhattan Project ever thought that the site of their experiments would one day be preserved alongside the Grand Canyon and Appomattox Court House.
Featured Image: A lone bison grazes at Badlands National Park. Photo by Author.
Kathleen Conti is simultaneously pursuing a Masters of Science in Historic Preservation at the University of Texas at Austin and a PhD in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her dissertation studies the inception and professionalization of historic preservation as a distinct area of expertise, focusing on international cooperation among practitioners in the US and the USSR. Contact.