Later this week, I’ll be visiting The Secret City Festival in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. If you’ll remember, Oak Ridge was the government-constructed, highly-secret city built in 1942 as the main production complex for the Manhattan Project—you know, where they (with the help of Los Alamos and Hanford) developed and built the atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as several thousand other nuclear weapons. And now the whole city turns into a not-so-secret festival of the county fair sort, each June. Except this county fair has reactor tours and plutonium separation facility visits, which I guess makes it not so American county fair-like, or is it the epitome of American county fair? I don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to talk more about that after I actually visit the site.
Today we’re interested in the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act! The Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act is the short name for H.R. 1208 and S. 507 (bills, people!), which if enacted, will “establish the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Hanford, Washington.” The bill passed in the House (super recently even, June 14!) and we’re still waiting to see what shakes out in the Senate.
My understanding of the bill-to-law process is tenuous at best. Despite being a political science major for a few weeks in college. And probably because of the “gifted” program at my high school. Instead of normal American Government, “gifted” kids took Political Philosophy. I mean, couldn’t we have at least talked about the basic structure of the American government, rather than spending all of our time thinking about “The Allegory of the Cave,” Mr. Hauge? I’m sorry you didn’t get that job at that fancy liberal arts college, and were relegated to teaching high school kids in rural Idaho, but Christ. Let me tell you, a thorough understanding of forms and shadows has certainly helped me out when I’m trying to do something American governmentish like vote, or understand the presidential order of succession.
From my understanding of the law-making process, which I essentially learned about this morning by watching the “I’m Just a Bill” episode of Schoolhouse Rock on YouTube, this is where the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act (MPNHPA) stands right now. The House passed their version of the bill. The Senate is still thinking about it, or pork-bellying, or whatever it is that they do before they vote on a bill. If the bill passes the Senate, a bi-cameral (House and Senate working together) committee is formed to reconcile the differences between the two versions of the bill. Once they reach a compromise, a new bill comes out of committee that must be passed by both the House and Senate again before being passed on to the president to sign into law as an act. Yay, government!
The MPNHPA bill is pretty straightforward as far as bills go. And yes, I read both the House and Senate versions in their entirety, so you don’t have to. It consists of your pretty standard government/legal language and includes sponsorship information (this bill is pretty unique in that it has bipartisan support right off the bat, and a couple of the sponsors are ladies; why does this matter? I don’t know but I think it’s neat.). The rest of the bill is divided into sections outlining why this bill is a good idea, blah, blah, blah, you guys don’t really care. Both the House and Senate versions are pretty much the same, as far as I can tell as an averagely educated American person, though I’m sure there are some important differences in fiscal responsibility or trickle-down economics and whatnot, that could very well make Canada the 52nd state or something, but I don’t know. Those legislators are a sneaky lot.
The Findings section (where the meat mostly seems to be) of this particular bill, reads like this:
Congress finds that—
(1) the Manhattan Project was an unprecedented top-secret program implemented during World War II to produce an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany;
(2) a panel of experts convened by the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in 2001—
(A) stated that “the development and use of the atomic bomb during WWII has been called ‘the single most significant event of the 20th century’”; and
(B) recommended that nationally significant sites associated with the Manhattan Project be formally established as a collective unit and be administered for preservation, commemoration, and public interpretation in cooperation with the National Park Service1
The meat continues from here, but for the most part mentions studies performed by government agencies, notes the importance of such a park, names the locations or parts thereof for possible inclusion in the park—Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Hanford—with a particular push for Hanford, specifically the B Reactor (which I wrote about here), as a national park “would provide significant savings to the Federal Government relative to placing the reactor in interim safe storage and subsequent dismantling of the reactor.” So let’s make a national park instead of forking out the cost to clean up a shuttered reactor. Essentially.
Now, I’m obviously biased, and will pretty much follow the fallout of anything atomic. That being said, the B Reactor is one of the most amazing sites I’ve ever seen—natural or not. It’s right up there with the Grand Canyon. Really. I know I’ve spent many, many paragraphs in other columns on the awesomeness of the B Reactor, but to think that something went from an idea to “the single most significant event of the 20th century” in a span of months makes my brain twist and contort in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. It’s crazy awesome. And to think that there are currently plans to dismantle and cocoon (cover the whole thing in cement for the rest of all time), is just… heartbreaking. We did this. It was important (regardless of which side of the good/bad of nuclear you fall on). And it should be remembered.
So, to summarize: important nuclear stuff happened and the bill’s sponsors, and now the entire House (at this point in the bill’s journey) want to protect and promote that important stuff through a designation by the National Park Service (NPS).
So what’s the big deal about creating this national park?
Because national parks are awesome. Now, you’ve probably realized by now. I’m crazy for all things atomic, particularly things I can visit and tour. I have almost the same level of crazy for the national parks. I. Love. Them. I collect National Parks Quarters. I have a National Parks Passport. I go on crazy weekend adventures where I try to hit up four different parks in a handful of days. I volunteer at one of them, wearing an awesome green vest and a name tag, complete with the National Park logo, and though I spend most of my time telling tourists how to get to Bourbon Street or where to find the bathroom (Travel Tip: National parks almost always have the cleanest, nicest bathrooms around, and I mean its your tax dollars funding them, so use that shit!) it’s one of the most awesome things I do.
Anyway, I love the National Park Service. And now, my two loves are coming together! This proposed park (and I!) are sitting smack at the intersection of the Atomic Tourism-National Parks Venn diagram. (Don’t screw this up for me, Congress.)
So, how will these atomic tourist sites differ once they fall under the National Park Service umbrella? The hipster in me says that they’ll simply be ruined because of the mainstreamness of The Man. And I do like my strange, underfunded, secret tourist sites, but I have to say, I think the National Park Service does an amazing job maintaining and promoting the sites that make up our collective Americanness. (And just think about how saturated this Americanness was with atomic everything seventy years ago. It’s a perfect fit.) The national parks are also very good at making history of all sorts accessible to learners of all abilities. And the standardization—I like that I can go to, say Craters of the Moon National Monument and see the same bathrooms and fonts used at Yellowstone National Park or New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park. Weird, I know. But really for me, the true benefit is going to be the stamps. Say what?
The National Park Service offers a National Parks Passport. The National Parks Passport was first launched in 1986 (the year I got mine!) and functions like a normal passport, except instead of visiting countries and getting stamps, you visit national parks and get stamps. It’s incredibly simple and addicting. There are currently 401 National Park Passport Cancellation Stations, scattered throughout the various national parks, monuments and sites of the National Park Service. They are literally a stamp put to an inkpad and stamped in your passport. The ink color depends on the region you’re visiting with the brown for the Eastern Region, grey for the Southwest Region (of which Louisiana is part, who knows why) and so on. Some parks let you do it yourself and some make you visit a ranger, and have them stamp your book for you. My local national park has its own self-stampin’ location, but I watch over the stamping activities with the intensity of a prison guard. And let me tell you—stamps are important! Well, to me and most of the retirees that seem to haunt my every hobby.
A couple of summers ago, I set out on a long weekend with an ambitious yet doable goal of visiting and obtaining stamps from every national park in Louisiana and a couple in Mississippi. I would have accomplished my goal, save for some misinformation on the NPS website. The first day went well with cancellations from the USS Cairo Museum, Vicksburg NMP, Natchez Trace PKWY and the William Johnson House, but the second day, I drove all the way (hours, kids) to Northern Louisiana to visit Poverty Point.2 The road to get there was pretty tricky, and there wasn’t the normal NPS signage all over the place, but I pressed on. It was Louisiana after all. When I arrived I saw a sign that simply said: “No Federal Facilities,” meaning, NO PASSPORT STAMP. I walked into the giftshop/museum/whatever the hell it was and asked the definitely-not-a-ranger manning the register if they had a National Park Passport Cancellation Stamp. He explained that no, they didn’t, but I could have one of the park’s local stamps. Fuck no. I didn’t want to sully my National Parks Passport with his damned local stamp.
In one of the best examples of my ability to act like an adult in the face of disappointment, I didn’t say a word to the worker and got back in my car and headed to the next park, which was a good three hours away. During this I seethed and simmered and crafted an elegantly worded, “What the hell, NPS?!” email in my brain. Yep. Total grownup moves.
I’d like to tell you that my grownupness improved at the next park, and it did, but only to the point where I haphazardly continued on my route and got stamps for the rest of the locations (except for either Cane River NHA or the Cane River Creole NHP… I don’t remember which one, as the office was strangely abandoned and looked like neither tourist nor ranger had set foot on the premises in several months. Maybe this is the beginning of a great horror movie?), but didn’t really do much in the way of absorbing the culture of the sites. Basically, I acted like a stamp whore, which is not my normal style when parking it.
By the time I got home and popped open my laptop, the “what the hell, NPS?!” email came coursing out of my fingers in big waves of purple prose. It was awful. And I wasn’t very nice. And of course I didn’t do any editing before I pressed send. It was in many ways so much worse than a drunken email to an ex.
But horrible or not, I got a response. A delightful one. Ranger Josh wrote me to apologize and let me know that Poverty Point was kind of in National Parks purgatory. Apparently part of the park’s land was owned by the NPS, and part was owned by the State of Louisiana, with some private landowners thrown in there for good measure. I guess Louisiana simply wouldn’t let go of her land, even though an agreement had been made to do so. And until the NPS had all of the land, there would be no Federal facilities at the site. Ranger Josh even went a step further and offered to let me send in my passport and have them stamp it with the official NPS Poverty Point stamp, set to the date of my visit, even though it hadn’t yet been released into the wild. But, who knew if this wasn’t some sort of a scam where the NPS had me send in my passport and then kept it. Or put a tracking chip into it. Or actually just stamped it and sent it back. Either way, I didn’t fall for it. Instead, Ranger Josh sent me a piece of paper with the NPS Poverty Point stamp on it that I then taped into my passport.3 Also, and I like to believe this is because of my clear-cut, ridiculous insanity, the bottom of the Poverty Point NPS page now notes, “No Federal Facilities.”
Anyway, I hope the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act passes. For many reasons. But mostly because of the stamps.
1 A note about my use of National Parks (with an s) vs. National Park (without an s). I am so damned confused at this point. Sometimes National Parks is used, sometimes National Park is used on the government’s own websites, NPS included. So I don’t know which one is right, and don’t particularly care. I’m going to just use them interchangeably throughout, and you should do so in your brain as well. It’ll make it all a lot easier for us both.
2 Poverty Point is a series of earthen mounds. It was essentially a meeting and trading hub for an ancient network of trade routes crisscrossing the continent. It’s super-duper old, dating back 3,000 years—this is Mayan time, yo. Also, while “researching” this whole deal, I found a theory that Poverty Point was in fact the landing place of the Atlantean refugees; basically Atlantis went under, and some people fled, made their way up the Mississippi River (which, wasn’t Atlantis supposed to be somewhere around Greece?) and settled in the area now known as Northern Louisiana. Could have pulled that theory straight off a Coast to Coast AM broadcast.
3 Yes, I know I’m crazy.