Source: Sante Fe New Mexican | Margaret Wright | June 6, 2015

From left, statues of Robert Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie R. Groves stand on the south side of Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos. A new national historic park will be opening in Los Alamos to commemorate the Manhattan Project and its contribution to winning World War II. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

From left, statues of Robert Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie R. Groves stand on the south side of Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos. A new national historic park will be opening in Los Alamos to commemorate the Manhattan Project and its contribution to winning World War II. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

Roger Rasmussen knows the ground in Los Alamos where the world’s first atomic bombs were developed and assembled for the top-secret Manhattan Project. Now 95 years old, he was among a group of young engineering students deployed by the U.S. Army to what was then a remote military post atop a dusty mesa. Thanks to last year’s signing of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act, some of the sites from that era will eventually be open to a much wider audience.

Yet Rasmussen said he struggles to comprehend how the jubilant atmosphere surrounding the park’s designation fits with what he experienced firsthand.

“I’m just fascinated with all these people who are just thrilled with this whole thing,” he said. “I don’t know what we’re celebrating. My view of it is not about the place, which is gone, but the time and who was there. It wasn’t a big celebration. It was survival.”

Rasmussen’s struggle to understand the significance of the Manhattan Project’s National Historical Park designation highlights the central challenge as the park takes shape, especially as the full cost, logistics and financing remain open questions.

What’s left of New Mexico’s Manhattan Project work sites are locked behind closely guarded gates of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, presenting one of many practical considerations the U.S. Department of Energy and National Park Service must work out as they partner to fund and operate the new park.

Laurie Morman, chief operating officer of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Management and Performance Division, was part of a delegation of federal officials from both agencies who met with local leaders in Los Alamos this past week. Theirs was the last in a series of site visits conducted since the national park was officially designated. The park’s far-flung geographic disbursement adds another layer of complexity to the project, Morman said.

Park sites are located throughout Los Alamos and across the country in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash. The Department of Energy will maintain ownership and maintenance of each one, while the National Park Service is responsible for operation and historical interpretation, Morman said. “I think the Park Service has been pleasantly surprised that the communities have already done so much. The Park Service is not starting from a blank page.”

Volunteers in each location are already hosting historical tours, and some have experience negotiating some of the challenges when it comes to transporting visitors to Manhattan Project sites, she added. “There’s a lot of work still to be done, but the communities have given us an advantage.”

Ensuring funding at a time of strained congressional relations and budgets will be a long-term challenge, Morman said. Neither the Department of Energy nor the National Park Service has firm estimates yet of what it will cost to get the park up and running.

Many of the project sites will require years before they’ll be ready for public access, according to Morman. They either require major upgrades or they are located near sensitive, active Department of Energy missions. Components of the Los Alamos site, for example, are behind the national laboratory’s high-security perimeters.

Morman said she isn’t prepared yet to comment on the environmental and safety hazards that have to be addressed before the park opens its doors to visitors, but Kristin Henderson, chairwoman of the Los Alamos County Council, said she feels confident after meeting with federal officials who handle environmental management.

“My experience is that the DOE takes that very seriously, and they take it seriously across the DOE complex and the communities that have issues,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a conflict with appreciating both national security within all the amazing science that goes on at the lab and still realizing there’s an obligation to clean up the environment. I think both those things are happening.”

A National Park Service team already has been assembled to plan visitors’ experiences of the park, but it’s still not clear how the narrative of its history will take shape, said Victor Knox, associate director of the Park Service’s Planning, Facilities and Lands Division. He acknowledged that a range of interpretations surround the Manhattan Project’s significance, some of which are critical of the park’s designation.

Henderson offered assurances that the park won’t represent a one-sided cheer for engineering. “I think all the people involved are aware that this is a nuanced story,” she said, including experiences of people who have suffered devastating effects from the deployment of atomic technology.

Rasmussen, a slight man with a shock of white hair, said the Manhattan Project he experienced has faded away along with his generation. He doesn’t recognize the place where he landed more than 70 years ago in Los Alamos’ contemporary incarnation.

Henderson also alluded to that ongoing transformation. She said the county is looking at how the Manhattan Project park can be leveraged alongside the nearby Valles Caldera National Preserve and the Bandelier National Monument to draw more tourism and diversify the area’s economy beyond the national lab.

Increasing numbers of people don’t know what the Manhattan Project was, Rasmussen said, and they usually fail to grasp what it meant during his day.

“Generations are losing the sense of the magnanimity at the time,” he said. “They’re living in their own times, and people aren’t really interested in history.”

He wonders aloud whether the national park will be able to help that.