New National Parks Would Help Fill the Gaps in Our Culture and History

Calutron operators at the Manhattan Project's Oak Ridge, Tennessee Facility in the mid-1940s. US Army photo by Ed Westcott.

Calutron operators at the Manhattan Project's Oak Ridge, Tennessee Facility in the mid-1940s. US Army photo by Ed Westcott.

The decision by the United States to drop atomic bombs on Japan was one of the most important and agonizing moments in world history. While there has been and will continue to be intense debate about the wisdom and implications of that decision, NPCA firmly believes it deserves to be presented and interpreted as part of the National Park System. This month marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Manhattan Project and bills are pending now in Congress that would create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Hanford, Washington, to tell that story.

NPCA has always believed in expanding the National Park System to protect and interpret a full range of nationally significant natural and cultural sites. In times of tight budgets, it is especially important to be able to make a strong case for new park priorities.

To begin to consider what new parks representing our history and culture should be top priority, we carefully analyzed a thematic framework published in 1996 by the National Park Service. The framework was devised as a tool to help evaluate the cultural and historic significance of places as potential new national park units, for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, or for designation as National Historic Landmarks. This framework identifies eight themes. Each theme represents a significant aspect of the human experience:

  • Peopling Places
  • Creating Social Institutions and Movements
  • Expressing Cultural Values
  • Shaping the Political Landscape
  • Developing the American Economy
  • Expanding Science and Technology
  • Transforming the Environment
  • Changing Role of the United States in the World Community

A single unit of the park system can represent more than one theme, yet we still found significant imbalances in the number of park units that represent each aspect of the human experience.

The themes that are least represented by units in the National Park System are “Expanding Science and Technology” and “Creating Social Institutions and Movements.” By my analysis, 120 parks fit the “Shaping the Political Landscape” theme, while only 15 fit the “Expanding Science and Technology” theme. While there is some subjectivity to how these parks could be categorized and it may not be reasonable to expect equal representation in all categories, such a large discrepancy clearly shows that our priorities are out of balance. Since the framework was published, the National Park Service and legislators have not made very much progress to  ensure adequate representation of all of these themes. Instead, the system has been expanded haphazardly, with more attention paid to the political asset a new park unit represents rather than focusing on the National Park Service’s goal to fully represent American culture and history.

We need a better way to prioritize park expansion, and NPCA is providing ideas and recommendations about how to do so to the National Parks Advisory Board. To do so we have embraced the National Park Service’s thematic framework; if better utilized, the framework could be an effective guide to expanding the park system.

What does this mean? It means we should prioritize filling the gaps in the system, and choose additions that represent these less-represented themes. We should support legislation like the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act (H.R. 5987 and S. 3300). Other potential parks that could fill the existing gaps are out there. It’s our job to find them, protect them, and tell their stories.

 

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About the Author

Anna Kohnen is former centennial intern for NPCA.