David G. Havlick is a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.
He is the author of “No Place Distant: Roads and Motorized Recreation on America’s Public Lands” and co-editor of “Restoring Layered Landscapes: History, Ecology, and Culture.”
The following is an excerpt from his book, “Bombs Away.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for General Nonfiction
For nearly two decades, I have been intentionally visiting militarized landscapes across North America, and in parts of Europe and East Asia. At times I bring my kids along. Often, I’ve collaborated with my wife on projects relating to these complex, layered sites where history and nature defy separation. Our friends and colleagues sometimes tease us and wonder why we’d take family trips to old bombing ranges and chemical weapons plants, rather than just enjoy the mountains and wildlands of Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West.
These are fair questions, and I’m tempted to take them somewhat lightly, as they’re meant. But in truth, most of us spend more time than we realize in militarized landscapes. The city where I live, Colorado Springs, is bordered on four sides by military installations, including a major complex bored deep into a mountain of granite. One of our most popular tourist attractions, the US Olympic Training Center complex—just a few blocks from my house—occupies the grounds of the former Ent Air Force Base. Despite the array of active and former installations, the oversized presence of military-related jobs, and Colorado Springs’ reputation as a military-friendly community, very few residents here would say that they live in a militarized landscape. And yet, if we apply the deﬁnition for militarized landscapes that I offered at the outset of this book—places that have been substantially impacted by military or defense activities—Colorado Springs quite easily ﬁts. The city takes a certain pride in its military connections (in 2015 USA Today ranked it the second-best large city in the country for military veterans), and a number of its militarized features are readily apparent. As many examples of military-to-wildlife land use changes from around the world illustrate, however, contemporary and historic impacts of militarization elsewhere are often obscured (or disappearing) from view.
Places such as the DMZ, the Iron Curtain Trail, and M2W refuges provide striking examples of the continued blurring of militarization, conservation, and restoration, but even some of America’s most prized natural areas also qualify in more limited or historical ways as militarized landscapes. Yellow- stone, the world’s ﬁrst national park, for its ﬁrst few decades was patrolled and managed by US Army troops in order to create some semblance of protection for the site’s geothermal and other natural wonders that were being ravaged by commercial and recreational visitors. Yosemite and other early American parks enjoyed similar military protection until a civilian park service and ranger corps—which itself was explicitly patterned after the military—was ﬁnally put in place. Both of these national parks, and other sites such as the Grand Canyon, also depended on a militarized removal of native people to meet nineteenth-century notions of natural landscapes.
It is perhaps not so strange, then, to visit militarized landscapes as part of family vacations or at other times in our daily lives; it’s just that too often we never notice that we’re doing so. Author Viet Thanh Nguyen invokes the ideas of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., pointing out how even many of the mundane spaces and actions of our daily lives carry traces of militarization: “These are the places where memories of war belong. Most troublesome is the memory of how it [the US war in Vietnam] was a war that took place not only over there but also over here, because a war is not just about the shooting but about the people who make the bullets and deliver the bullets and, perhaps most importantly, pay for the bullets.”
In some cases, becoming more alert to the many activities that contribute to war, and the varied histories and geographies where this occurs, can make these events and landscapes more visible. This, in turn, can promote new understandings about militarization that honor the sacriﬁces demanded of both nature and culture—or more properly, the blending of these domains. This is the beauty, in a sense, of not forgetting, and I’d like to think that we can learn to embrace restoration in a way that focuses not only on erasing ecological damage, but also on protecting and reintegrating cultural meaning.
If one task that lies ahead is to understand where, how, and why militarized landscapes exist as they do, and to try to keep these sites meaningful even as they naturalize and take on new features, names, and uses, then it will be imperative to look for examples of how to proceed. At its base, my concern—and my fascination—with these places that are signiﬁcant both for their militarized histories and their militarized ecologies is that they challenge us to think more critically and creatively about the world we inhabit. If we are determined to avoid the damaging erasure of culturally signiﬁcant land use histories in these places, can we do so in ways that allow us to erase ecological damage in the interest of restoration and conservation?
Rocky Flats, Colorado
For forty-two years, the production of plutonium triggers for the United States’ nuclear arsenal took place just ten miles from the house where I grew up. For a child, this usually seemed a safe distance. Most days I was little troubled by my proximity to one of the atomic epicenters of Cold War geopolitics and its contributions to possible nuclear destruction (or prevention, as some suggest); but by the time I was a teenager, the work taking place at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant sometimes came into view more personally.
I think back, for instance, to my high school physics course where a classmate’s father visited one day. He worked at Rocky Flats and spoke to us about how science informed his job at the plant. His show-and-tell item was particularly memorable: a button of plutonium encased in leaded glass. He assured us it was perfectly safe in this form (the alpha radiation it emits travels just a few inches and is inept at penetrating most solids), but also emphasized that even a microgram absorbed inside the body—through the lungs, for example—could be enough to kill a person. Years later, when I learned he’d died of cancer, I wondered if somewhere at work he’d taken an inopportune breath.
When I think of Rocky Flats, I also think of the Buddhist monk who for years walked barefoot the sixteen miles from town to the plant and back, tapping a small drum in steady protest against the products of war. I remember larger protests too: the tipis pitched on railroad tracks, trying to block or delay shipments in and out of the plant; the thousands of people who held hands to encircle the plant in symbolic containment; the concerts and arrests and regular assurances of the plant’s safety, then later an FBI raid and news of disastrous ﬁres and plutonium releases and, ﬁnally, the decision to close the plant for good. I remember these people and these events because I witnessed them as part of the landscape where I lived.
Today, however, when I pass this same site, only the railroad tracks are evident; all the buildings from the plant are gone. Adjacent to this former centerpiece of US weapons production, new subdivisions are springing into view. One of these, located immediately south of the former Rocky Flats site, is the Candelas development. The Candelas website presents images of verdant open space backed by the Colorado Front Range and the tag line “Life Wide Open is Our Dream view.” The accompanying text sells the environmental amenities of the development: “There is a magniﬁcent sweep of mountain pastureland you’d swear you’ve seen before on picture postcards of the great American West. This wide-open landscape, this epitome of raw western beauty, is called Candelas. . . . Candelas presents a life full of the very things people love most about Colorado. Come live life wide open.”33 The development also has a website dedicated speciﬁcally to the Rocky Flats NWR, where prospective homeowners can easily ﬁnd more images of wildlife, open space, and mountain scenery amid assurances of the location’s safety, but readers need to dig deep to ﬁnd a single mention of plutonium.
My point here is not to claim that the Candelas development or even the Rocky Flats site itself is not safe—I hope that they are. Rather, I want to raise questions about what it is that most people now come to know about this place. Presented with a landscape that no longer appears militarized, where the protests have quieted and production has long since stopped, should we—or those buying homes at Candelas—accept this land as natural, the epitome of raw western beauty, or is it important to think about it differently because of its past?
I would like to think that my experiences with militarized landscapes are somehow extraordinary, that I encounter these places only because I seek them out, but I know this isn’t entirely true. My experiences are different; the contexts and contours of my interactions are unique. Most of us, though, have encounters like these in some form or another. Perhaps yours is the Hanford site, in Washington State, which now draws tourists to visit the B Reactor that produced plutonium used in the Trinity test in New Mexico, and the bomb that devastated Nagasaki. The reactor is part of Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which was designated in November 2015 and includes places that were instrumental in America’s early development of atomic bombs: Hanford, Washington; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Los Alamos, New Mexico. The park is unique for its dispersed geography, its joint management by the NPS and the US Department of Energy, and also highlights how commemoration and interpretation of militarized landscapes can be accomplished in more nuanced ways than many military-to-wildlife refuges seem to manage. As the NPS describes this new historical park:
“The Manhattan Project and its legacy is a complex story. It’s the story of more than 600,000 Americans leaving their homes and families to work on a project they were told was vital to the war effort. It’s the story of generals, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, and engineers pushing and broadening the limits of human knowledge and technological achievement in ways never before imagined. It is also the story of the death and destruction associated with World War II and a new weapon capable of unimagined levels of devastation. A visit to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park . . . challenges us to think about how the world has changed with the dawn of the nuclear age.”
The Hanford portion of the Manhattan Project park is also contained within a larger protected area managed by the FWS: the Hanford Reach National Monument. As yet another form of an M2W landscape, Hanford Reach is acclaimed as one of the “largest river complexes in the country” that holds “an exceptionally wide variety of habitats within a relatively small assemblage of public lands.” In his June 2000 declaration that created the monument, President Bill Clinton described Hanford Reach as “a biological treasure,” created in part by its location as a buffer surrounding the nuclear weapons development that took place. The FWS points to the site’s desert and river habitats as “sharply contrasting environments,” a description that could also ﬁt the ecological prominence of Hanford Reach in contrast to its legacy of environmental contamination. The reach itself, a ﬁfty-mile segment of the Columbia River, is considered the longest free-ﬂowing stretch of the western United States’ largest river, and has been proposed repeatedly for national Wild and Scenic River designation. (Geographer Shannon Cram puts the unnatural history of the reach more explicitly in view, in one article calling Hanford a “Wild and Scenic Wasteland.”)
US Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) was among those who lauded the monument designation. In her press release, delivered in 2000 as she prepared to ﬂoat a section of the river with Vice President Al Gore, Murray framed the new monument primarily as an extraordinary natural landscape: “From its pristine natural beauty to the salmon who spawn in its waters to its strong Native American history, the Hanford Reach is a unique American resource. This designation means more salmon restoration, more recreation and tourism, and national prominence for the Tri-Cities community and Washington State.” Though Murray alluded obliquely to a “community that has given so much to . . . our country,” no doubt with the Tri-Cities of Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland, and Washington State’s history of weapons production in mind, she failed to include a single mention of nuclear weapons production, contamination, or the heavy traces of industrial civilization that in so many ways shape this site.
In fact, it took years of concerted effort to ensure that all remaining infrastructure from the various Manhattan Project sites wasn’t simply obliterated. By the early 1990s, with Cold War production facilities closing and facing costly cleanups, many ofﬁcials deemed razing and burial to be the most cost effective and attractive option for dealing with obsolete militarized landscapes. This approach was implemented in places such as Rocky Flats, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and many of the BRAC closures that have since become wildlife refuges. At the Los Alamos National Laboratory, ofﬁcials estimated it would cost $3 million simply to stabilize aging buildings. In 1997, the director of the lab declared that preserving the buildings “would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.”
Against these plans to demolish key properties at Los Alamos and similar proposals to dismantle the Hanford reactors, a handful of voices spoke against the loss of key elements of American Cold War history. One Department of Energy employee, Cynthia Kelly, contacted the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and urged they visit the Los Alamos site. In November 1998, members of the advisory council met at Los Alamos and concluded not only that the facility ought to be protected as a national historic landmark, but that it was suitable for designation as a World Heritage Site (Japan’s Hiroshima Peace Memorial received this designation in 1996). Kelly subsequently stepped away from a decades-long career with the Department of Energy to found and direct the nonproﬁt Atomic Heritage Foundation, which ultimately played a key role in securing lasting federal recognition and protection of Manhattan Project sites.
The national historical park designation that now covers Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford helps establish that important cultural elements should not be lost from these sites, even as Hanford’s national monument designation marks its ecological features. The two kinds of protections applied to Hanford, at least, may serve to prevent losses of meaning that narrower wildlife refuge labels seem to accommodate. At the very least, the treatment of Hanford’s complex mix of land uses and conditions illustrates how federal agencies and elected ofﬁcials can respond more effectively to preserve nature and culture together. It may not be easy—as the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s Cynthia Kelly points out, it took longer to create Manhattan Project National Historical Park than it did for the actual Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb—but this and other examples show how it can be done.
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