The Significance of Santa Susana Field Laboratory in American History

Santa Susana Field Lab at Night

Santa Susana Field Lab at Night.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) is not only of value and interest to the Chumash, it is also significant for American history. Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing into the late 1990s, the SSFL was paramount in the testing of rocket engines, including the Space Shuttle, and nuclear energy. Several of the engine testing stands (Alpha, Bravo, and Coca) are architecturally significant. Therefore, the Santa Ynez Band believes that it is critical that the entire SSFL be proclaimed a National Monument, as provided for in law, under the Antiquities Act of 1906, in order to ensure the preservation of its cultural and historical resources.

The following brief discussion will compare the SSFL site with a short selection of existing National Monuments. This discussion will show the vital role that preservation of these monuments plays in the promotion of the public good, and will show how the SSFL site would also support public good, if it was proclaimed a national monument. The examples that are cited here have been selected to highlight various aspects of historic preservation; all of the aspects mentioned here are found at the SSFL.

The SSFL has been and is, fortunately or not, undergoing a major transition. After some 50 years of use, by both the government and the private sector, the facility has been mostly shut down, and is in the process of transitioning to a new status, which has not yet been determined. Boeing, the Department of Energy, and NASA, have all made statements indicating that all or part of the areas that they are responsible for will be available to be made into parkland, of one kind or another; at the moment the National Park Service seems to be the branch of government that is most likely to acquire the area. The Santa Ynez Band will not attempt to repeat all of statements or quote from all of the documents, that have been made or created, by a variety of agencies and groups, here. Only national monument status will provide the certainty necessary to protect the historical resources of the site for future generations.

Any clean-up of the site will continue pursuant to applicable federal and state law.

The Santa Ynez Band believes that the President of the United States should consider using his authority to protect the SSFL by making it into a National Monument. The presence of rich biological resources encourages the spectator to be fully immersed in the culture of the native peoples. Furthermore, the site is an outstanding representation of Southern California geology. The site’s proximity to multiple fault lines create a “diverse terrain of ridges, canyons, and sandstone rock outcrops, which creates a vivid scenery that exemplifies an area subject to constant geological fluctuation.” To those well-educated enough and sensitive enough to notice it, the flora and fauna at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory can increase the feeling of cultural immersion, within this archaeologically significant setting. The Painted Cave area and other places at the SSFL would provide perfect venues for native ceremonies, environmental awareness training, and good-old family picnics and nature hikes. Like much of the rest of the upper Simi Hills, the wide open spaces, wonderful rock formations, the woods and meadows, and the magnificent views, are the perfect setting for those that seek solitude and quite, whether for religious reasons or just to get away from it all. The Eagles soar and Mountain Lion is watching from the oak groves. And if preserved, the Space-Age rocket engine test-stands would make ideal places for school field trips, at all age levels, and for the citizens of the world to come and see where nearly every rocket engine that was used, from the Redstone following World War II, to the engines used on the Space Shuttle, were tested.

National Parks are created by an act of Congress, whereas National Monuments are created by the President, from public lands. The authority for the creation of National Monuments is derived through the Antiquities Act of 1906. The “antiquities” thus protected cannot be removed, damaged, or destroyed, without permission from the federal government, even by professional archaeologists, paleontologists, geologists, biologists, etc.

Not all National Monuments are created with the intention of protecting archaeological resources. The Antiquities Act also authorized the protection of historic landmarks and “other objects of historic or scientific interest.” For example, Devils Tower National Monument, in Wyoming, the first National Monument, was created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Devils Tower is the extant plug of an ancient volcano, and was a very well-known landmark for Native Americans, and later, for early pioneers and settlers. This was followed by the creation of Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona, also in 1906, and by the beginnings of Grand Canyon National Monument, in 1908 (Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon were later converted into National Parks by Congress). Clearly, places like Devils Tower, the Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon are rich in archaeological sites, and they are also important to modern Native Americans, but the protection of any associated cultural resources was not necessarily emphasized. The Act has recently been used to help protect broad swathes of the environment, like Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, Mariana Trench National Monument, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument, which is larger than all of the National Parks in the United States combined.

The creation of many monuments, however, was and is specifically to protect archaeological sites, although, originally, the idea was the protection of places where “extinct” peoples and “lost” cultures could be studied; the explicit protection of places important to contemporary peoples would not begin until decades later. In any event, over the last century several different American Presidents, from both the Republican and Democratic parties, have created National Monuments, with the expressed purpose of protecting outstanding examples of Native American cultural resources.