DOE Denies County’s Request For Recreational Access Agreement For Los Alamos Canyon


A request from Los Alamos County to the Department of Energy for a recreational access agreement for Los Alamos Canyon has been denied citing environmental remediation sites, safety and security buffers and ongoing mission activities.

A letter from Los Alamos Site Office Manager Michael Weis to County Manager Harry Burgess says the County may, however, request access for individual events and that the National Nuclear Security Administration will work with the County on security and access procedures if access for those events is feasible. The situation will be reappraised annually with respect to “changing site restraints, including the safety and security posture of the Laboratory”, the letter states.

Burgess addressed the Los Alamos Canyon issue under his County Manager’s report during Tuesday’s County Council meeting. He said when the County hired a consultant to look at mountain biking trails, one of the requirements was for a family friendly route.

“That assessment looking at roughly four or five canyons connected to the town site came up with the recommendation that by far the best route for that would be Los Alamos Canyon,” he said.

Burgess noted that the former paved road through the canyon is unraveling but that would be okay for mountain biking, proving a flat surface that any family member could traverse with jumps potentially added to the sides of the road allowing for people of different skills riding the same route.  He said that was the impetus for the request as well as the fact that there are historic interests in that canyon, particularly the tunnel and a former nuclear reactor that is of Manhattan era dating.

“So we’ve been interested in providing some sort of outlet toward tourist interest as well and that tunnel especially seemed like an appropriate thing that people might want to see. We’ve been having conversations with NNSA for many years about potential transfer of this property. I believe it was about two years ago the then site manager arranged for a tour taking congressional representatives, County personnel, elected officials as well as he himself wanted to go down and assess it,” Burgess said. “We took a tour of the canyon, talked about the options and subsequently have been having discussions in Washington, DC with our congressional delegation as well as NNSA and Legacy Management personnel about the potential use of this property.”

He said it is known that the tunnel in the canyon had some environmental concerns and that there has been recent PCB cleanup down there.

“I’m not personally aware of any other materials, not to say that there’s not any, but I understand that the recent response to our request for a special use permit was denied based on the fact that there were ongoing cleanup efforts in the canyon,” Burgess said. “We asked for a special use permit because we didn’t want to own the land and we’d been told by certain individuals in Washington, DC that a special use permit was kind of your toe in the door. Especially since we’re looking for recreational uses and not to manage the property, it appeared that might be a good route for tourists to gain access and/or bikers and hikers. Not to mention the fact that that type of short-term use should also mitigate some of the environmental concerns that may be present.”

Burgess said the County received a response and that subsequent to conversations Weis asked him to put it in the form of a letter to advance the conversation and he did so.

“That also allowed him to be responsive to that letter and that’s what we received last week and a denial of our request for special use permit. It wasn’t a full denial, it did allow for the potential for some future event to be scheduled in the canyon that in Mr. Weis’s words could hopefully demonstrate that these activities could be done in a safe way,” he said.  “We didn’t necessarily anticipate a single event but I’ve already begun talking to Mr. Weis about some options”.

Burgess noted that the reactor building in the canyon and the exterior of the tunnel could be opened for some viewing by tours