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Home / Articles / News / Features /  Accidental Wilderness
06.02.10 Wilderness cover

Accidental Wilderness

In the West, a legacy of nuclear contamination has created lands that are both poisoned and pristine.

June 2, 2010, 12:00 am
By
By David Wolman

April is not the cruelest month in the scablands of southeastern Washington. In a week, pink phlox would carpet the undulating desert landscape below Rattlesnake Mountain, followed soon after by a rush of violet lupine. On a clear day with only a slight breeze, US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Heidi Newsome walked up a canyon seeking signs of the rare buteo regalis, or ferruginous hawk, so named for the rusty hue of its feathers. No one else was around; this ecology reserve is closed to the public. Far out on the northern horizon, next to a sharp turn in the Columbia River, Newsome could see a few trucks, cranes and old concrete buildings. But as she made her way up Bobcat Canyon, all she could hear were the red-tailed hawks, northern harrier, chukar partridge and migrating bluebirds.

No ferruginous hawks, though. Newsome was, and is, a little worried about how the hawk population is doing these days. But she believes that if the birds are going to show up anywhere, it is likely to be here, in what is arguably the healthiest, largest swatch of shrub-steppe habitat in the country.

Newsome’s workplace is loosely known as Hanford. Administered by the US Department of Energy, the Hanford Site in its entirety includes Saddle Mountain Wildlife Refuge and Hanford Reach National Monument, as well as the central part of the site, where the core DOE operations take place. Newsome works for the Fish and Wildlife Service, managing the refuge portion of the area. Her work in Bobcat Canyon, in addition to hawk surveys, includes restoration efforts to encourage the re-growth of native plants devastated by recent wildfires.

Mother Nature hasn’t always received that kind of respect in these parts. Between 1943 and 1987, nuclear reactors and chemical separation plants here produced some two-thirds of the plutonium for the entire US nuclear weapons arsenal. That plutonium was used in the first atomic bomb, tested at New Mexico’s Trinity site; in Fat Man, detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki; and in countless warheads assembled during that horrific chess game known as the Cold War. The plethora of spent nuclear materials and remaining radioactive contamination give Hanford the lowly distinction of being the worst radioactive waste site in the Western Hemisphere.

The Department of Energy owns and manages 2.54 million acres of land in the US. The Department of Defense has a whopping 25 million acres, although much of that includes military bases and the like, which are more heavily used than the handful of huge and mostly empty DOE tracts. The largest site is in New Mexico: the Army’s White Sands Missile Range (3,150 square miles), followed by the Barry M Goldwater Range in Arizona (2,800 square miles), DOE’s Nevada Test Site (1,375 square miles), Idaho National Laboratory (893 square miles), Hanford (560 square miles) and the Savannah River Site in Georgia (310 square miles). For comparison, the Hawaiian island of Oahu is 597 square miles.

Writing off these unusual geographies as contaminated hellholes is a mistake on a number of fronts. For one thing, it requires turning a blind eye to how vast and varied they are. In most cases, a surprisingly pristine zone sits between the truly nasty stuff and the outer perimeter.

“When the government acquired these areas in the 1940s and 1950s, they had these huge security buffers,” Joanna Burger, a professor of life sciences at Rutgers who studies DOE sites throughout the country, says. “Maybe only 10 percent of the land was ever used.”

These areas also warrant attention because they contain diverse ecosystems with some of the least-disturbed plant and animal habitat in the country. After so many decades without grazing, mining, development, ATVs or other public use, they have become accidental wildernesses. Similar circumstances can be found in other corners of the globe: the strip of land constituting the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean peninsula; forests near Chernobyl; vibrant coral reefs around once-bombed-out atolls in the Pacific. Yet many of the largest of these unexpectedly natural sites are right here in the American West.



In the early 1940s, when the federal government commandeered the hamlets of Hanford and White Bluffs, along with a wide area around them, safeguarding wildlife habitat was the last thing on people’s minds. They were thinking about the Nazis. In a 1939 letter to President Roosevelt, Albert Einstein warned about “extremely powerful bombs of a new type,” and advised that the US hasten to secure uranium supplies and commit its best scientists to the task of developing atomic technology before the Germans beat us to it.

To harness the power of nuclear fission, the architects of the Manhattan Project needed a colossal industrial facility for producing plutonium. In December 1942, military brass dispatched a civil engineer to the West to survey potential locations. Years later, Army Colonel Fritz Matthias told a historian that he knew Hanford was ideal the moment he saw it: “We flew over the Rattlesnake Hills up to the river, so I saw the whole site on that flight. We were sure we had it…we had found the only place in the country that could match the requirements…”

With a sparse population, relatively mild winter weather, power available from the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams and, crucially, the Columbia itself, Hanford was perfect. (Nuclear reactors require huge volumes of cold water.) The setting also didn’t strike Matthias or his colleagues as especially beautiful. To outsiders, this expanse of the Columbia Basin was a desolate tableland endowed with little more than “sand, sagebrush and dried water courses.”

Inspecting a beetle sunning itself in the branches of a young sagebrush plant, Newsome said that the same poor opinion of the desert persists today. “This country was considered wasteland,” she says. “Most people didn’t—and still don’t—appreciate its biodiversity.” The modern corollary is the idea that deserts should be blanketed with solar arrays. And maybe they should. But Newsome thinks the tendency to undervalue this landscape may be a vestige of an American conservation tradition that inflates the value of the scenic at the expense of the biologically important. Jewels like the Tetons and the Grand Canyon are unparalleled and should obviously be protected. But they’re not always the most supportive of wildlife.

“I wish people like Teddy Roosevelt had thought more about preserving the nation’s biodiversity,” she says.

By that criterion, Hanford is a treasure. Aside from the smaller and more heavily trafficked Yakama Indian Reservation and the US Army’s Yakima Training Center, this is the only remaining shrub-steppe habitat in the state. The word steppe derives from Russian, meaning vast, treeless plain. Instead of trees, these arid lands are full of bitterbrush, bluegrass, bluebunch wheatgrass, balsamroot, hopsage and two newly discovered plant species: the Umtanum Desert buckwheat and the White Bluffs bladderpod. Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, bobcat, coyote, beaver, the occasional mountain lion and dozens of other species make their homes here, as do a variety of waterfowl and songbirds.



Two weeks before my visit to Hanford, I flew to Albuquerque and drove south to White Sands Missile Range, where I met a jovial and mustachioed Army biologist named Patrick Morrow. Access to the 2 million-acre range, even for those with military clearance, depends on the “mission” agenda of the day, and what restrictions have been applied and where. Put another way: Because rockets and bombs are sometimes dropped on, lobbed across, exploded under or intercepted above various parts of White Sands, the Army would prefer that people steer clear of the action. According to a local museum exhibit, some 42,000 missile and rocket firings have taken place at White Sands in its 65-year history.

Dirt roads and power lines weave through the landscape, and the range is speckled with high-tech buildings for radar, telemetry, telecommunications and who knows what else. Faded signs along one of the main roads through the basin identify proving grounds with names like Cooker, Brillo and Chile. Driving past and imagining uniformed military brass occupying the currently vacant bleachers set out in the middle of the desert amid the creosote and mesquite calls to mind a kind of sunburned Dr. Strangelove.

Yet despite the weapons testing and other clandestine mischief that goes on here, White Sands is undeniably wild. Even the airspace above the range is closed. (The only other place in the country where the airspace is similarly off-limits is over the White House.) “What did you think would be here? Big bombed-out stuff covered in debris?” Morrow asked between spits of dipping tobacco.

We were headed up into the San Andreas Mountains. Running north to south along the western side of White Sands, these mountains are part of the vast Chihuahuan Desert of the Southwestern US and northern Mexico. A handful of brave homesteaders raised goats, sheep and cattle here until the 1940s, when the Army acquired the land. Today, those mountains provide some of the best habitat anywhere for wildlife, including pronghorn and desert bighorn sheep, the latter of which Morrow and his colleagues are trying to reintroduce after the native population was wiped out by disease. Along the less rugged slopes, desert grasses and juniper grow in delicate balance and host abundant wildlife. Most every-where else in the Southwest, similar terrain has been all but neutered by grazing.

Driving up a mountain road, we passed a giant satellite dish of some kind. Morrow didn’t know what it was, or said he didn’t know, and sure didn’t look like he cared. Soon after, he stopped the truck and we hiked south across an arroyo to inspect 2,000-year-old rock paintings of red and orange masks. One of the strange benefits of having so much land cordoned off from the public is that ancient petroglyphs, rock paintings and other cultural artifacts are better protected from harm than they are on public lands. Unscrupulous treasure hunters are less inclined to sneak onto military land.

Later in the day, Morrow and I arrived at an area called Mockingbird Gap. We scrambled up a riparian valley strewn with granite boulders, looking for pronghorn. Morrow complained of aging knees, but the New Mexico native still blazed up the hillside at an impressive clip. The sheep remained elusive, but we found ourselves in a desert garden, surrounded by prickly pear cacti, little-leaf sumac, Wright’s silk-tassel, shrub oak, agave, ocotillo, yucca, Apache plume, long-leaf Mormon tea and other plants that Morrow, a mammal specialist, confessed to not knowing. (A botanist working for White Sands has collected more than 1,000 different plant specimens inside the range.)

As we walked back down the narrow gap, Morrow paused to describe the vista. Almost everything we could see, in any direction, was part of White Sands, with the exception of the Sacramento Mountains to the east. Looking north, past where the mountains meet up again with the pancaked basin, he pointed to a minuscule structure: the McDonald Ranch. The rustic house is where the Manhattan Project scientists assembled the first nuclear weapon, which was detonated out there at the Trinity site, just west of the McDonald homestead.

The next day was the first Saturday in April, one of two days a year the government opens Trinity to the public. It was sunny, and the 3,000-plus visitors kicked up dust as they moved from the gravel parking lot, through a fenced-in walkway, into another fenced-in enclosure where an obelisk stands at ground zero. The day was surreal. Not so much because X marks the spot, or because a guy in a black-and-pink jacket was handing out copies of a three-page screed about how President John F Kennedy knew that he was going to be assassinated in Dallas. No, what was truly strange was the tone of the day. Hot dog and postcard vendors gave it the ambiance of a county fair. Obese tourists snapped photos by the obelisk, and science buffs proudly displayed T-shirts printed with the periodic table.

I like the science pilgrimage theme. Whatever one’s opinion about the decision to make and drop the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project is an epic chapter in the story of human knowledge. That said, the absence of anything at ground zero to honor the dead—those killed by the bomb, killed in action during World War II, killed in any war, even—strikes me as an oversight. Even just a plaque of some kind would suffice, accompanied perhaps by J Robert Oppenheimer’s famous words. Upon witnessing the successful detonation early that morning on July 16, 1945, he was reminded of a Hindu scripture:

“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”



Newsome and I made our way across the Columbia over the Vernita Bridge, a popular put-in spot for boaters. From there we headed east, out onto the spit of land directly across from three of the retired nuclear reactors and below the White Bluffs, the centerpiece of the Hanford Reach National Monument.

Ten years ago this June, President Clinton signed Presidential Proclamation 7319, establishing the monument. In doing so, he set aside 195,000 acres of Hanford’s former buffer zone for conservation, while also opening up part of it to recreation. Aside from the final stretch of the Columbia between the Bonneville Dam and the Pacific Ocean, the 51 miles within the Reach, from the Priest Rapids Dam to the town of Richland, constitute the only remaining free-flowing water on the river. The rest of it is essentially a series of reservoirs. That makes this area of the Mid-Columbia Basin that much more attractive for salmon fishing and boaters. Today, people can paddle right past the Hanford Site, not more than 200 yards or so from the reactors that dot the shoreline and shaped world history. (You are not allowed to step onto the bank on that side of the river.)

Newsome and I walked down to the water. She was talking about the huge ice age floods that sculpted this landscape, but my attention was on the nuclear reactors. Some of them have been “cocooned,” meaning the core and the rest of the building will remain wrapped in an airtight and waterproof swaddle of steel and concrete for the next 75 years. The idea is that during this time, the radioactive contents will cool, at least somewhat, and by 2085, scientists and engineers will have developed new ways to handle and safely dispose of them. Let’s hope so.

Throughout our day exploring Hanford’s wild side, I would glance in the direction of the reactors. From almost everywhere where nature is thriving at Hanford, the reactors look minuscule, if they are visible at all. Yet here on the edge of the river, directly across from them, they are no longer dwarfed by the landscape. Hanford the bio-reserve is now, really, Hanford the plutonium production facility. Instead of birds, we heard a jackhammer-like thud thud thud at the N reactor, where work crews are excavating below the building to clean up contaminated soils before the structure can be cocooned.

Growing up in New England, I had never heard of Hanford, let alone other DOE sites like Sandia, Idaho National Labs or Savannah River. I had probably heard of the Nevada Test Site, or might have guessed what it meant, and I had heard of White Sands only because of a lame Willem Dafoe movie by the same name. Still, all of these places were foreign to me, as foreign as the South of France or the Mekong Delta.

Back then, my peer group was marching through the enviro-lit canon: Thoreau, Leopold, Muir, Snyder, Tempest Williams and others. Edward Abbey was in there somewhere, as was Bill McKibben, with his provocative argument that we had arrived at The End of Nature. So too was John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid.

McPhee’s book in particular resonated with me, perhaps because it delineated what I naively thought to be the clear line separating those who aim to trash the planet and those who respect it. In one chapter, McPhee describes a hiking trip he took with David Brower, former head of the Sierra Club and a miner named Charles Park, a man “who believes that if copper were to be found under the White House, the White House should be moved.”

On the trip, Brower talks about the power and importance of wilderness for its own sake. Park, habitually swinging a small gem ax at just about anything along the trail other than Brower’s kneecaps, counters the archdruid’s opinion with a realpolitik view of civilization’s mineral and material demands.

Visiting places like Hanford and White Sands serves to hammer home the realization that neither Brower nor Park is right. All places are invariably more complicated than pithy descriptors like pristine or poisoned, as are our
relationships to them. Humanity doesn’t pillage or cherish the Earth; we do both, plus everything in between. We are all downwinders, yet that is only where the story begins. SFR

 

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