Hanford leaves a surprising Cold War legacy

  • Sagebrush desert in the Hanford Reach

    Westinghouse Hanford Co. photo
 

Wahluke means "walking uphill a long way" in the Wanapum Indian language. That's an apt metaphor for the more than three-decade battle for the Wahluke Slope - a significant part of the last untouched sagebrush desert in the Columbia Basin.

For 30 years, farmers and conservationists have fought over what would happen to this land once it was released from Cold War duties at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Now the conservationists have chalked up a win.

On Nov. 5, President Bill Clinton announced the addition of the 57,000-acre Wahluke Slope - officially known as the Wahluke State Wildlife Recreation Area - to the 30,000-acre Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. That will keep plows and irrigation pipes off the land for at least the duration of the Clinton administration.

"We won, dammit," says Rich Steele, a one-time nuclear-reactor operator at Hanford, who, with two others, started the Columbia River Conservation League in the 1960s. "It's going to belong to the public. The wildlife's going to have habitat and so will we. God knows we need it."

Conservationists prize this land, preserved as open space while the federal government built top-secret bombs. Saddle Mountain and the Wahluke Slope make up the northern part of the 560 square-mile Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and most of this territory served as a geographic buffer to make spying difficult. As a result, this increasingly rare shrub-steppe desertscape is untouched by the lethal debris stewing in waste storage tanks and trickling through the groundwater at the center of the nuclear reservation.

Extending wildlife refuge status to the Wahluke Slope will protect rare plants and animals, archaeological sites dating back more than 10,000 years and camel, mastodon and bison fossils. It also helps protect salmon-spawning habitat from further agricultural development. It's protection that's long overdue, conservationists say.

But farmers and county commissioners disagree. They covet the land and see this as the long arm of the federal government usurping local control.

A history of headache

Farmers received 192,000 acres of Hanford land adjoining the Saddle Mountain and Wahluke areas in the 1950s, when the federal government released the first piece of Hanford to become part of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. Then in the late 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed building the Ben Franklin Dam on the Columbia River, just above Richland.

Steele and his colleagues organized, and beat back that effort and subsequent efforts to dredge or dam the river and develop the surrounding Hanford land. The battles stretched on far longer than anyone anticipated.

"It seemed like every three to four years, they would bring out this project or that project," says Steele, who came to know the area as a fly fisherman.

In 1971, the Energy Department allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage Saddle Mountain. At the same time, it said Washington state could manage the Wahluke Slope. Farmers continued to lobby for use of the slope, saying the land was perfect for crops or grazing.

Congress finally put a moratorium on development of the area in the late 1980s. It also directed the National Park Service to study the possibility of Wild and Scenic River status for the Hanford stretch of the Columbia - known as the Hanford Reach - as well as refuge status for the unspoiled land on the remainder of the reservation. In 1996, the Department of Interior had asked Congress to protect both the river and any unspoiled Hanford land that the Energy Department had decided a few years earlier that it didn't need. It didn't happen.

In 1998, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson got involved. He liked the idea of protecting the Wahluke Slope and pushed for change, says Dave Goeke of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "I think the Clinton administration wanted to make sure the land was protected. They want the credit."

Last April, the Energy Department released its environmental impact study on the Hanford lands; it recommended making the Wahluke Slope a national refuge.

That pleased Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who has been pushing for greater Hanford protection.

"The decision to preserve these lands, especially the Wahluke Slope, is a big step forward in saving our wild salmon," says Murray. "I feel confident that by this time next year the Hanford Reach will also be fully protected so future generations will be able to enjoy the natural beauty of the Columbia River."

Armed with a plow

Although the press is characterizing refuge protection as a permanent victory, the land's new status is temporary: The Energy Department can take back the ground with just 30 days' notice.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to gain a 25-year lease from the government, and to keep renewing it until the Wahluke and Saddle Mountain areas can become a permanent refuge.

That won't happen if farmers and county officials have their way.

"Some of the land was owned by private individuals who were bumped out of there," says Grant County commissioner and alfalfa farmer LeRoy Allison. The commissioners of the four counties that relinquished land to Hanford have long felt those people "should get the first crack at it."

Now, Allison says, the new refuge harms both them and the chance for economic development.

County commissioners hint at a lawsuit. Grant County immediately filed a Freedom of Information Act request "as a first step," a county press release says. But commissioners are vague when pressed for details.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are pushing to protect more of Hanford's treasures. The next step is winning Wild and Scenic River status for the 51-mile stretch of the Columbia River at the southern boundary of the Saddle Mountain and Wahluke areas.

The Hanford Reach is the longest undammed stretch of the mighty river. As a result, it has the healthiest chinook salmon run of any place in the continental United States.

"Protecting the Hanford Reach ecosystem is the most immediate, comprehensive, and cost-effective step that can be taken toward salmon recovery in the Columbia River system," says Bob Wilson of Washington Conservation Voters.

That means pushing Sen. Murray's Wild and Scenic River bill through Congress, so far an uphill battle.

Yet conservationists say they won't yield another acre to farmers. "We've already gave them two-thirds of it," says Rick Leaumont of the Audubon Society. "We're not willing to give up any (more) of it."

Ken Olsen is a writer living in Spokane, Wash.

You can contact ...

* U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Richland, Washington, 509/371-1801;

* Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society, P.O. Box 1900, Richland, VA 99352 (509/545-6115);

* Grant County Commissioners, P.O. Box 37, Ephrata, WA 98823 (509/754-2011).