Accidental Wilderness

Hanford, White Sands and other "wastelands" are good for bombs. And biodiversity.

  • The Ground Zero Monument at Trinity Site on the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

    Laurence Parent
  • Coyote tracks on the bank of the Columbia River, with the deactivated reactors of 100 Area in the distance. All are part of the 560 square miles now known as the Hanford Site, where most of the plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal once was manufactured.

    Joel Rogers
  • An elk skeleton in the shrub-steppe habitat of Bobcat Canyon at Hanford.

    David Wolman
  • The White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico: Facing page, McDonald Ranch, where Manhattan Project scientists assembled the first nuclear weapon.

    David Wolman
  • An aplomado falcon introduced onto the range in 1969, its population quickly booming out of control.

    US Army
  • Exotic oryx introduced onto the range in 1969, its population quickly booming out of control.

    US Army
  • Heidi Newsome, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, at the White Bluffs of Hanford Reach, part of the former Hanford Nuclear Reservation that's now a wildlife refuge.

    David Wolman
  • Newsome (in soft-soled sandals, to help protect the delicate plants) with an Umtanum Desert buckwheat, a plant unique to Hanford.

    USFWS
  • Geese flock near the former reactor. Humanity doesn't pillage or cherish the Earth; we do both, plus everything in between.

    USFWS
 

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, U.S. 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.

Hiking back down the canyon on a rocky game trail, Newsome rounded a corner by a spring and came upon the skeleton of a bull elk. A few leg bones had been scattered, probably by coyotes, but otherwise the skeleton looked undisturbed, as if it had been assembled on the spot by a taxidermist.

The bones were bleached from the sun. Only a tiny patch of fur and skin remained, on the edge of the skull. Newsome knelt down for a closer look, brushing aside the grass that was growing up over the animal's jaw. From the size and wear of the teeth, she estimated that the bull was five, perhaps eight, years old when it died. During the fall rut, bulls are sometimes so busy fighting or mating that they fail to eat enough to store up sufficient energy for the winter. An injury during a bout only puts them at greater risk, and Newsome says it's not unusual for recuperating elk to seek the cool relief of secluded springs such as this one.

Newsome's workplace is loosely known as Hanford. Administered by the 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 U.S. 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.

Growing up in Oregon's lush Willamette Valley, Newsome knew nothing about Hanford, except that it was a synonym for bad. "Hanford was this big black hole," she said. "All I knew was that it was really contaminated -- and that you'd never want to go there." Yet now, after 10 years working as a wildlife biologist based out of the nearby Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Newsome sees things differently. She has fallen in love with this landscape and come to appreciate the wealth of biodiversity that thrives here, thanks to a peculiar confluence of ecology, technology and history.

Mary Ann Martorana
Mary Ann Martorana
Aug 09, 2011 01:20 PM
I just read this excellent article and it made me realize how forgiving nature is...as long as humans keep their hands off.