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.

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


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National Parks, forests, wilderness areas and the myriad other state and federal designations for property owned by the government are all part of our shared natural heritage. Yet so too are the lands under the aegis of the departments of Energy and Defense -- installations like Hanford. The primary difference between these sites and their more lovable counterparts (ghastly contaminants and the occasional unexploded ordinance notwithstanding) is that they offer minimal public access, if any.

We can't take the kids camping in there, and most likely we don't want to. That does not mean, however, that we aren't curious about what lies inside the fences.

The Department of Energy owns and manages 2.54 million acres of land in the U.S. The Department of Defense has a whopping 25 million acres, although much of that includes military bases and the like -- that is more heavily used than the handful of huge and mostly empty DOE tracts. The largest sites include the Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico (3,150 square miles) and Barry M. Goldwater range in Arizona (2,800 square miles), followed by DOE's Nevada Test Site (1,375 square miles), Idaho National Laboratories (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.

When I talk about going to Hanford, people usually respond with a sense of abhorrence similar to Newsome's you'd never want to go there. Those aware of the contamination predicament slowly shake their heads, signaling a kind of wholesale despair not merely about the pollution at that place, but about the overall ass-kicking Gaia has suffered at the hands of humankind.

Yet 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," says Joanna Burger, a professor of life sciences at Rutgers who studies DOE sites throughout the country. "Maybe only 10 percent of the land was ever used."

These areas also warrant our 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 your American West.

Which points to another reason why we shouldn't view places like Hanford through the single lens of environmental nightmare -- or, for that matter, eco-paradise. To see these historically pivotal landscapes in simplistic terms ignores the relationship each of us has to them, and belies the complexity of the world we inhabit.

April is still chilly for rattlesnakes to be out sunning, but as we began our walk up Bobcat Canyon, Newsome still advised me to keep an ear out for the telltale rattle. Petite with straight sandy-blonde hair and brown eyes, Newsome reminds me of an outdoorsy version of actress Holly Hunter. While walking or driving, she will reflexively halt or slam on the brakes of the vehicle and in a nanosecond bring her "binocs" to her eyes to focus on a distant bird.

Just to get this out of the way: Newsome doesn't wear a hazmat suit to work, and she isn't in danger out in the field, provided she doesn't flip the truck while navigating some of the site's more harrowing dirt roads. That's not to deny the fact that nearby sits some seriously disastrous detritus. Hanford is home to 53 million gallons of solid and liquid radioactive waste stored in failing underground tanks; 25 million cubic feet of buried or stored solid radioactive waste; billions of gallons of contaminated groundwater; hundreds of buildings, all slated for demolition, that have varying amounts of contaminants. And although plutonium production at Hanford ceased almost 25 years ago, new goodies keep arriving, making the worst mess in the country that much more intractable. The same day I toured the area, a retired nuclear reactor from a decommissioned U.S. Navy submarine arrived at Hanford, where it will be stored in a huge pit alongside 121 others just like it.