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
 

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Thirty billion dollars does buy you some cleanup, though. About half of the area along the river has been resuscitated to a healthy state, pump-able liquids have been removed from those leaky underground tanks, leftover plutonium has been shipped elsewhere (South Carolina), a third of the buildings have been demolished, and a massive high-tech waste-treatment facility is being built to handle the otherwise untouchable tank waste. (The plant is not expected to be running until 2019 at the earliest.)

Move outward in any direction from Hanford's central plateau, which is to say the contaminated areas, and the situation couldn't be more different. Today, the landscape is less disturbed than it was before World War II, when much of the area was covered by farm fields and orchards. "All of this would be a bunch of crop circles if not for the Manhattan Project," said Newsome. She rattled off the names of species –– sage sparrows, long-billed curlews, burrowing owls, sage grouse, jackrabbits. "None of them would be here."

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 U.S. 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, 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."

By that criterion, Hanford is a treasure. Aside from the smaller and more heavily trafficked Yakama Indian Reservation and the U.S. 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 home here, as do a variety of waterfowl and songbirds.

The Hanford Reach is also the last place along the main stem of the Columbia with naturally occurring chinook salmon, and a Nature Conservancy species inventory conducted here in the mid-1990s documented 40 insects previously unknown to science. (And no, the flora and fauna here are not radioactive mutants.) In an enthusiastic summary of their findings, The Nature Conservancy researchers write that the site is a "spectacular" genetic bank for integral components of the local ecosystem, and that it is perhaps the single most important link in "preserving and sustaining the diverse plants and animals of the Columbia Basin Ecoregion." Take that, doomsdayers.

An area like Hanford has several advantages for conservation: its size, the dearth of human activity, nearly 60 years of little or no disturbance, and connections to other habitat lands beyond the site's boundary. Wildlife is not preserved as if in a game park, but actually has a chance to thrive on its own. "We try to keep the common birds common," quipped Newsome.