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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As we made our way toward the spot in the canyon where the elk died, Newsome was again on the lookout for ferruginous hawks. Far in the distance, we could see the 200 Area, once home to the giant plants where the separation process took place. A hideous brew of chemicals was needed to isolate the plutonium from irradiated fuel rods. Each of the buildings was hundreds of feet long, with two parallel walls rising some 80 feet off the floor. An anonymous worker back in the day said the buildings reminded him of a canyon, and that eventually became their nickname: the canyons.

I asked Newsome about the impact those facilities, the reactors and all of the underground pollutants have on wildlife, but her answers were a seminar in myth-busting. Local elk, for instance, are generally larger and have bigger antlers than their cousins in alpine regions, because of the higher nutritional content found in grassland food sources. Another study found that Hanford's deer have five times fewer radioactive contaminants in their antlers than deer sampled in a remote part of Oregon, where the same contaminant could only have come from historic nuclear test explosions. Scientists hypothesize that, because there is less precipitation in the scablands, there are fewer raindrops ferrying fallout down to the roots of plants that are consumed by deer.

These counterintuitive findings remind me of a trip I took a few years ago to the tiny Pacific atoll of Christmas Island. The island was once home to a British military base, and was also the site of a few nuclear weapons tests in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I thought it would be interesting to bring a Geiger counter. The readings, however, were as insignificant as the National Cancer Institute radiation expert had predicted. In many remote places where nuclear weapons were detonated, just about the only radiation detectable today is background radiation from the sun. People living in modern urban settings, on the other hand -- environments filled with televisions, smoke detectors, kitty litter, airplanes, high-powered medical equipment and trace amounts of uranium in the ground -- are exposed to much more radiation than people living on Christmas Island, or for that matter, the wildlife biologists roaming the untrammeled areas of DOE sites like Hanford.

Recently, Newsome has been studying long-billed curlews that seem to be picking up contaminants -- just not here. The exposure, she thinks, is happening at the birds' wintering sites on the Baja Peninsula. Perhaps more than most people, Newsome is aware how impossible it is to escape the interwoven relationship between civilization and nature. "Working in a place like Yellowstone, you might be led to think your world is more pristine than it is," she said. Not so at Hanford, where the good, the bad and the ugly are all front and center. "We are all downwinders."

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?" asked Morrow 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 U.S. 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 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 everywhere 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.