To become a Yakima Nation warrior, a young man had to run from the top of Rattlesnake Mountain to the Columbia River and back to the mountain top. That meant dropping 2,400 feet to the valley floor, sprinting 10 miles to the water, and then returning to climb this rise, which looks like a crumpled heap of doeskin laid against the horizon.
The warrior's test is
unimaginable except for triathletes. It is as difficult to fathom
as the fact that this treeless mountain anchors the southwestern
edge of what is simultaneously the most polluted place in the
United States and one of its most untouched.
These 560 square miles of central Washington state are the Hanford
Nuclear Reservation, birthplace of the atomic bomb that annihilated
Nagasaki, Japan, 50 years ago. At the same time, it is the last
substantial stretch of untouched sagebrush-steppe grassland -
perhaps anywhere in the world.
It is ironic that
in manufacturing the most destructive weapon known to humankind,
the U.S. government also protected about one-thirtieth of a
grassland that once covered an area more than twice the size of New
Hanford stopped producing plutonium for
bombs in the late-1980s. With the Cold War receding into the past,
farmers and county bureaucrats are now clamoring to develop the
reservation while conservationists want to save it. It is so
biologically diverse, they point out, that it supports one-quarter
of all nesting hawks in Washington state. In addition, many of the
traditional foods and medicines of Yakima, Umatilla and Nez Perce
Indians grow only here, and scientists count many rare species
among its 1,200 plants and 400 animals.
slice of high, cold desert is lonely. Other than the rush-hour
atmosphere during shift-changes at the Hanford guard shack west of
the town of Richland, you can drive for hours across Hanford and
see more mule deer than people. And while much of Hanford's
pollution will be lethal for thousands of years, only 5 percent of
the reservation was used to produce plutonium. That includes
shoreline occupied by nine now shuttered reactors lined up along
the Columbia River to draw its near-freezing water to cool their
thermonuclear cores. A half-dozen other clusters of buildings are
scattered across the reservation, including plutonium-separation
facilities and waste-storage tanks. Apart from their presence, some
530 square miles remains as it was in 1942, when Army Col. Franklin
T. Matthias decided that Hanford's isolation and ample water and
electrical power made it the ideal factory for building bombs.
Machine-gun toting guards, dogs and helicopters kept spying eyes at
a distance, and the wild land around this war machine turned out to
be necessary only as a
"All of the earth's
surface is being disturbed by one animal," says Steven Link, a
plant ecophysiologist for Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories,
which does research here for the U.S. Department of Energy. "To
understand the consequences of that, it's very valuable to have an
area that's undisturbed." Link sweeps his hand across the
sun-blasted landscape that spills from our vantage point atop
Rattlesnake Mountain, elevation 3,600 feet.
rich plain below us was built by silt from the Lake Missoula flood
10,000 years ago. The silt was then covered by windblown ash from
volcanoes in the Cascade Mountains that erupted again and again.
Gable Mountain is the nearest topographic relief, sacred for
Indians who believe the Creator started human life there. To the
east, we can see white bluffs marking the longest free-flowing
stretch of the Columbia River, all 51 miles of which thread through
Hanford. The undammed river here contains the most productive
chinook salmon spawning grounds in the lower 48 states and,
perhaps, the last spawning ground for the white sturgeon on the
main stem of the Columbia.
silhouette of the Saddle Mountains commands the northern horizon,
part of a wildlife refuge made possible by the need to keep space
between humans and the heart of the nation's nuclear
This is the Texas of government nuclear
bomb-building sites: the largest in size, the most extensively
polluted, the most costly to deal with. No one knows exactly how
much nuclear waste there is to wrestle with. Storage tanks alone
hold hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive brew. Some 400
billion gallons of radioactive waste, which the government says was
"mostly water," was dumped on the ground.
Cleanup estimates range as high as $1 trillion, and taxpayers have
already spent $8 billion on cleanup in the last eight years. Yet
most of the cleanup has been done on paper - almost nothing has
been done on the ground.
The conundrum over what
to do with the vast amount of land that isn't contaminated is also
shaping up to be a battle of Texan proportions: Powerful interests
have always wanted control of this ground. The local chapter of the
Audubon Society, based in the nearby "Tri-Cities' of Richland,
Kennewick and Pasco, barely beat back calls for dams, locks and
levies on the Hanford portion of the Columbia River. Another
divisive battle was waged in the 1980s over a proposal to build
wind generators to capture the 100-plus mph winds of Rattlesnake
Now, the commissioners of the four
counties (Benton, Franklin, Grant and Adams) that gave up land for
Hanford want the ground back in private hands so it can go on the
tax rolls. Local farmers and ranchers want this land to plant or
graze, and justify their claim by saying the federal government
promised to return some of this ground to fruit farmers who were
evicted when the bomb plant was built. The federal government also
promised to return some of the land to the nearby Yakima Indian
Nation, which numbers 8,000 strong.
environmentalists say Hanford should become part national wildlife
refuge, part natural research area, and part wild and scenic river.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management sees its next National
Conservation Area among these acres.
Secretary Hazel O'Leary, whose agency manages the land now, makes
it clear she favors returning the land to "real people," indicating
she doesn't cotton to federal custody of any
How Hanford got its
Around the turn of the century, a small
group of settlers lived near the Columbia River and grew fruit on
part of a development initiated by a Seattle judge, Cornelius
Hanford. When the U.S. Army bomb team evicted those settlers in the
1940s, many received just a pittance for their property. Gnarly,
unkempt fruit trees and a few dilapidated buildings are all that
remain. Tiny Huntzinger, who has farmed eight miles up the Columbia
River from Richland for 30 years, believes this is where discussion
over what to do with Hanford should
"I would just as soon
see (the) people forced off that land have it returned to them,"
Huntzinger says. If federal agencies are in charge of managing the
refuges and the river, "they will take over and they run everything
the way they want to. We want our counties back," Huntzinger
Mark Hedman raises green peas, sweet corn,
dry beans, wheat and buckwheat across the road from the northern
boundary of Hanford. He chairs a local group that takes a more
compromising position. Called the Wahluke 2000 Committee, it also
wants all of the land returned to the four local counties. But the
counties would make some of the land a wildlife refuge, Hedman
says, set some aside for a scenic corridor along the river, and
sell the rest to farmers. Irrigation water now returned to the
Columbia River would instead go to crops.
sees little good in protecting sagebrush grassland that looks to
him like every other acre of sage scrub in the Western United
States. "If Col. Matthias hadn't flown over this in 1942 and said
"put the Manhattan Project there," the whole thing would be farms,"
Hedman says. "It would be a lot prettier, and it would have saved
billions of dollars."
The controversial crux of
the Wahluke 2000 Plan - so named because the group hopes there are
answers for what happens here by the year 2000 - is that local
government calls the shots. Hedman acknowledges that makes it tough
to sell to
is, the assurance has to be made that (the refuge and river
corridor) stay that way," Hedman says. But the Audubon Society and
other groups "don't trust the counties."
Wildlife biologist Lisa Fitzner doesn't trust the counties either.
She points to Benton County's Horn Rapids Park. "It is a
garbage-dumping ground shredded by (off-road vehicle) trails,"
Fitzner says. "The county hasn't even been able to protect a small
portion of the Yakima River."
This is for farming?
Battelle Lab's Steven Link doesn't understand the fascination with
farming this ground. It is marginal agricultural land, he says,
because it is missing the critical ingredient - water. The average
rainfall in Phoenix is higher than the average rainfall across
Hanford. All water in the Columbia and other nearby rivers is
spoken for, Link continues, and it's unlikely the federal
government is going to build dams and ditches to pipe in water from
Link and I take to our hands and
knees among the sagebrush at the base of Rattlesnake Mountain. He
is awed by the miniature community growing between the sage and
He points to tiny dark lichens,
green and feathery-gray mosses and mottled lichens that make a
multi-hued carpet among the bluebunch wheatgrass and big sagebrush.
"Some of these dark lichens fix nitrogen," Link explains. "Others
help create microsites for the germination of seeds, like
community, called the cryptogamic crust, also helps hold the soil
together. It's what the shrub-steppe of Asia and North America
offered before cattle, plows, irrigation and off-road vehicles. It
has vanished from most other places.
the shrub-steppe, it is fragile. The few fields cultivated here 60
years ago are overgrown with weeds. The natural vegetation has been
unable to retake what the plow overturned, unable to compete with
foreign invaders like cheatgrass, tumbleweed, tumble
It's priceless for research, Link
argues, not only because of what's here, but because of what's not
"We don't have kids
riding around on motorcycles shooting at shiny things (like
research instruments)," he says. "Other friends of mine around the
country are envious because they can't do what I can without great
Conservationists argue that not
turning Hanford into fruit orchards and farm fields will ease
pressure on farming and development elsewhere in Washington. "If we
develop this habitat into farm land we are going to put more stress
on the 48 threatened and endangered species that live here," says
Richard Leaumont, conservation direction of the Lower Columbia
Basin Audubon Society. If Hanford becomes developed, "any one of
these species could decline to the point it requires drastic
measures like the spotted owl," he says. That could mean farmers
would no longer be free to plow every acre they please, but would
be required to set aside a chunk of the back 40 for wildlife
Leaumont also argues that allowing
agriculture at Hanford could ruin Washington's food-growing
reputation, just as controversy over orchardists' use of the
carcinogen Alar rocked the apple industry in the late
"If we start raising
apples here, all we'd have to have is a movie star get on
television and say Washington apples are grown on the most polluted
place in the world and I can't risk buying an apple from there,"
The Nature Conservancy weighs in
on the side of Audubon and the Columbia River Conservation League.
"We think it's extremely valuable as a biologically significant
site," says Curt Soper, a Washington state field representative for
the Conservancy. "There hasn't been a cow or a plow there for 50
years and that can't be said for the rest of the Columbia Basin."
Where the animals
Brett Tiller, a wildlife biologist for
Battelle Labs, maneuvers a government-issue Dodge 4x4 pickup toward
the banks of the Columbia River. Fat mule deer watch us pass with
nonchalance, and a hawk - perhaps a ferruginous hawk - steers us
toward the perfect blue water.
Though the deer
graze even on Hanford's contaminated areas, Tiller tells me he's
found deer in central Oregon with five times as much radioactive
strontium 90 in their antlers. He says that indicates atmospheric
radioactive fallout is probably more deadly than exposure from
living at Hanford.
Tiller stops and, without
explanation, backs the lumbering truck several hundred yards to
cock a finger at a rare loggerhead shrike. The bird has lodged in a
gnarly old tree that was planted before bomb-building
We drive on through sage-covered sand
dunes, finally arriving below the chalky bluffs along the Columbia
River. A mass of white pelicans covers the island straight ahead,
and Canada geese swim the shoreline. Droughts in the 1970s and
1980s changed the nation's waterfowl flyways, Tiller explains,
making this a new stopping place for birds such as
"This is great
wintering ground for bald eagles," he adds, pointing to a huge
cottonwood tree on the upriver bank. Another hawk wheels across our
vista, and Tiller falls silent. He likes the idea of putting the
Hanford reach into the wild and scenic river system, maintained by
the National Park Service. He worries, though, that this means more
public use of the area and more pressure that will keep the shy
pelicans from nesting.
Public opinion polls in
the Richland, Kennewick and Pasco area show the majority of people
want Hanford's semi-pristine lands protected from development. But
that doesn't dissuade local county officials, who are prepared to
fight for development anyway, Tiller says. He finds that
"I think it's
our responsibility to maintain what's natural to the planet,"
Tiller says. "It's not like we're pulling a big piece of the pie
from the American people."
When it comes to Hanford's most
unspoiled corner, known as the Fitzner-Eberhardt Arid Lands Ecology
Reserve, preservation arguments are complicated by another nation's
claim here. Hanford is also the heart of the more than 10 million
acres the Yakima Indians ceded to the federal government in the
treaty of 1855. That treaty gave the Yakimas the right to continue
fishing, hunting, gathering traditional plants and using the area
for religious purposes. The Yakimas buried their nets on the banks
of the Columbia when the Army came by with eviction notices in the
1940s; they expected to
"We could not pick up
and move as the transients that work here," says Russell Jim,
manager of the tribe's environmental restoration and waste
management program. "The Yakima culture and religion is directly
tied to this land. We can't pick up our culture out of the ground
and move it somewhere else."
The Yakimas don't
contest the wild and scenic river designation for the Columbia, nor
leaving the Saddle Mountain and Wahluke Slope as wildlife
preserves. But they strongly want control of the 120-square-mile
Arid Lands Ecology Reserve.
They say their 1.3
million acre tribal reservation, located just 13 miles west of
Rattlesnake Mountain, is too small to support their traditional way
of life. The Ecology Reserve would give them breathing room, Jim
says, a place with the plants and animals necessary to revive and
teach the Yakima culture, as well as access to sacred religious
sites like Rattlesnake Mountain.
historical perspective, "the return of an uninhabited tract of land
to the indigenous people of the region would clearly indicate the
Indian policy of the past is finally over," Cecil Sanchez, chairman
of the Yakima's radioactive and hazardous waste committee, wrote to
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1993.
Wildlife biologist Fitzner, a foe of county control of Hanford,
says a look around the reservation ought to put the Yakima proposal
out of circulation also.
very familiar with their reservation," Fitzner says. "They are
overgrazing it; the springs are in dire straits. There's no
enforcement of environmental regulations and wildlife biologists
working there have to lease land to protect it."
Russell Jim emphasizes that the Yakima plan
doesn't allow grazing, but calls for managing the Ecology Reserve
as a cultural preserve. People concerned about Yakima management
should consider history, he
"We managed the
land successfully for countless generations," Jim says. "And the
newcomers managed to defile it in a few short years."
Public hearings on the future of the Ecology
Reserve started last spring. A decision date is unknown. Meanwhile,
the choices seem as stark as this soulful landscape, and questions
about the future as contradictory as the circumstances that left
technological destruction intertwined with priceless
writes writes for the Idaho Spokesman-Review in Coeur
information about the fate of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation,
contact the following:
Sen. Patty Murray,
Columbia River United,
P.O. Box 912, Bingen, WA 98605 (509/493-2808);
Hanford Education Action League, 1720 N. Ash, Spokane, WA 99205
Hanford Downwinder Health
Concerns, Lois Camp, P.O. Box 52, LaCrosse, WA 99143