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 Jersey.
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.
This 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 buffer.
"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.
The 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.
The purplish 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 arsenal.
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 Mountain.
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.
Local 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.
Energy 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 kind.
How Hanford got its name
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 begin.
"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 says.
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.
Hedman 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 environmentalists.
"The trick 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 elsewhere.
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 bunchgrass.
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 Sandberg's bluegrass."
This intricate 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.
And, like 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 mustard.
It's priceless for research, Link argues, not only because of what's here, but because of what's not here.
"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 expense."
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 habitat.
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 1980s.
"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," Leaumont says.
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 play
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 began.
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 pelicans.
"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 short-sighted.
"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 return.
"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.
From a 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.
"I'm 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 maintains.
"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 preservation.
Ken Olsen writes writes for the Idaho Spokesman-Review in Coeur D'Alene.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:
- For further reading ...
For more information about the fate of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, contact the following:
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., 202/244-2621;
Columbia River United, P.O. Box 912, Bingen, WA 98605 (509/493-2808);
Hanford Education Action League, 1720 N. Ash, Spokane, WA 99205 (509/326-3370);
Hanford Downwinder Health Concerns, Lois Camp, P.O. Box 52, LaCrosse, WA 99143 (509/549-3497).