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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Later in the day, Morrow and I arrived at an area called Mockingbird Gap. We scrambled up a riparian valley strewn with granite boulders, looking for pronghorn. Morrow complained of aging knees, but the New Mexico native still blazed up the hillside at an impressive clip. Bighorn sheep also remained elusive, but we found ourselves in a desert garden, surrounded by prickly pear cacti, little-leaf sumac, Wright's silk-tassel, shrub oak, agave, ocotillo, yucca, Apache plume, long-leaf Mormon tea and other plants that Morrow, a mammal specialist, confessed to not knowing. (A botanist working for White Sands has collected more than 1,000 different plant specimens inside the range.)

As we walked back down the narrow gap, Morrow paused to describe the vista. Almost everything we could see, in any direction, was part of White Sands, with the exception of the Sacramento Mountains to the east. Looking north, past where the mountains meet up again with the pancaked basin, he pointed to a minuscule structure: the McDonald Ranch. The rustic house is where the Manhattan Project scientists assembled the first nuclear weapon, which was detonated out there, at the Trinity site just west of the McDonald homestead.

The next day was the first Saturday of April, one of two days a year the government opens Trinity to the public. It was sunny, and the 3,000-plus visitors kicked up dust as they moved from the gravel parking lot, through a fenced-in walkway, into another fenced-in enclosure where an obelisk stands at ground zero. The day was surreal. Not so much because X marks the spot, or because a guy in a black-and-pink jacket was handing out copies of a three-page screed about how President John F. Kennedy knew that he was going to be assassinated in Dallas. No, what was truly strange was the tone of the day. Hot dog and postcard vendors gave it the ambiance of a county fair. Obese tourists snapped photos by the obelisk, and science buffs proudly displayed T-shirts printed with the periodic table.

The thing is, I like the science pilgrimage theme. Whatever one's opinion about the decision to make and drop the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project is an epic chapter in the story of human knowledge. That said, the absence of anything at ground zero to honor the dead -- those killed by the bomb, killed in action during World War II, killed in any war, even -- strikes me as an oversight. Even just a plaque of some kind would suffice, accompanied perhaps by J. Robert Oppenheimer's famous words. Upon witnessing the successful detonation early that morning on July 16, 1945, he was reminded of a Hindu scripture: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Newsome and I made our way across the Columbia over the Vernita Bridge, a popular put-in spot for boaters. From there we headed east, out onto the spit of land directly across from three of the retired nuclear reactors and below the White Bluffs, the centerpiece of the Hanford Reach National Monument.

Ten years ago this June, President Clinton signed Presidential Proclamation 7319, establishing the monument. In doing so, he set aside 195,000 acres of Hanford's former buffer zone for conservation, while also opening up part of it to recreation. Aside from the final stretch of the Columbia between the Bonneville Dam and the Pacific Ocean, the 51 miles within the Reach, from the Priest Rapids Dam to the town of Richland, constitutes the only remaining free-flowing water on the river. The rest of it is essentially a series of reservoirs. That makes this area of the Mid-Columbia Basin that much more attractive for salmon fishing and boaters. Today, people can paddle right past the Hanford Site, not more than 200 yards or so from the reactors that dot the shoreline and shaped world history. (You are not allowed to step onto the bank on that side of the river.)

Newsome and I walked down to the water. She was talking about the huge ice age floods that sculpted this landscape, but my attention was on the nuclear reactors. Some of them have been "cocooned," meaning the core and the rest of the building have been wrapped in an airtight and waterproof swaddle of steel and concrete for the next 75 years. The idea is that during this time, the radioactive contents will cool, at least somewhat, and by 2085, scientists and engineers will have developed new ways to handle and safely dispose of them. Let's hope so.

Throughout our day exploring Hanford's wild side, I would glance in the direction of the reactors. From almost everywhere where nature is thriving at Hanford, the reactors look minuscule, if they are visible at all. Yet here on the edge of the river, directly across from them, they are no longer dwarfed by the landscape. Hanford the bio-reserve is now, really, Hanford the plutonium production facility. Instead of birds, we heard a jackhammer-like thud thud thud at the N reactor, where work crews are excavating below the building to clean up contaminated soils before the structure can be cocooned.

Growing up in New England, I had never heard of Hanford, let alone other DOE sites like Sandia, Idaho National Labs or Savannah River. I had probably heard of the Nevada Test Site, or might have guessed what it meant, and I had heard of White Sands only because of a lame Willem Dafoe movie by the same name. Still, all of these places were foreign to me, as foreign as the south of France or the Mekong Delta.

Back then, my peer group was marching through the enviro-lit canon: Thoreau, Leopold, Muir, Snyder, Tempest Williams and others. Edward Abbey was in there somewhere, as was Bill McKibben, with his provocative argument that we had arrived at The End of Nature. So too was John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid.

McPhee's book in particular resonated with me, perhaps because it delineated what I naively thought to be the clear line separating those who aim to trash the planet and those who respect it. In one chapter, McPhee describes a hiking trip he took with David Brower, former head of the Sierra Club and veritable celestial of the preservation movement, and a miner named Charles Park, a man "who believes that if copper were to be found under the White House, the White House should be moved."

On the trip, which takes place in a majestic section of the Washington Cascades, Brower talks about the power and importance of wilderness for its own sake. Park, habitually swinging a small gem ax at just about anything along the trail other than Brower's kneecaps, counters the archdruid's opinion with a realpolitik view of civilization's mineral and material demands.

Visiting places like Hanford and White Sands serves to hammer home the realization that neither Brower nor Park is right. All places are invariably more complicated than pithy descriptors like pristine or poisoned, as are our relationships to them. Humanity doesn't pillage or cherish the Earth; we do both, plus everything in between. We are all downwinders, yet that is only where the story begins.

Just a few minutes away from our stopping point along the river, Newsome and I climbed a short but steep game trail that leads to a perch above the big bend in the Columbia and offers a sweeping vista of the White Bluffs, where cliff swallows darted about. Far in the distance, Newsome spotted three deer foraging on one of the islands in the middle of the river, just east of the reactors. The deer tend to congregate there, she said, because the island gives them a good view of whoever is approaching. "They feel safe out there."


Watch a video of a nuclear test on the Nevada Proving Ground. The footage of the test itself begins at about minute 8.