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Know the West

On the fate of Hanford

  Dear HCN,

I appreciate your Hanford issue (HCN, 1/22/96) since I was born and raised in Othello, a small town to the northeast of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Our farm, which my brother still owns, lies a little more than a mile away from the northern border. Our father was also raised nearby, on a homestead in what is now the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

From childhood I have been consumed by the history of the area, and as I follow wagon roads of the 1850s, I find traces of surviving native deer populations, migrating bands of sandhill cranes, horned larks and coyotes: The land is rich in native wildlife.

My brother recently went to work for one of the major Indian tribes of the area. He investigates toxic waste sites and researches the environmental effects of proposals that might alter what the Indians continue to consider their sacred sites. A comment he made about the proposed opening of the northern bank of the Columbia River to agriculture was particularly relevant to me. He pointed out that seepage from existing irrigated farms in the area is already creating massive land movements on the face of the White Bluffs. As water-saturated layers of the bluffs sag and slough off toward the Columbia, the river channel is forced to compensate by eroding the banks of Locke Island, a prehistoric gravesite that sits beneath the bluffs.

In my own days as a desert wanderer, I have watched the White Bluffs turn yellow with saturation and grow weeds that couldn't have survived there before. Despite the new pools of seepage that have accumulated on the desert floor, White Bluffs remains one of the more interesting historical sites in the state.

Eastern Washington's deserts, however, are being discovered by the motocross crew which has ripped vicious vertical ruts into the flanks of Saddle Mountain. I have nothing against motorcycles in the desert, so long as they are kept on established roads where they won't damage the extremely fragile environment.

When I compare the damage done by motorcyclists in a single afternoon with the remains of footpaths that date from the Ice Age, I am saddened. But perhaps 200 years from now, when we have run out of fossil fuels and motorcycles are all in the museums, hikers will one day add motocross trails to the catalog of ancient traces that are found on the relatively untouched slopes of the Northern Hanford reach. That is, if we can keep the plows out.

Mark E. Danielson

Bellingham, Washington