The Hanford Reach National Monument -- one of the most important wildlife refuges in Washington state -- is an inadvertent legacy of the United States’ nuclear weapons program. Lands within the monument originally served as a buffer around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. For nearly half a century, Hanford was the primary source of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The need for secrecy and security kept the surrounding area free from development. Wildlife flourished, even in the shadows of the reactors that produced, along with plutonium, some of the most toxic waste in the world. The reservation itself remains off limits to the public, while it undergoes the most complicated and costly cleanup in history. But it is encircled by an ecological treasure trove, including the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River, the most valuable salmon spawning grounds left on the river, and the largest remnant of undisturbed shrub-steppe habitat in eastern Washington.
As early as 10,000 years ago, ancestors of today’s Wanapum People, Yakama Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Colville, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, and Nez Perce hunted, fished, and gathered plants along the "reach" of the Columbia River (between the future sites of Priest Rapids Dam and the city of Richland, 51 miles downstream). Euro-Americans first visited the region with the Lewis-Clark Expedition in 1805. By the 1860s, a ferry crossing at White Bluffs had become a major transportation hub for miners and cattlemen en route to gold fields in Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia. However, there was little non-Indian settlement around the Reach until the 1870s, when the small farming towns of Hanford and White Bluffs were established. The promise of irrigation -- largely unrealized -- brought in more whites in the early 1900s. Many of the homesteads were later abandoned, the farmers defeated by the arid landscape. By December 1942, only about 1,500 families were still living in the area.
That month, military planners involved with the Manhattan Project -- the top-secret effort to build an atomic bomb during World War II -- recommended Hanford as the site for the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactor. Located in a basin formed by the Saddle Mountains to the north and Rattlesnake Mountain to the south, the site was geologically stable and easily defensible. Water from the river could be used to dissipate the enormous heat that would be generated by the reactor. There was ample electricity, generated by recently completed federal dams on the Columbia. Above all, it was remote and sparsely populated: if something went wrong, relatively few people would be killed.
In January 1943, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hurriedly bought more than 400,000 acres of land in the basin, including farms, ranches, the towns of Hanford and White Bluffs, and several Indian fishing villages. All the residents were ordered to leave and most of the buildings were destroyed.
In the months that followed, nearly 60,000 workers were brought in to build a complex of facilities at what the Army called the Hanford Engineer Works. The centerpiece of the complex was the B Reactor, which produced the plutonium used in the world’s first atomic explosion, on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo, New Mexico, and in the bomb dropped the next month on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Japan surrendered five days after the bombing of Nagasaki, bringing an end to World War II. However, a new war -- a “Cold War” -- developed almost immediately, with significant consequences for the Hanford area.
During the decades-long Cold War, the U.S. engaged in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Production capacity at what became known as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (now simply the Hanford Site) was greatly expanded to meet the increased demand for plutonium. By 1955, the Atomic Energy Commission was operating eight nuclear reactors at Hanford. A ninth reactor was completed in 1966. Two-thirds of the plutonium used in the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons came from these reactors.
The reactors also produced massive amounts of radioactive materials and chemical wastes. In 1947, when there were just three reactors at the site, Hanford released more than 684,000 curies of radioactivity. The partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, in 1979 released only about 15 curies. When plutonium production was at a peak, in the 1960s, radiation from Hanford was measured as far west as California and as far north as Canada. In addition to discharges of toxic materials into the air and water, some 440 billion gallons of hazardous liquids were disposed of directly into the ground at Hanford.
In the 1980s, the Department of Energy (DOE) -- successor to the Atomic Energy Commission -- was forced to make public previously secret documents showing the extent and the severity of the contamination. By almost any measure, the Hanford Site was the most polluted place in the Western Hemisphere. Spurred by angry citizens, lawsuits, and political pressure, DOE began a complex and expensive cleanup program. More than $60 billion has been spent on the project to date, and an estimated $200 billion more will be needed to neutralize the toxic legacy of America’s nuclear weapons program.
The nuclear heritage was both a curse and a blessing for the Hanford Reach and the surrounding lands.
During the peak years of plutonium production, the discharge of water used to cool the reactors raised the temperature of the river, disrupting aquatic life. The closure of the last reactor, in 1991, eliminated that problem, but meanwhile, leaks were discovered in underground tanks used to store high-level radioactive wastes. Radioactive groundwater is still flowing from the site into the river. In June 2005 a group of researchers reported that traces of plutonium had been found in pike minnows and clams pulled from the Reach. Samples of river mud, mulberry bushes, lichen, and deer and mouse scat tested higher in radiation than expected. The Reach also contains high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other industrial pollutants.
On the other hand, the strict security around the 586-square mile site helped preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of relatively pristine shrub-steppe grasslands, creating a haven for wildlife and a nursery for rare and endangered native plants. Numerous archaeological and historical sites were left undisturbed. The proposed Ben Franklin Dam near Pasco was never built partly because of concerns that it would flood the radioactive remains of decommissioned reactors. As a result, the only free-flowing, nontidal stretch of the entire 1,212-mile long Columbia River is the 51-mile Hanford Reach.
The Ben Franklin Dam was initially proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s. Plans for construction were withdrawn in 1970 in the face of heavy opposition from environmentalists, local tribes, sports and commercial fishermen, along with quiet but firm objections from the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1978, the Corps resurrected the project, saying it would produce needed electrical power and extend barge transportation to Wenatchee. Only a few public utility districts and the ports of Chelan and Douglas counties endorsed the dam. The Corps retreated in 1981, saying “the strength of opposition suggests that further study is pointless until state, regional and federal authorities accept the environmental tradeoffs necessary for development” (The Seattle Times, 1981).
Controversy over the Ben Franklin Dam led to a campaign to have the Reach designated a National Wild and Scenic River, forever protecting it from damming or dredging. “The time has come to start establishing by law once and for all that the Hanford Reach must be preserved, wild, free-flowing, undammed and undredged, as the national treasure that it is,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorialized in 1980. At the same time, agricultural and industrial interests began to pressure the government to open some of the adjacent lands to development. Representatives of the Washington Farm Bureau argued that the land would generate more taxes, create more jobs, provide more food, and even increase wildlife habitat if used for agriculture. The debate continued for two decades.
In 1995, Democratic Senator Patty Murray introduced a bill to preserve the Reach as a Wild and Scenic River. Republican Senator Slade Gorton led the opposition, arguing that local officials were better equipped than the federal government to manage the Reach and its environs. Two years later, Murray and Representative Norm Dicks introduced companion bills in the Senate and the House, again seeking Wild and Scenic River status for the Reach. Gorton again led the opposition. “We have asked much of the Columbia River, and it has always given generously,” Murray said, testifying on behalf of the bill. “It has given us affordable energy, turned a desert into a farming oasis, and provided a highway for international commerce. Shouldn’t we now allow it to keep its one last wild Chinook run?” Like its predecessor, the measure failed.
Abandoning hope of protecting the Reach through Congressional action, environmentalists pressed President Bill Clinton to designate the area as a national monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The act allows presidents to act without congressional approval to safeguard areas of national historic and scientific interest. On June 9, 2000, in the waning days of his administration, Clinton signed an executive order creating the Hanford Reach National Monument. Business and agricultural groups filed court challenges, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia later upheld Clinton’s action.
The extension of federal protection to the Reach drew wide praise from conservationists, sportsmen, and tribal officials. "We've supported this for a number of years," said Randy Settler, Yakama tribal council member and chairman of its Fish and Wildlife Committee. "We think it's something which is going to benefit not just the Yakama Nation, but people in Alaska and Canada and off the shore of Washington. It's going to have tremendous benefit for people who are dependent upon fish” (Indian Country Today, 2000).
“A Biological Treasure”
At 195,000 acres, the Hanford Reach National Monument is the second largest nationally protected area in Washington state. Only Mount Rainier National Park, with some 235,000 acres, is larger. Hanford is the only national monument managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reflecting its value as a natural resource.
In establishing the monument, Clinton described it as “a biological treasure,” containing “an irreplaceable natural and historic legacy, preserved by unusual circumstances.” Because the area is so big, and was kept free of people for so long, “it is one of the most important wildlife and ecological refuges left in eastern Washington” (Dietrich, 106). The heart of the monument is the Reach, where more than 80 percent of the Columbia’s remaining wild fall chinook salmon spawn. The surrounding shrub and grassland steppes support a rich and diverse community of plants, insects, and animals. More than two-thirds of the shrub-steppe ecosystem that once covered central and southeastern Washington and north central Oregon has been lost to development, and invasive plants have degraded much of the rest. The most pristine portions of what is left are located within the monument.
Scientists are particularly interested in the microbiotic soil crusts found in the monument’s shrub-steppe areas. These are complex groupings of lichens, moss, algae, and bacteria that live on the surface of the soil. They help stabilize the soil, retain water, reduce erosion, and promote reseeding of grasses and shrubs. More than 30 species of rare plants have been identified on undisturbed crusts within the monument, including three previously unknown to science. The insect population includes many species that have become rare elsewhere because of loss of habitat or application of pesticides.
The monument also contains well-preserved remnants of human history, going back at least 10,000 years. There are more than 150 archaeological sites, including the remains of prehistoric pithouses, graves, spirit quest monuments, hunting camps, game drive complexes, quarries, and hunting and kill sites. Traces of early pioneer settlements also exist. As evidence of more recent history, the shells of deactivated reactors can be seen from the river, in an odd juxtaposition of engineering technology and raw nature.
The C-shaped monument curls around the Hanford Site, which remains off limits to the public. The Reach itself and much of the shoreline is open to public access year-round. The “River Corridor Unit” is one of six management units in the monument. The Fish and Wildlife Service shares jurisdiction over some of the units with the Department of Energy, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management.
The largest of the units is the 77,000-acre Fitzner-Eberhardt Arid Lands Ecology (ALE) Reserve, named in honor of Hanford scientists Richard E. Fitzner and Lester B. Eberhardt (both killed in a plane crash in 1992). Access is limited to approved ecological researchers. However, the public can enjoy sweeping views of a starkly beautiful landscape from State Route 240, which runs along the northern edge.
The southeast edge of the reserve is bordered by Rattlesnake Mountain. At 3,600 feet, this is the highest point in the Columbia Basin. When plutonium was being produced at the Hanford Site, Rattlesnake Mountain was used for communication and security purposes. Army anti-aircraft defense installations, including a Nike missile silo, were located here in the 1950s. The missile site was deactivated in 1961, but traces can still be seen on the lower slope, along with communication and observation buildings on the summit.
North of the reserve is the 9,100-acre McGee Ranch-Riverlands Unit, which includes former agricultural lands, homesteads, and townsites. Overgrazing by livestock as early as the 1880s suppressed the natural grasses in this area. Anti-aircraft artillery batteries were established on the unit’s eastern edge in the early 1950s. Although the installation was decommissioned and dismantled a decade later, its footprint can still be seen.
The Saddle Mountain Unit consists of 32,000 acres bordering the north shore of the Reach. Designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 1971, it includes the Saddle Mountain Lakes, a large area of irrigation wastewater impoundments. Although tempting both to migrating waterfowl and to anglers, the lakes are contaminated with herbicides and pesticides. Partly for that reason, the Fish and Wildlife Service has closed the area to public access.
The 57,000-acre Wahluke Unit is arguably the most stunning section of the monument, featuring sagebrush steppes, shifting sand dunes, and soul-stilling views of the Reach. The river in this area is dotted by shallow islands and flanked by the spectacular White Bluffs. These cliffs of clay, nearly 400 feet tall in places, are eroding at the rate of more than 25 feet a year, partly because of irrigation runoff. Controlling the erosion of the White Bluffs is one of the most pressing challenges facing the agencies charged with managing the monument.
The historic B Reactor, on the south shore of the Reach, lies just outside the boundaries of the monument, but the Department of Energy is exploring ways to open it to the public as a museum or visitors’ center. For good and ill, the B Reactor launched the nuclear age, reshaping not only Hanford but also the world.