Paddling downstream through a stretch of the Columbia River in southeast Washington State, I pretend for a moment that photographer Bob Harbison and I are explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who passed near here in 1805.
The sage-steppe landscape and the bluffs that rise from river's edge, in muted browns and grays and greens, seem timeless in their soft beauty. We see coyotes stalking deer, great blue herons, beaver lodges, osprey diving for fish. We hear the wind and the hawk's whistle and the river riffles. And all the while the mighty Columbia pulls us steadily toward the Pacific.
Then we spot the man in black, and the reverie ceases.
He is armed, peering at us through binoculars as we stare back at the stolid concrete structure he is guarding. It is part of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, 560 square miles dotted with reactors that once produced the plutonium for weapons of mass destruction (including the atomic bomb dropped at Nagasaki 53 years ago this month).
And ironically, it is the reason this is the last free-flowing section of the river, the one part of the Columbia basin that remains close to the way it was before settlers fanned out to farm and ranch and mine once Lewis and Clark had mapped the territory.
Eight major dams along the Columbia and its main tributary, the Snake River, have tamed just about all of the 1,243-mile river. Reservoirs and slack water behind the dams (there are many smaller ones as well) provide relatively cheap hydropower and water for irrigation. But they've also changed the river's environment. The sharp decline in the region's principal icon - ocean-going salmon - tells the story most graphically.
But this 51-mile stretch known as the Hanford Reach remains relatively pristine, and it has become the focus of competing interests now that the cold war is over, the reactors have stopped producing nuclear weapons fuel, and Uncle Sam is making plans to declare the federal property here "excess."
Lawmakers in Washington are debating proposals that would declare this portion of the Columbia "wild and scenic " and leave the area mostly under federal protection or, alternatively, give local governments greater say in managing the region for farming and recreation. Kathleen McGinty, the top White House environmental official, was here earlier this summer. House Speaker Newt Gingrich plans a visit as well.
Everyone agrees that the river itself, and perhaps a quarter-mile strip on either side, should remain off-limits to damming, dredging, or other development.
"All sides are saying 'protect the river,' " says Rick Leaumont of the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society.
It's the land beyond that's in dispute.
Conservationists and wildlife biologists say much of the land away from the river's edge is unique. In a recent report for the US Department of Energy (which owns and operates the nuclear facilities), the Nature Conservancy called it "an irreplaceable natural legacy. "
"In its present condition, the Hanford Site is not only a refuge, but a genetic bank for both the common and rare plants and animals that are integral components of the shrub-steppe and Columbia River ecosystems," states this biodiversity inventory and analysis. "From a conservation standpoint, the Hanford Site is a vital ... link in preserving and sustaining the diverse plants and animals of the Columbia Basin Ecoregion."
Chinook salmon spawning ground
Biologist John Hall, who edited the report, points out the large number of rare species found here - some of them endemic (found nowhere else). The Hanford Reach also is the last major chinook salmon-spawning ground along the main stem of the Columbia, and some experts see this remaining population of wild salmon as a key to restoring dramatically depleted fish runs.
"It is possible that fall chinook in the Hanford Reach now function as a core population, which might serve as a source of colonization of adjacent habitats if normative conditions were restored in those areas," an independent scientific study group suggested in its 1996 report "Return to the River." Before the dams and other development, annual salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin totaled 10 million to 16 million; today they are no more than a quarter of that with most of those fish produced in hatcheries.
"The issue here is resource protection," says Dr. Hall. "It's public land now. It should stay in public ownership."
Mark Hedman sees things from a different perspective. He and his family farm 500 to 600 acres in nearby Mattawa, growing peas, sweet corn, onions, wheat, and beans. Other farmers grow alfalfa, potatoes, grass seed, and a variety of fruits.
For several years now, Mr. Hedman has been working to see that at least some of the land along the north side of the Hanford Reach is made available to farmers - particularly young family farmers who are becoming somewhat of an endangered species themselves. He says it can be done without taking any more river water for irrigation and without causing erosion that could harm the bluffs here. He has drafted such a plan on behalf of area farmers.
"I want to see this through to something that's sensible and balanced - owner-operators, not absentee owners, people with pride in the community," he says. "That would be my dream."
"We care as much about the river as anybody," he adds.
But it's not just the river that's at stake. The land to the south of the Columbia here will remain in federal hands for many years. The reactors have to be decontaminated and dismantled. There are many toxic waste sites, including 177 barrels of poisonous and radioactive materials buried here - some of them leaking into the ground. Cleanup costs will total billions of dollars. The area could become a long-term (perhaps permanent) repository for the waste material.
The land across the river housed anti-aircraft missiles to protect the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. These have been removed, however, and there is access to the river through this land for boaters. While these 102,000 acres still belong to the Department of Energy, they are managed as state and national wildlife areas.
Two years ago, the National Park Service completed an environmental impact study that recommended that this area be declared a national fish and wildlife refuge with the Hanford Reach portion of the Columbia protected under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
"Lands within the proposed boundaries of the refuge and wild and scenic river contain 13 federal and 59 state-listed rare wildlife and plant species and are an important wintering area for large concentrations of migratory waterfowl and other birds," states this federal government finding. "Lack of access and absence of a reservoir has also protected, yet kept accessible, significant American Indian archaeological sites and areas that are culturally important. In short, this is the only segment of the Columbia River in the United States resembling its natural condition."
Which way development?
Earlier this year, the private conservation group American Rivers declared the Hanford Reach of the Columbia to be "the nation's most endangered river" because of development threats.
"Turning these rare, ecologically fragile lands over to private development would amount to a give away of a national treasure," said Lorraine Bodi, co-director of American Rivers' Seattle office.
Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks, both Democrats from Washington State, have authored legislation declaring the Hanford Reach part of the national wild and scenic river system. While development would be prohibited, the river would remain open for fishing, boating, and other recreational purposes, including commercial tours of natural and historic sites.
In arguing for federal protection, Senator Murray says, "We simply can't afford to take chances with the one part of the river that works well...."
While the Murray/Dicks bills do not specifically address the land to the north of the river, presumably it would remain protected as a wildlife area. Opponents of this approach say a wild and scenic designation here would amount to "locking up" the river and surrounding property.
Rep. Richard Hastings (R) of Washington, whose district includes the Hanford Reach, has proposed competing legislation that eschews a wild-and-scenic designation while giving state and local authorities considerable say over managing the resource.
"No one is suggesting that development be allowed either along the waterfront or in the river. The salmon runs are too important and must be protected," says Representative Hastings. "However, we need not lock up the entire area to save what everyone agrees must be saved."
Hastings asserts that the salmon spawning grounds here already are protected under a 1996 law that prohibits damming, dredging, or channeling of Hanford Reach.
To further manage the quarter-mile protected area on either side of the river, he proposes a special commission that would include representatives from the three surrounding counties as well as the State of Washington and the federal government. Hasting's bill also would transfer control of the land north of the Hanford Reach (the area now designated state and federal wildlife areas) to the three counties.
Local residents want a say
"This issue boils down to one philosophical point - do we allow local residents any authority to manage their local resources - not just an opportunity to comment, but to actually help decide?" he asks. "I firmly believe the answer is yes."
Environmentalists are afraid this would lead to more farming, more irrigation, and therefore more damage to the fragile bluffs along the river. If this were to happen, they argue, it would inevitably hurt spawning salmon. They also see it as a dangerous precedent.
"It would be the first time in the history of this country that a wildlife refuge would be decommissioned," says the Audubon Society's Rick Leaumont.
Most people here apparently prefer federal protection for the Hanford Reach, according to local polls.
But many others remember the small communities bulldozed into oblivion half a century ago and the land across the river that no doubt would be farmed today, if Uncle Sam hadn't stepped in during wartime. To farmer Mark Hedman and others, a fair resolution has to include more local authority and responsibility. And yet they resent the assertion that they can't wait to get their hands on the ecologically special lands along the Hanford Reach.
"We're not a bunch of bumbling idiots that only want to farm," says Ben Floyd, economic development coordinator and lead person on the issue for Benton County. "The issue is much more complex than that, and our values are much more complicated than that."