An Inadvertent Wildlife Refuge
The monument is the inadvertent result of nearly half a century of plutonium production at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, established in 1943 as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the world’s first atomic bombs. Plutonium from Hanford was used in the bomb that destroyed the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1945. The federal government eventually built nine nuclear reactors at the Hanford site. They produced the plutonium used in two-thirds of the nation’s total nuclear arsenal.
The reactors also produced so much toxic waste that the 586-square-mile reservation became the most polluted place in the Western Hemisphere. Shut down in 1991, it is the target of the most complicated, challenging, and expensive environmental cleanup effort in history.
Ironically, an area made poisonous to humans gave rise to one of the most important ecological reserves in Central Washington. The last undeveloped damsite on the Columbia remained undeveloped because the dam’s reservoir would have flooded the radioactive remains of the reactors on the river’s banks. Human activities in the lands bordering the reservation were limited by the need for secrecy and security. Because the area is so large, and was kept free of people for so long, it has become a valuable wildlife refuge. It also includes numerous archaeological and historic sites, among them ceremonial, hunting, and burial grounds used by Native Americans for thousands of years.
The undammed “Hanford Reach” -- a 51-mile segment of the Columbia from below the Priest Rapids Dam to Richland -- supports some of the most productive salmon spawning grounds in the Northwest. The surrounding lands include nearly pristine remnants of the shrub-steppe habitat that once covered the Columbia Plateau. In the words of historian Richard White: “Only here could fall chinooks still spawn in the main channel. Eagles, black-crowned night herons, prairie falcons, long-billed curlews, a profusion of overwintering waterfowl, coyotes, deer, and other species all survived in the shadows of the reactors and processing plants” (White, 84).
Several previous efforts to preserve the area through Congressional action failed. In 1995, Democratic Senator Patty Murray introduced legislation to designate the Hanford Reach as a National Wild and Scenic River. Republican Senator Slade Gorton led the opposition to that bill. Two years later, Murray and Representative Norm Dicks introduced companion bills in the Senate and the House, again seeking to designate the Reach as a Wild and Scenic River. Gorton again led the opposition, arguing that local officials were better equipped than the federal government to manage the Reach and its environs.
A coalition of tribes and conservationists continued to press for federal protection. Early in 2000, with the clock running out on the environmentally friendly Clinton administration, Murray asked that the area be set aside 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.
Hanford was one of six national monuments created by Clinton in the waning days of his administration. Business and agricultural groups immediately filed court challenges. In October 2002, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Court affirmed lower court rulings upholding Clinton’s orders.