Nuclear-Free Hiking

How Cold War weapons sites are becoming America's most unusual new preserves.

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Standing on a bluff above the Columbia River, all I can hear is a flock of ducks honking on a back eddy 400 feet below. Scanning for them, I notice how the three-million-year-old sandstone cliffs shift between shades of cream, peach, and green in the evening light. Never dammed or dredged, this 50-mile stretch of river–the last non-tidal, free-flowing section of the Columbia–loops south through the shrub-steppe of central Washington to the city of Richland, where it turns west to begin its plunge to the Pacific. Most of the land in my sight belongs to Hanford Reach National Monument, nearly 200,000 acres of rolling hills carpeted with cheatgrass and rabbitbrush and home to elk, mule deer, and coyotes. A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service brochure I picked up describes it as “land hidden from the hand of man for over 60 years, preserved by unusual circumstances.” Unusual is right. Looking west to the other shore, I see the blocky silhouettes of nine nuclear plants, now mostly decommissioned, their reactor buildings cocooned in concrete.

Hanford Reach is unspoiled because it borders a very spoiled place: the Hanford Site. From 1943 to 2000, the Reach was off-limits because it flowed past plutonium reactors that made fuel for 13,000 atomic warheads. Today, the Hanford site is the biggest environmental cleanup project in the world. For 20 years, federal contractors have been dismantling the plants, digging up nuclear trash, and treating fouled soil and water. In 2000, Congress converted the surrounding land into a national monument and transferred management to the USFWS to preserve the rare plants, Chinook salmon, and elk and deer that thrive here.
Crumbling smokestacks and radiation signs aren’t the usual backdrop for national monuments, but supporters of Hanford Reach believe this undeveloped curve of the Columbia will become a regional treasure. In 2002 the FWS estimated that 60,000 people visited the monument annually to hike, hunt, and fish. Cleanup around the reactors is scheduled to end by 2017, and plans are afoot for a visitor’s center to join the existing wildlife viewing area and boat launches. “Opening up the river corridor to more hiking and fishing will be the big prize of this project,” says Todd Nelson, a spokesman for Washington Closure Hanford, the company managing the river cleanup.

Hanford’s conversion is one of many since the end of the Cold War created a glut of obsolete military sites, many containing large tracts of wildlife-rich open space. Since 1989, 21 decommissioned installations from Aroostook, Maine to Birmingham, Alabama have been converted into national wildlife refuges totaling more than one million acres. Of course, cleaning up a nuclear facility like Hanford is a much bigger challenge than turning a former Air Force base into a bird sanctuary. Such projects often require billions of dollars to make them safe for public use. But today, two decades after the Berlin Wall fell, massive cleanups at several sites are nearing completion, and the public is being invited back to places once guarded by guns and barbed wire.

Two other projects–both former weapons facilities–sit just outside of Denver. Ten minutes northeast of downtown is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which produced chemical weapons and napalm after World War II, and earned Superfund designation in 1987. Today, a $2.4 billion site cleanup is two-thirds complete, and 12,000 acres of wetlands and prairie have been transferred to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Plans call for more trails, a ranger station, overlooks to observe wintering bald eagles, and the reintroduction of pronghorns and bison.

Not far away is Rocky Flats, a 6,420-acre site that manufactured plutonium triggers for atomic bombs. Shut down in 1989 for environmental violations, the plant was demolished and tons of soil were trucked away. Last summer, the EPA certified the 10-year, $7 billion remediation as complete. Now a wildlife refuge, the site protects tallgrass prairie and shrubland along Colorado’s increasingly populated Front Range, and is home to elk, black-tailed prairie dogs, bald eagles, and the threatened Preble’s jumping mouse.

Wondering whether your boots will glow after trekking across these preserves? Park authorities say these sites are among the most carefully monitored landscapes in the world, having passed stringent EPA inspections for soil and water quality. And if there is a hazard, rangers typically post warnings. At Indiana’s Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, a former Army proving ground, visitors must watch a video about the risks of picking up unexploded munitions. That may sound obvious, but Sherry James, a ranger at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal refuge, counsels hikers to “stay on designated trails and keep out of closed areas.” All of which just proves what we’ve know all along–that hiking really is the bomb.