Tribe Works to Revegetate Hanford Site

Mar 29, 2012

RICHLAND, Wash. -- The Hanford cleanup has been hard on the area’s ecosystem, It disturbs habitat and native vegetation that can be difficult to replant. But as correspondent Courtney Flatt reports, one local tribe is working to grow native plants at formerly contaminated areas.

Botanist Steve Link gingerly steps between seedlings that he hopes will take root on Rattlesnake Mountain. On the western edge of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation...

Link: “We have a bunch that worked here. This is a dusty maiden…”

In some cases the plants are only inches tall, and they’re growing in an unusual location, an area that’s been home to more than 50 years of nuclear experiment and development.

Link: “This is where my office was in 1985. And so they tore it down. This is the remains of a parking lot and a building. So it’s all just highly disturbed.”

Link and two others work all afternoon to plant 110 lupine seedlings. Sagebrush may seem to be all that’s growing when you drive by the Hanford Site. But more than 700 native species naturally grow in the area – like these lupines.

The effort at replanting is being led by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. At the tribe’s headquarters in Mission, Oregon, just south of Hanford, brand new equipment hums in a newly constructed field station lab. The lab has equipment to analyze soil sample contaminants and clone native plants.

Outside, two high-tech greenhouses will hold 70,000 plants each. This project is funded by the Department of Energy.

Stuart Harris is the tribe’s directs the tribe’s department of science and engineering. He says eventually the tribe wants to replant the entire Hanford site. That’s about 600 square miles.

To do that, they’re taking a new approach. Harris says, traditionally, biologists plant a few native species around an area, hoping they will attract others.

This time, he says, the tribe wants to assemble groups of plants together… like tiles on a kitchen floor. Biologists will figure out which plants make good “neighbors,” and will then transport these “tiles” to the Hanford Site.

Harris: “Then end up with a complete restoration project, rather than just scattered tracts of sagebrush and bunch grass.”

Biologists predict this mosaic of plants will also help native animals return to the area – everything from insects to small mammals.

Harris: “One of the things that we do notice is that if you just plant one or two or three species of plants, it doesn’t adequately provide resources for other plants and animals – for the bugs and mosses and stuff.”

And native plants will protect the area from wildfires and weeds, like cheatgrass, says tribal scientist Rico Cruz.

Cruz: “The cheat grass is a fire fuel. That’s what causes the big fires at Hanford.”

Cruz says once planting gets underway, the tribe will distribute seeds regionally to organizations like the Department of Transportation and the Department of Agriculture.

But there’s a long way to go.

Back on Rattlesnake Mountain, botanist Steve Link inspects several seedlings before placing them in the dirt. He seems excited by what he sees.

Link says this experimental planting will help researchers understand which native plants will grow best in the area. It’s a concept he says is not well understood. But he plans to keep watch over these small plots.

Link: “I’ll monitor this until the day I die. And I’m not joking, either.”

Several plants survived last year’s cold snaps. And Link says, for now the experiment is looking good.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network