HANFORD -- At the start of the 1940s, most of the 586 square miles that now make up the Hanford nuclear reservation was crop land and sagebrush range land where 20,000 sheep grazed.
Ownership was a patchwork of the federal government, the state, irrigation districts and hundreds of individuals.
That changed during World War II as the federal government condemned farms, homes and businesses and turned the site into a secret complex to produce plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.
Sixty-seven years later, the land is about to undergo another big change as it's no longer needed for nuclear weapons production and with some environmental cleanup nearing completion.
Some of the land is expected to be available for new uses, and the federal government is required to make decisions on what is the "highest and best use" of the land.
The Tri-City area has been remiss in recent years in not staging ongoing discussions with the Department of Energy about possible future uses of Hanford, said a letter sent this spring to a top DOE official from Tri-City area government and business leadership.
But the Tri-Cities is about to have its say. DOE plans to reopen that discussion at a community forum set for Oct. 28 in the Tri-Cities. Details have yet to be announced.
To prepare for the DOE forum, the Tri-City Development Council is planning four public meetings next week to help develop a unified vision of how Tri-City area residents would like to see Hanford land used once it is released.
It comes at a crucial time for the area's economy.
DOE plans to reduce the active environmental cleanup area of the nuclear reservation to little more than 75 square miles at its center by 2015.
And as cleanup advances, federal money spent at Hanford is expected to decline and fewer jobs will be available at Hanford to help drive the Tri-City economy.
By the time the vitrification plant that will treat radioactive wastes begins operating in 2019, Benton County expects 5,000 fewer family-wage Hanford-related jobs, according to a statement released by the county.
"In most cases when factories are shuttered or military bases are closed, the host community has very little notice or chance to prepare for the consequences," the statement said. "We are fortunate here in the Mid-Columbia, as we are on notice for changes that are coming several years down the road."
Of the total 586 square miles at Hanford, more than half -- 304 square miles -- were once used as a security buffer and will remain undeveloped as part of the Hanford Reach National Monument. That leaves 282 square miles that were part of the production portion of the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Current land use plans developed by the Department of Energy identify about 60 square miles for "industrial use" that would be available for economic development.
Large areas, including areas with tribal cultural significance or with largely undisturbed open spaces, would be left as natural areas with conservation or preservation designations. Some mining could be allowed.
Small areas are set aside for recreation, including land near the Vernita Bridge and areas with historical significance, including B Reactor. And the area that now includes the Laser-Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory is set aside for research and development.
Among the first decisions that DOE is expected to make is whether to lease land to Energy Northwest that's near the Hanford 300 Area, which is just north of Richland, for a clean energy park.
As part of its plan for federal economic stimulus money, DOE proposed reducing the active footprint of its cleanup sites across the nation and developing some of the newly released land into clean energy parks for research or production.
Energy Northwest, working with TRIDEC, is discussing a lease of about 300 acres, down from 20 square miles first proposed to DOE.
Some of the land would be developed by Energy Northwest, but land also would be available for other companies or organizations to develop projects, said Energy Northwest spokeswoman Rochelle Olson. Solar energy would be a natural fit and biomass energy production also could be a possibility, she said.
At some point Energy Northwest might look at energy production through new small nuclear modules, but it has no specific plans now, she said.
"We do believe all sources of carbonless energy sources should be considered to help meet our state's climate goals," Olson said.
DOE has planned only a forum in the Tri-Cities to discuss the energy park initiative.
However, Heart of America Northwest, based in Seattle, wants a public meeting on the west side of the state where hundreds of its members can have a say on the future use of Hanford land as cleanup is completed, including on the Energy Northwest lease.
There is "tremendous regional concern" about treaty rights, endangered species and the national monument, Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America, said at a recent Hanford Advisory Board meeting.
DOE has said it will make a decision after the October meeting in the Tri-Cities on Energy Northwest's request to lease land for clean energy development.
4 forums set for this week
Four forums will be held this week to hear how Tri-City area residents want Hanford land to be used after it is cleaned up.
They are organized by the Tri-City Development Council and will be held:
* 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Richland Public Library, 955 Northgate Drive.
* 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Franklin PUD, 1411 W. Clark St., Pasco.
* 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Bechtel Board Room of the Tri-Cities Business and Visitor Center, 7130 W. Grandridge Blvd., Kennewick.
* 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Benton PUD, 2721 W. 10th Ave., Kennewick.