PROSSER -- There are canyons tucked away on the 21-square-mile McWhorter Ranch where Mark McWhorter guesses no one has gone since he was in high school in the '60s and rode a horse up them looking for stray cattle.
Just a drive around the ranch on its dirt roads can take a couple of hours.
Beneath the ranch are irrigated rows of grapes, hops and blueberries on smaller properties. But once you reach the ranch that climbs the south slope of Rattlesnake between Prosser and Benton City, it's open country.
The landscape turns to miles of bluebunch wheatgrass and pungent sage.
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"It's pristine," said Max Benitz Jr., a former Benton County commissioner and caretaker of the ranch for the McWhorter family.
The ranch now looks much as it did in the '40s and '50s, he figures. And it probably does not look much different than it did when Lucullus Virgil McWhorter took up ranching in Eastern Washington in 1903.
"There are almost no big ranches like this left," said Jeff Tayer, regional director for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
After the property goes on sale Friday, he'll be submitting a proposal to purchase it for the state.
If land such as this is precious now, just wait 40 or 50 years, Tayer said. It sits near the Tri-Cities, one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, and in the midst of prime Columbia Valley wine country.
Much of the region's shrub-steppe land has disappeared to development in recent years, and shrub-steppe land under state ownership typically is rocky, in contrast to the deep soil of the McWhorter Ranch.
But those also are some of the factors that could make the ranch attractive to other buyers, and the McWhorter family will be considering all offers.
That's the way it should be, Tayer said.
Much as he'd like the state to submit the winning offer to preserve the property for wildlife and public use, "This is the way to do environmental protection in the marketplace," he said. "It's voluntary."
He remembers Mark McWhorter's father, the late R.J. McWhorter, walking into Tayer's Yakima office unannounced one day and saying he wanted to sell the land to Fish and Wildlife, preserving it into perpetuity.
But at the end of the discussions with the state, R.J. McWhorter couldn't bear to part with the ranch.
"It was a bittersweet moment when we couldn't do the deal at the time," Tayer said.
It's easy to see what he enjoyed so much.
Game trails are worn into hillsides of the ranch, where Benitz stopped his pickup on a recent day.
"They come over the (ridge) top eastbound," he said. "They come down and get a drink of water and then back into the draws to lie down in the heat of the day."
Old sagebrush stands 6 feet tall, and with few trees on the property, the bottom branches are gone -- the result of elk rubbing velvet from their antlers.
Benitz has seen as many as 350 elk on the property, about half the size of the Hanford herd that roams from the Columbia River on the Hanford nuclear reservation, across the Rattlesnake Mountain area of the Hanford Reach National Monument and over onto the McWhorter and other ranches.
Badger holes pockmark an embankment. Ground squirrels pop their heads out of burrows. Hawks circle above. Once, a hired man spotted a lynx on the property, Mark McWhorter said.
The ranch also is home to bobcats, mule deer, coyotes, chukars, sage hens, jackrabbits, golden eagles and rattlesnakes.
However, what the state is most interested in are the endangered ferruginous hawks that forage on the ranch.
Fish and Wildlife officials would like to use the land as habitat, possibly establishing nests for the hawk, and also opening the land to nonmotorized public access. That would offer recreation compatible with wildlife habitat and could include hiking, horseback riding, bird watching and some hunting.
"This is what feeds the whole operation," said Benitz at a small spring, surrounded by an eight-foot tall fence to keep elk from wallowing there. Gravity is used to pipe the water to 13 cisterns that fill water troughs to support the cattle that grazed the ranch until recently.
The aspen that grow there are near where R.J. McWhorter died at the age of 86 in November 2007 in a four-wheeler accident.
Tayer remembers him as a tireless worker, fixing fence in his 80s. When getting on a horse became an effort, he switched to a four-wheeler, Benitz said.
R.J. McWhorter was the third generation of McWhorters to live in the area. His grandfather Lucullus McWhorter devoted much of his life to preserving Nez Perce and Yakama tribal history and helping them with land and water rights issues, according to the Washington State University Museum of Anthropology, which houses a McWhorter Collection of artifacts.
On the present McWhorter Ranch, the family originally ran sheep on one of three large sheep ranches that stretched across Yakima and Benton counties. The McWhorters wintered the sheep on the ranch, but in May or June would ship them by train to more lush grazing in Montana, said Mark McWhorter.
His father would spend the summers there with the sheep and had stories of shooting grizzly bears, Mark McWhorter said.
Before World War II, the ranch was larger. It stretched down the north side of Rattlesnake Mountain to Highway 240, including some land from near the Horn Rapids dam up to Highway 24 south of the Vernita Bridge.
But like other farmers and ranchers with smaller holdings, the McWhorter property on the north side of Rattlesnake Mountain was seized by the federal government for the Manhattan Project. It would become part of the security barrier around Hanford, where plutonium was created in the race to develop an atomic bomb during WWII.
At the time, the McWhorter family thought they'd get the land back when the government finished its work. Now, it's part of the national monument that is closed to the public.
At the north end of the present ranch, a sweeping view takes in the Energy Northwest nuclear power plant and the shutdown Fast Flux Test Facility reactor -- both small in the distance against a back drop of the White Bluffs.
The government road that winds up the steeper side of Rattlesnake Mountain to its top crosses a corner of the McWhorter property.
R.J. McWhorter was an advocate of personal property rights, not surprising after the family lost part of its ranch to the federal government. He sometimes allowed friends to hunt there, but didn't invite many people to see the ranch. He's rumored to have dive-bombed trespassers with the small plane he flew.
Even Benitz had been no farther than the ranch house until three years ago, he said.
If the state purchases the land, it would want to capture and preserve the history of the McWhorter family and celebrate the early settlers of the region, Tayer said.
Last year, the state Legislature set aside $1.8 million for Fish and Wildlife to use. It may be able to add to that $1 million that the Kennewick Irrigation District and Washington State Department of Ecology will pay the state for the purchase of shrub-steppe habitat in exchange for providing water for development of Red Mountain for viticulture.
It would work with groups such as The Nature Conservancy and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to raise more money toward a purchase price that has been estimated at close to $7 million.
If the land, which is zoned for agricultural use, is purchased for private development, the new owner must work out water issues. Water always is a concern in the Yakima Basin and beyond the historically used spring, legal water availability might be limited.
But whatever happens to the land is up to the McWhorter family, Tayer said.
"They get to choose," he said. "Unlike what happened in (1943), they get to pick."