Twelve years after the buffer area around the Hanford nuclear reservation was made a national monument, it might be time to start thinking about the next step for the land.
The Department of Energy owns the almost 300-square-mile Hanford Reach National Monument. It's managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including the 120-mile Fitzner/Eberhardt Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, set aside primarily for scientific research.
DOE's use for it is largely completed.
The federal government seized the checkerboard of private and public land in 1943 to serve as a buffer zone around Hanford, as part of the Manhattan Project to produce an atomic bomb during World War II.
The horseshoe-shaped zone that almost ringed the nuclear reservation continued to be needed as the Cold War escalated and about two-thirds of the nation's plutonium was produced at Hanford.
"Primarily it shielded prying eyes and was a buffer in case something would go wrong," said Colleen French, DOE Hanford government affairs program manager.
It had a military presence with the Army constructing Nike Ajax missile sites on the slope of Rattlesnake Mountain and north of the Columbia River.
But much of its use has been for environmental research, initially by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and more recently by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
"We think it may be time to start thinking about what would work best for the future of monument lands," French said.
The decision was made about its longterm future to protect wildlife when the Hanford Reach National Monument was created. But now the question is whether it's time for DOE to reduce or eliminate its role and for Fish and Wildlife to assume not only management of the land, but also ownership.
A transfer of ownership could be worked out between the agencies or done by Congress.
When the national monument was created in 2000, DOE still needed a buffer zone around the production portion of the Hanford nuclear reservation even though plutonium production stopped at the end of the Cold War and work is focused on environmental cleanup.
In 2000, weapons-grade plutonium had not yet been shipped off Hanford. Highly radioactive spent fuel that had not been processed to remove plutonium was stored 400 yards from the Columbia River.
With that work now done and far more radioactively contaminated buildings, including those with hot cells, cleaned out and demolished, DOE and Fish and Wildlife agreed it was time to clean up the security zone around Hanford with some of the $1.96 billion in economic stimulus money it received under the Obama administration.
"DOE felt, as did Fish and Wildlife, that it deserved to be back to its pristine state," French said. "A national monument should look like a national monument."
On the 120 square miles of ALE, about two dozen former research and military buildings, including old Army barracks, came down. At the top of Rattlesnake Mountain, a new communication tower and support building went up to replace about 15 buildings and communication towers scattered across its top.
Hundreds of debris sites, including a wrecked pickup lifted off the side of Rattlesnake Mountain by a helicopter, old fencing and the remains of former research projects, were removed.
DOE's work to clean up ALE and the rest of the monument was completed in 2011, preparing the land for future use as determined by the public and federal agencies, said Geoff Tyree, DOE spokesman.
North of the Columbia River, most of the national monument, including Saddle Mountain, is open to the public. The elevation is not as high as the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain, which is on ALE and closed to the public.
Tri-Citians might have to drive farther to get to Saddle Mountain, but they can see "amazing things," including the old reactors and other buildings of the Hanford nuclear reservation, said Heidi Newsome, a Fish and Wildlife biologist.
In the meantime, Fish and Wildlife is working through the cultural resources process to allow more tours of ALE, much of which has been designated a Traditional Cultural Property because of its importance to the tribes.
"We do feel we can have some responsible access (while maintaining) the ability to protect natural and cultural resources," said Larry Klimek, monument manager.
Tours are needed to show people why ALE is special, Newsome said. "If people see it, they appreciate it," she said.
Now ALE functions as an almost pristine outdoor laboratory for environmental research.
It's been 20 years this summer since two of the leading researchers on what's now the national monument, Les Eberhardt and Dick Fitzner, died in a plane crash along with the pilot for their research flight.
ALE later was renamed to remember them and their research contributions. Eberhardt studied the Hanford elk herd and mule deer, and Fitzner specialized in ornithology, particularly birds of prey.
Research has continued, with dozens of projects carried out since then by other Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientists, Fish and Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, area tribes and others.
Among recent research was a project to track burrowing owls that weigh about as much as a robin, making them too small to carry a transmitter.
Instead, Fish and Wildlife and the Global Owl Project fitted owls with geolocator tags and then recaptured them to collect data, determining that many of the owls from this area fly to the Bakersfield and Fresno areas of California for the winter.
Because livestock grazing stopped during World War II, when the property that's now ALE was seized for the Manhattan Project, the shrub-steppe habitat has different characteristics than most other shrub steppe habitat that remains intact in the Northwest. That includes fewer non-native species.
"It's protected. It's fenced. So research is secure," said Janelle Downs, a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who started doing research on ALE during a summer internship 32 years ago.
And it also is a large enough setting that it serves as an entire ecosystem landscape "with very little disturbance from urbanization and recreation, so it is really a haven for wildlife species," Downs said.
Because of the rich collection of data collected on ALE during the decades, ALE is going to be an important source of information on climate change, she said.
"It's important that the area still is preserved and that it is preserved and conserved as a natural area," she said.