Hanford Reach National Monument is home to prime salmon habitat, rare plants and animals — in the shadow of a former nuclear reservation.

Ray Hamilton edges a jet boat away from the dock and lets it drift a moment before heading to the Hanford Reach, a 51-mile stretch of the Columbia River that hasn’t changed much since 1805, when Lewis and Clark were in the neighborhood.

Hamilton asks where everyone on this tour is from, then offers a bit of advice. Don’t compare the Reach to where you come from, he warns. The Reach, he says, “has its own beauty.”

With that, he hits the throttle and roars upriver to show off this arid shrub-steppe landscape — an ecosystem as scarce in Washington as old-growth forest.

“It’s a special place that was preserved due to very strange circumstances,” says Paula Call of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which jointly manages the Reach with the Department of Energy. “It has an incredible history.”

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Never tilled or dredged

No one set out to preserve the Reach. It stayed undeveloped for nearly six decades because it served as part of the wide, C-shaped buffer around the top-secret Hanford nuclear reservation, which produced the plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in World War II.

With Hanford’s plutonium-production reactors now mothballed (and a massive cleanup under way), the Reach is a destination in its own right.

As part of the 195,000 acres of Hanford Reach National Monument, established in 2000, the Reach is a place to see what Eastern Washington looked like before irrigation and development and dams.

Because it’s never been dredged, this section of the Columbia is prime spawning ground for an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the river’s fall chinook salmon. And because most of the land never has been tilled, the Reach has rare plants and insects, some of which, like the flowering White Bluffs bladderpod, exist nowhere else. It’s also home to elk and coyotes and mule deer that, when Hamilton swings the boat up close, just stare at the passengers as they stare back.

From the dock in Richland, it takes about 40 minutes to reach the Reach proper. But that’s because Hamilton, one hand on the wheel and the other holding a microphone, stops often to point to sights along the way. The first is an island so crowded with birds that it’s hard to see where another might land. There are noisy inland gulls, but also black cormorants, egrets, great blue herons and large, white pelicans with orange beaks as long as their graceful necks.

At the Reach’s beginnings, the houses, vineyards and fields downstream disappear. On the left is Hanford, marked with a steady string of “No Trespassing” signs and an occasional view of an old reactor. To the right are the beginnings of the White Bluffs, which are varying shades of beige. Sagebrush plants, some of which are 100 years old, carpet the ground along with bitterbrush, other shrubs and bunch grasses.

Carved by floods

From afar, the river looks calm, smooth. Up close, it’s clear how swiftly it’s moving. On this day, the water is about 6 to 8 feet above normal because of the winter’s record snowpack. Rattlesnake Mountain rises 3,600 feet in the distance, a treeless mound higher than Snoqualmie Pass.

In the Reach, the Columbia cuts its own course, largely unaffected by the dams that have turned most of the rest of the river into a series of pools and lakes. And, as one member of Lewis and Clark’s party noted two centuries ago, there are few trees — and even those, Hamilton explains, are interlopers.

People in the Tri-Cities often divide history into before 1943 and after. That was the year the town of Hanford and nearby White Bluffs changed nearly overnight from small farming communities to a top-secret nuclear-weapons facility. The U.S. government ordered the towns’ residents to leave, tore down almost all the buildings and set to work producing weapons-grade plutonium.

But as big a role as Hanford plays in the Reach’s story, there’s much more to it. Native American fishing camps here go back at least 10,000 years. The area is a prime place to see how ice-age floods carved through the landscape.

Not far from the Reach’s beginnings, Hamilton runs the boat up on a sandy beach, the edge of about 10 square miles of dunes left by those ancient floods. Later, he points out an old trail that was used to transport cattle, furs and other goods northward, and an island where a local tribe still comes to hold ceremonies each year.

Trails, boating, hunting

The best way to see the monument is from the water — by kayak, fishing boat or this jet-boat tour run by Columbia River Journeys. On land, there are a couple of scenic lookouts, a few boat launches and a few places to picnic. But in the eight years since the monument was established, much of it remains inaccessible to those unfamiliar with the area.

That may change soon. After years of debate over the future of the Monument, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a management plan that, among other things, would create 15 interpretive sites and up to 100 miles of trails, add boat launches and allow hunting on an additional 10,700 acres. And community leaders have raised about $24 million of the $40.5 million needed to build a large interpretive center in Richland on the site where the Columbia and Yakima rivers meet — the place where Lewis and Clark camped and the closest they came to the Reach.

Plans call for the center to tell all the Reach’s stories — the ice-age story, the shrub-steppe story, the Native American story, the nuclear story. Its supporters hope it will broaden the public’s understanding of this land and its history.

“We have more than old reactors and poisoned land,” said Jack Briggs, a former newspaper publisher who is on the center’s board.

About 40 miles upstream, the jet boat comes within sight of the most dramatic section of the bluffs — a five-mile stretch where they rise straight out of the water, so white they nearly glow.

After a short side trip to check out some mule-deer bucks resting in the grass on the Hanford side, Hamilton heads over close. He cuts the engine and puts his microphone down so his passengers can soak up the view in silence.

This section of the bluffs dates back 3 million to 8 million years. On top, people have found fossils of about two dozen mammals including mastodons, camels, zebras. The 9,400-year-old bones of Kennewick Man were found a few miles away.

Back in Richland later, Jim Watts, another longtime Reach advocate, dates himself by saying he gave Eleanor Roosevelt a tour of the area in 1957 when she came to talk at a local college.

At one point, he recalled, she looked out over the treeless landscape, turned to him and said, “Mr. Watts, don’t they call this the Evergreen State?”

Well, yes, but Washington’s not all green. And some of its environmental treasures, like the Reach, are tan and brown.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com