MISSION, Ore. – The Hanford cleanup has been hard on the area’s ecosystem, disturbing habitat and native vegetation that can be difficult to replant. The site covers 586-square-miles in southeastern Washington.
But the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) have recently built two high-tech greenhouses and a field experiment station to cultivate plants native to the area around Hanford. The facilities will allow them to do research and sprout seeds to revegetate formerly contaminated areas, like the Hanford Site and the Umatilla Chemical Depot in Oregon.
The two greenhouses will hold 70,000 plants each and use a thermodynamic system to store heat during winter months. The field station lab has equipment to analyze soil sample contaminants and clone native plants. The project is funded by the Department of Energy to help restore the contaminated site.
Because areas like the Hanford Site and the Umatilla Chemical Depot have not been affected by urban sprawl, replanting native species presents a unique opportunity for widespread growth, says Stuart Harris, CTUIR’s department science and engineering director.
“The Hanford Site has had protection from people mining the plants and resources for years and years and years,” Harris says. He says development in other areas near Hanford have destroyed these unique habitats.
Driving by Hanford, it may seem like sagebrush is the only thing growing in the area. But there is a much larger diversity of plants, says Rico Cruz, CTUIR’s biological systems program manager. More than 700 native species can grow at the Hanford Site, near Richland, Wash. Right now, the tribe has a collection of about 160 plant species. Collecting seeds and successfully cultivating them can take years.
The goal is to eventually revegetate the entire site. Traditionally, biologists would plant a few native species around an area, hoping they might attract other native plants to grow as well, Harris says.
The tribe is taking a new approach, assembling 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.
“Then we’ll be able to have a complete restoration project, rather than just scattered tracts of sagebrush and bunch grass,” Harris says.
Biologists predict this mosaic of plants will also help native animals return to the area – everything from small mammals to bugs.
“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 mammals,” Harris says.
The native plants will protect the area from wildfires and noxious weeds, like cheatgrass. “The cheatgrass is a fire fuel,” Cruz says. “That’s what causes the big fires at Hanford: the cheatgrass and the big tumble weeds around the area. But there are [native] plants that are fire resistant.”
Cruz says once planting gets underway, the tribe will distribute seeds regionally to organizations like the Department of Transportation or the Department of Agriculture.
But there’s a long way to go.
“There’s great tracts that have been burned off. There’s great tracts that have been dissected by roads, either paved roads or dirt roads,” Harris says. “A lot of these roads have been taken over by invasive species. So there’s giant swaths of cheatgrass and Russian thistle.”
For now, the tribe has planted several native species on the site to see how they hold up. Cruz says the flowers are still blooming two years later – and more often than biologists thought possible.
Harris says the entire experiment is helping further understanding of native plants in eastern Washington and Oregon.
“It’s a completely new way of thinking about how to restore the ecology,” he says.
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