Kudos are in order for David Wolman, whose High Country News piece on “accidental wilderness,” militiarized landscapes that unintentionally become spaces that protect large numbers of wildlife, just won a Society for Environmental Journalists’ Award for best reporting on the environment.
It’s an interesting story. Focusing on Hanford in Washington and White Sands in New Mexico, it describes the title of this post. The Department of Energy (and military bases owned by the Department of Defense are much the same) owns enormous tracts of land, especially in the American West. That land was savaged by the nuclear weapons projects of the Cold War. Disgusting radioactive chemicals pollute the landscape. And these are some of the most ecologically diverse areas in the United States.
Because there is nothing, literally nothing, more damaging for other species that human habitation. We can bomb the land, spew radioactive poison, do whatever. And the plants and animals will survive. But as soon as we move there, they die.
The story also frustrates me about my own lack of ambition and wherewithal. I’ve been making this point ever since I worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2005, which, despite being littered with barrels of nuclear waste and other extremely toxic substances and despite the explosions you would frequently hear from testing of this or that device, was one of the last homes of the Mexican spotted owl and many other endangered species. Biologists have understood this paradox for some time, noting for instance that the DMZ holds the last remaining members of several species and is one of the only good spots left on the Korean Peninsula for migrating birds. Environmental historians have recently picked up on these issues and there’s a growing number of publications that explore the roots and reasons for this phenomenon. Back in 2005 and 2006 I was reading a good bit of the biological literature on this subject and the beginnings of the historiography, but of course I didn’t do anything with it. It’s not my subject of study from a historical perspective, but if I had even an ounce of originality and ambition, I would have thought to write such a story myself.
Of course, I didn’t, but I’m glad Wolman did. It’s quite good.