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Umtanum Desert buckwheat Eriogonum codium
ESA status: threatened

Umtanum desert buckwheat pc Joseph Arnett

Umtanum Desert buckwheat are witnesses to atomic history, in their own way. These rare plants occupy about 5 acres along a string of bluffs in Benton County, Washington. They are slow-growing perennials that form low mats. Individual plants may live over 100 years, judging from the growth rings in their woody stems. So some of these plants were likely growing on the bluff along the northern bank of the Columbia River when the area became Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The buckwheat were there, growing slowly, when the “B” nuclear reactor created the plutonium used to bomb Nagasaki in World War II.  They were there when the reactors were shut down and the plant emptied. They were there when the Department of Energy began its $2-billion-per-year cleanup of radioactivity that escaped into the air and leached into the land and water around the reactors – the most expensive operation of its kind in the world. And they are still there, in a place now called Hanford Reach National Monument, a place that once saw enough radiation to far surpass Three Mile Island, making it the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S. But these unassuming plants, which have survived the birth of the atomic age, may not survive much longer.

Wildfires often burn on the monument, putting the buckwheat between a rock and a hard place. Wildfire is a threat to the species, as they are not heat tolerant. Unfortunately, fire-fighting activities threaten the plant as well, since they are concentrated on bluffs that form a natural, rocky firebreak, and fire lines and fire-fighting equipment tend to concentrate in such areas. Highly flammable invasive plants like cheatgrass only exacerbate the problem.

Trespassing by off-road vehicles and hikers, enabled in part by inadequate fencing around access roads to Bonneville Power Administration powerlines and substations, is hard on these sensitive plants, as they are easily damaged and killed by trampling. The plant is having difficulty replenishing its numbers. It is rare for seedlings to live longer than one year, for reasons that are not yet understood. They have little regulatory protection under state law. Fortunately, they are now listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Since the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was closed to the public, the buckwheat was left undisturbed along with other rare endemic species. The same circumstances that created secrecy around the nuclear site also created a unique refuge for wildlife and plants in Washington. We have a chance to preserve more than a legacy of war from that period of history, and to bring the Umtanum Desert buckwheat and the other rare flora of the monument with us into what will hopefully be a more peaceful future. Let’s not let that opportunity slip away. 

photo credit: Joseph Arnett, Washington Natural Heritage Program