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Ecology

Shrub-steppe History

The Arid Land Ecology Reserve: Study Site for this book

ALE map

Some remnants of the original shrub-steppe remain. These areas are usually remote from water--or they were in other ways inaccessible to the early settlers. The Arid Land Ecology (ALE) Reserve, located in southcentral Washington (Benton County), represents such a remnant. It contains the only remaining sizeable acreage of Washington steppe landscape that is still in a nearly pristine state of vegetation. The ALE Reserve is managed for the U.S. Department of Energy by Pacific Northwest Laboratory, a division of Battelle Memorial Institute. The 312-square-kilometer (120-square-mile) Reserve is part of the 1482-square-kilometer (570-square-mile) National Environmental Research Park (Figure 1.2), located on lands near Richland, Washington, that are owned by the Department of Energy. The Park (part of the Hanford Site) offers opportunity for scientists to study relationships between energy-related facilities and the surrounding environment (Vaughan and Rickard 1977).

As a result of the exceptional research opportunities offered by the Park, and the many and varied research activities that have taken place on the ALE Reserve, a great deal has been learned about the characteristics of a semi-arid ecosystem. Its nature, and the reactions of its components to various natural and human-induced changes, provide the subject matter for this book.

History of the Arid Land Ecology Reserve

Rattlesnake Hill
Rattlesnake Hill

In 1967, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission set aside 33,500 hectares of nearly pristine shrub-steppe on the Hanford Site to preserve portions of vegetation types that once covered a great expanse of the West. Now known as the ALE Reserve, this portion provides a natural research area that is free from the human-related land use pressures common to other parts of the shrub-steppe (Rickard 1972).

The ALE Reserve is situated on the northeast-facing flank of the Rattlesnake Hills. Rattlesnake Mountain is a long anticlinal ridge, with a crest at 1100 meters above mean sea level. Elevations drop to 125 meters on the mountain's southeastern end near the Yakima river. The gently sloping southern side of Rattlesnake Mountain, an area outside the ALE boundaries, supports mostly dryland wheat farming at the higher elevations. The northern slope drops steeply (about 25 degrees) to 650 meters, then eases down to 350 meters and finally slopes gently into the Cold Creek Valley at an elevation of 150 meters.

Settlement of this part of the Lower Columbia Basin took place relatively late. The first recorded immigration into what is now the National Environmental Research Park occurred in 1853, when a party left the Oregon trail and turned north to pass through the Yakima Valley (Eastland 1911). Cattle were introduced into the nearby Yakima Valley around 1860 (Meinig 1968) and soon became the mainstay of the local economy.

Interviews with former land users of the ALE Reserve revealed that from about 1880 to 1940, the land was used mostly for homesteading, grazing, some oil and gas production, and road building. Those land use practices associated with grazing and homesteading have left the greatest impact on the landscape. Disturbed sites of such past land use practices are still visible and are dominated by non-native plant species, especially cheatgrass.

Ecology

Shrub-steppe History