Education Resources

What is the REACH? 

 

It’s a question we get all the time: what does REACH stand for?  

It’s actually not an acronym, but if it was, it might stand for River Education At the Columbia and Hanford. Or Really Especially Awesome Cool History. 

“Reach” is a word with many definitions, and we recently decided to put our favorite one on the wall, visible when you first enter the museum.  

In other words, a reach is a section of river that we think is important. The Hanford Reach of the Columbia River is the last undammed or free-running portion of this great river. Dams provide us with clean energy, flood control, and irrigation water, but the Hanford Reach is one that will never be dammed up. 

On June 9th 2000, President Bill Clinton declared 303 square miles surrounding the Hanford Site a national monument, including the reach of the river flowing through it. Back in 1943, the site was chosen for the top-secret Manhattan Project because of the rivercool water, but also its relative remoteness from major urban areas. There were a couple of small towns in the area – White Bluffs and Hanford – plus farms and orchards serviced by the railroad. The Yakama, Wanapum, and other tribes lived there and fished the river. All were forced out when construction began on the first reactor.  

But wild areas around the Hanford development have been protected, originally as a buffer to keep the dangerous work of plutonium finishing away from the public, and now as a unique historic landmark and wilderness preserve. Plans for a dam in the Hanford Reach began in the 1960s and again in the late 1970s, but were never realized. It was determined that the flooding of this last wild stretch of the Columbia would bring water too close to nuclear reactors and ground contaminated by waste leaking from buried tanks. 

Though public access is limited to all but a few areas of the Hanford Reach National Monument, its preservation is a step towards preserving water quality in the river, and has provided a habitat for a great diversity of wildlife, including rare plants, endangered salmon and trout, and endemic species of invertebrates. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the lands, in partnership with The U.S. Department of Energy, and has information about the wildlife and public access on their website and at their office in Burbank, Washington.  

All the varied stories at The REACH Museum are tied together by one thing, the Columbia River that flows past it. For millions of years, the Columbia has supported life within its banks and beyond. The REACH Museum has a big job to do, bringing the many aspects of the river’s geology, human history, and ecology to life. We appreciate your visit to our website, and we hope you can visit the museum’s exhibits to learn more about this unique and important part of the world. 

  

Native Plants versus invasive weeds in the Shrub-Steppe

 

The Hanford Reach National Monument’s ecosystem is named after the dominant plants. We call it shrub-steppe, which may sound like a dance, but it means “grassland with shrubs.” Deep root systems sustain many perennial grasses and shrubs through the dry seasons, and also makes them able to regrow after a fire. But invaders have disrupted the usual cycle of fire and regrowth.

The spaces between bunch grasses and shrubs, formerly covered with a living crust of mosses and lichens, are now occupied by cheatgrass. This annual grass, a weed brought from Eurasia as settlers moved across the continent, covers the ground like a thin carpet. This species “cheats” the soil of moisture and nutrients early in the spring, before the native grasses get started. Then as the weather heats up, it drops plenty of sharp-pointed seeds and dies. The resulting sea of brown stalks is more than just an annoyance, as those seeds get stuck in socks and animal fur and mouths. A lightning strike or hot car undercarriage can set off a hot-burning blaze that permanently damages shrubs like sagebrush. Tumbleweed, also called Russian thistle, is another invasive weed that chokes out native plants and spreads fire. We are seeing wildfires happen much more frequently with all these weeds in the landscape, and the native plants have a hard time keeping up.

Exotic plants may thrive in a foreign ecosystem and even feed some of the animals and insects there, but without the species that evolved alongside it, there’s a risk of that plant growing and spreading unchecked. Natural predators or controls are just not there, and the plant becomes a nuisance. In contrast, native plants nourish the food web with their numerous connections to other living things. Plants are the essential first link in the food chain, and both shelter and nursery for creatures of many sizes. In the shrub-steppe, native bunch grasses provide cover for ground-dwelling birds such as quail and grouse, something cheatgrass can’t do. Many butterfly and moth caterpillars eat a specialized diet, relying on only one or a few plant species for survival. A healthy ecosystem starts with a diversity of native plants.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service manages the land and resources of the Hanford Reach National Monument. You can find more information about the threat that invasive weeds pose to the ecosystem in their weed guide here, and learn more about rare plant species, including some that are found nowhere else in the world, on their page about unique plants.

Cheatgrass

Sagebrush:  A Keystone Species

 

There are some plants or animals that would really be missed if they were removed from their communities. We call these “keystone” species because, like the keystone at the top of a stone arch, they allow many other parts of the community to remain in balance. Sagebrush, the scrubby bush found across the arid American West, is one such living thing. Throughout the Columbia Basin, where the Hanford Reach National Monument is located, Big Sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) is the dominant species of sagebrush. Growing up to nine feet tall and living over a century, its spreading, twisted branches grow slowly through the seasons. 

Here in the shrub-steppe, average annual precipitation is between five and ten inches, not enough to support trees, so shrubs like sagebrush, bitterbrush, and rabbitbrush fill that role in the community. Songbirds nest in their woody branches, and ground-dwelling birds such as greater sage grouse nest and take cover below them. Though a few of these shrubs retain their leaves through the winter, providing forage for herbivores such as mule deer, elk, and jackrabbits, Washington’s nickname “The Evergreen State” doesn’t properly match the foliage in this arid ecosystem. Spring brings a flush of green with new growth, but through summer, autumn, and winter the dominant colors are brown and a pale, grayish green. Light colors reflect the sunlight to reduce moisture loss, and you’ll see many plants utilize this adaptation, along with small leaf size and a fuzzy leaf surface. Despite its pungent smell, sagebrush leaves are an important food for sage grouse and endangered pygmy rabbits, especially through the winter. The shade of a large sagebrush provides protection for grasses and flowering plants from the wind and sunHundreds of species have significant connections to sagebrush, and some are sagebrush-obligate, requiring this plant in their habitat. 

Protecting lands such as the Hanford Reach National Monument is the first step to preserving this important shrub and the other living things that depend on it. Controlling invasive species  is the ongoing work that will maintain the balance this keystone supports.  

You can download and print a coloring page about sagebrush HERE. 

Artemesia Tridentata

Soil Crust: It’s Alive! 

 

There are some things in the world that require close examination for proper appreciation. Really close. Like “lie down on your belly on the ground” close. That’s the case with biological soil crust (BSC), the living system of fungi, mosses, algae, and cyanobacteria that covers the ground in the shrub-steppe. When you look out over the natural vegetation of the Hanford Reach, you’ll sagebrush and other shrubs, bunches of tall grasses, and (in places that haven’t been disturbed) a crust on the ground that varies from gray to green to even orange in some spots.

This colorful stuff is easy to dismiss as just pretty, but BSC has some super important functions. It holds the soil in place when that strong wind blows the tumbleweeds. It helps the little rainfall we get soak into the ground instead of running off. It takes elements from the air such as nitrogen and puts it into the soil so the surrounding plants can use it. And when you get down on the ground to check it out, you can see it makes a cozy little habitat for the tiniest critters in the food web.

In places that have been disturbed by lots of human and animal foot traffic, or vehicles, we notice that the crust is in small pieces or missing altogether. This makes room for the dreaded cheatgrass or other invasive weeds to move in. (Read this article about why these weeds do not make good habitat.) There are likely other effects we don’t yet understand.

One of the most impressive living things in BSC is star moss, Tortula ruralis. This little moss looks brown and dead in dry weather, but spray a little water on it and it immediately springs to life, green and perky with tiny stars.

Also fun to look at with a magnifier are the lichens, each one made of a fungus and an alga living together in a mutualistic relationship. The fungus gets the benefit of energy from the alga (which turns sunlight into food) and the alga get structure and protection from the fungus.  They look like delicate gray flower petals, sometimes overlapping like fish scales. The pale green and orange lichen pictured here is Lecanora muralis, which you might also see growing on rocks or wood.

When you’re visiting The REACH garden, stop for a look at the BSC garden bed, off by itself away from the sprinklers. It’s a raised bed, so you don’t have to get down on your belly, but bring your eyes close to the amazing, tiny organisms that make up the soil crust.

Tortula Ruralis - Star Moss
Lecanora Muralis - Photo Credit: Jenny von Reis

Underground Animals 

 

While enjoying spring wildflowers in the shrub-steppe, you may notice a more animal activity on the ground than any other time of year. Areas with enough space and sandy, loose soil may be habitat for ground squirrels, and spring may be the only time you observe them above ground. Listen for their soft whistles as you walk along the trail. They’re sending out the alarm, as they disappear underground, that a potential predator is nearFrom February through June, Townsend’s and Washington ground squirrels will emerge from their deep (up to six feet deep) burrows to eat grasses and collect seeds for later. After mating and giving birth in the spring, they retreat underground as the weather gets hotter and drier. They’ll eat those seeds they stashed away in their burrows, aestivating through the summer and hibernating through the winter. 

Another ground squirrel you might observe in the spring is the yellow-bellied marmot or rock chuck. It’s larger and stockier than the other squirrels, bigger than a house cat, with a brown back and yellow underside. They like rocky areas and can often be seen around the REACH Museum’s grounds and parking lot. When threatened, they call to each other with a loud chirp that might be mistaken for a bird. 

While jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits will use existing burrows as shelter, the only rabbit in the shrub-steppe that digs its own burrow is the rare pygmy rabbit. At 10 inches long fully grown, and weighing less than a pound, the pygmy rabbit is a tiny thing that can survive the winter eating sagebrush. As land with dense, old stands of sagebrush get converted to other uses, this animal’s habitat shrinks. The only known population of pygmy rabbits in Washington state is a result of a captive breeding program.  

American badgers take advantage of all this underground prey by using their two-inch-long claws to dig out ground squirrels and other small animals. Badgers have been observed hunting in tandem with coyotes. If a pair teams up they are more likely to catch ground squirrels, since a squirrel goes underground to escape a coyote, but will outrun a badger above ground. The holes left by hunting badgers are used by many animals such as burrowing owls. 

Fossorial (digging) animals can be a nuisance for ranchers and farmers but serve an important role in the shrub-steppe community. Besides providing underground shelter for animals that cannot dig their own burrows, they aerate the soil, allow water to infiltrate the ground, and help plants disperse their seeds. That clump of wildflowers you enjoy may have sprouted from a cache of seeds left by a pocket mouse! Just remember there’s a whole different world of animals underground in the shrub-steppe. 

Follow this link Rockie the Owl to read a book about a burrowing owl, created by Audubon Rockies. 

Download and print the Underground Animal coloring page HERE!

Food Web of the Hanford Reach National Monument 

 

The Hanford Reach of the Columbia River is home to a diverse array of plant and animal species. The three hundred square miles of the monument surround the Hanford Site, where plutonium was produced for nuclear weapons during World War II and the Cold WarSome of Hanford’s structures and buildings remain, and waste clean-up will continue long into the future, but much of the preserved land is undeveloped. It provides a window to the past, a view of the land and its living things as they were before modern agriculture and urban development. 

The Hanford Reach National Monument is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their website has an overview of what wildlife activity you can expect in each season here. 

The massive river brings fresh water to the arid shrub-steppe landscape, and where water and desert meet, you may see a concentration of wildlife. The sight of a deer or coyote along the riverbank is memorable, but remember it’s an indication of a larger web of energy that supports that animal. For every creature seen there are numerous connections unseenuntil you take a closer look. Grazing animals are fed by the grasses and evergreen sagebrush, which are fueled by abundant sunshine. Predators and scavengers feast on spawned-out salmon, which bring nutrients from the ocean far inland. Without many trees, the birds find places to nest among the shrubs, on the ground, and even in the burrows left by other animals. 

The REACH Museum’s Gallery “The Living Land” provides a glimpse into the web of life in every season, but these activity sheets can also help you learn the names of the Hanford Reach’s plants and animals and their connections to each other. If you print them out, you won’t want to make them double-sided, because there are some things to cut out. 

The shrub-steppe ecosystem, also called sagebrush-steppe, stretches from eastern Washington into Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and northern Nevada. Here are some lesson plans about the food webs of this ecosystem, created by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s STEM Education: PNNL ShrubSteppe 

And Audubon Rockies:  Audubon Rockies Sagebrush Steppe poster and  Audubon Rockies Sagebrush Steppe lesson and cards 

 

The Reason for the Seasons: Spring Equinox 


It’s a beautiful time in the Tri
Cities – plants are waking up, animals are active, the sun is shining and yes, the wind is blowing – its SPRING!  But have you ever wondered why?  Why does spring start on the day that it does, or better yet, how do we even decide when it’s time for ANY season to start?  The answer, like so many things, is found in NATURE. 

Have you noticed that the amount of daytime and nighttime (or light and dark) changes throughout the year?  The first day of summer and winter both fall on what’s called the solstice.  On the summer solstice, we experience the longest day and shortest night of the year and on the winter solstice we experience the longest night and shortest day of the year. 

The first day of spring is also called the spring equinox.  There are two equinoxes each year (spring and autumn) and on both, the amount of daytime and nighttime are nearly equal!  Get it?  Equ-al and Equ-inox? 

The most amazing part of all is that the plants and animals are tuned into these natural light and dark cycles and these and some other seasonal changes send signals to plants and animals to start or stop doing certain things (think migration, hibernation, fall colors, new buds, nest building and so much more). 

We at The REACH hope that you are taking some time to enjoy these lengthening spring days.  What signs of spring have you noticed?  What do these sunny spring days inspire you do? We hope you will enjoy the spring equinox themed activities that you find below!  

Although these activities focus on science and math suitable for preschool through second grade such as comparing values and practicing measuring with a ruler, they were created with families in mind and can be enjoyed by all ages. 

 Download the Spring Equinox Activity Sheet and Coloring Page!

Cliff Swallow 

Petrochelidon pyrrhonota 

One way to tell that spring has sprung in the Tri-Cities and the Hanford Reach is that the Cliff Swallows have returned from their winter homes in South America. Watch for these graceful fliers near the river, swooping through the air as they catch insectsIn the springtime you’re likely to spot them by water but also near a cliff or human-made structure where they’ll be making their nests. They carry mud in their beaks from the river’s edge or puddles, about a thousand blobs, to construct the rounded nestusually where the wall meets the overhang of a roof. Many can be seen nesting on the White Bluffs of the Columbia River.  

The location and architecture of the REACH Museum make it an ideal place for cliff swallows to nest, and each spring there are a few birds that give it a try on our patioBut the spring is also our busiest season for students on field trips and other visitors, and that makes it the worst place to raise tiny, helpless chicks! Cliff Swallows like to nest in colonies, which means many of them will make nests right next to each other in a small space. Each nest may hold up to six hungry chicks, and the parents will have to bring them food constantly throughout the day. The parents keep the nest clean by picking up the broken eggshells and chicks’ droppings and tossing them out of the hole. Imagine the mess!  

As much as we would enjoy watching the nests and having swallows hunt flying insects near the museum, we need to discourage them from nesting on our building. Once a nest is finished and contains eggs, we are not allowed to harass the birds or destroy nests because they are a protected species. Our facilities staff has learned that the best way to prevent them from nesting is to avoid providing mud, so we don’t turn on the sprinklers until later in the season. 

If you’re taking a walk by the river this spring, watch for Cliff Swallows and listen for their squeaky calls. They’re about the size of a sparrow and have short wings and squared tails. They are dark-colored on the back, wings, tail, throat, and top of the head, white on the belly, and rusty-colored on the rump and sides of the headObserve their behavior: are they catching insects in flight? Scooping up mud from the ground? Where are they taking the mud? Can you see where they are building their nests? Or are they bringing insects to the nest for their chicks? 

Try building a nest like Cliff Swallows do with this engineering challenge, suitable for elementary-age kids – instructions HERE!

Download and print a Cliff Swallow coloring page HERE!