hey began to decline soon after that,
hastened by the increasing numbers of Euroamerican trappers and
explorers entering and exploiting the lands west of the
noted in a letter to Schoolcraft, “Near Fort Hall, in 1834,
there were plenty of buffalo, but soon after the Fort was
established they disappeared from its neighborhood.
The beaver disappeared next” (Schoolcraft 1851:217).
With the opening of the American Frontier came forces
that would utterly disrupt the human ecology that had been
developing along the Snake River Plain for thousands of years.
The fur trade began in about 1810.
By 1840 it had essentially come to an end, but the
intervening years had seen a steady decline in game (including
small mammals and birds) traditionally hunted by native human
populations (Steward 1938).
The Oregon Trail was well established by the 1840’s,
enabling the passage through southern Idaho of an estimated
240,000 emigrants and their 1.5 million grazing animals by the
year 1857 (Madsen 1980). Native
plant communities suffered massive overgrazing and trampling as
a result, further depleting the resources on which Northern
Shoshones, Bannocks and their livestock traditionally
depended. By 1868,
treaties had been signed forcing the native populations onto
the reservation at Fort Hall;
for a time, a reservation in the Lemhi Valley was
established, but that group too was moved to Fort Hall, in
1907. By the
1870’s, miners had entered the Salmon River country,
providing the impetus for farmers, ranchers, and others to
follow. And even
though treaty provisions allowed for seasonal subsistence
rights to traditional resource areas, such as the Camas
Prairie, “native plants had been so reduced by cattle grazing
and native animals by hunting that complete reliance on them
was no longer possible” (Steward 1938:249).
The eastern Snake River plain contained enough
resources, if one knew where to find them, to allow passage
across it, and it offered seasonal usage of some choice areas
(e.g. the Sinks and the buttes).
Prehistoric and early historic humans were attracted to
it for a wide variety of reasons ranging from bison to
obsidian. In contrast, the first Europeans were largely repelled by
what appeared to their agriculture-accustomed eyes to be a
lands] are unfeasible for any kind of cultivation . . . from
the extreme coldness of the nights . . . superadded to extreme
dryness and poverty of soil” (Wyeth in Schoolcraft 1847:210).
Or, they were simply in search of something besides what
the desert had to offer. Trappers
and fur traders were some of the first to make their way across
the Plain, probably following trails blazed and long-used by
the Shoshone and Bannock.
routes of trappers and explorers across the INEEL)
Their routes cut directly across the INEEL, sticking close to sources
of water wherever possible.
Emigrants employed the part-Indian Tim Goodale and other
guides to usher them across the Plain on an offshoot of the
Oregon Trail that came to be known as Goodale’s Cutoff (wagon,
stage and emigrant roads at INEEL). The
only travelers that settled prior to the 1860’s were Mormon
farmers sent by Brigham Young to colonize the region.
In 1855, they were digging irrigation canals and
successfully homesteading to the northeast of the INEEL (Clements n.d.). Meanwhile,
stockmen made mad dashes across the Plain and wrote about their
desert crossings in nightmarish terms:
Few of us will forget the torture of those
two days and nights from Lost River to Blackfoot.
It was through lava-ash and lava-dust country, covered
mostly with sagebrush, where the lava was not on the surface to
prevent brush from growing.
It was by far the hottest weather we had experienced,
and a blistering, dry, scorching wind blew out of the southeast
. . . There were a few small depressions where a little
brackish rain water had collected, but this was only an
aggravation to our suffering animals.
Every steer’s tongue hung out, and there was a
hopeless expression in their faces . . .
Archaeological remains of historic livestock drives are
embodied in the numerous roads and trails still evident on the INEEL
(T-roads on the
INEEL)), and in the occasional basalt
structures typical of early sheepherders.
Livestock production was a commercial industry along the
Snake River Plain by the late 1860’s, but its purpose
remained a transient one as cattle and sheep were trailed
between the coastal states and the grasslands east of the
Rockies. It was
not until the 1880’s that the livestock industry took root in
the area (Wentworth 1948).
Homesteads sprang up along the Lost Rivers and Birch
Creek. The Wood Livestock Company in the Pahsimeroi
Valley and the Hawley brothers in the Little Lost Valley were
two of the first to successfully import cattle and sheep.
These were sold first to local miners and later to markets in
Wyoming and Montana (Reed et al. 1987, Wentworth 1948).
Commercial hunters also sold their goods to miners, but, by the
early 1900’s, were finding themselves beat out by the
livestock industry. Market hunter James Beard remembered,
in 1903 or 1904, seeing the Little Lost after many thousand
head of sheep had been driven up the valley to feed in the high
country. After the sheep went through, there was no feed
left to speak of for any other animal, wild or domestic (Robert
Sherwood, Nevada BLM, personal communication, 1994).
Domestic animals were usually wintered on the open range of the
Plain, where snows were not so deep; then sheep were
trailed into the valleys, and cattle into the foothills,
following the receding snow line through the warmer months.
Wild horses also grazed on the Plain and in the Lost River and
Birch Creek Valleys, their populations numbering between seven
and nine thousand in the early 1900’s (Oberg 1970:134).
Real incentive to attempt settlement on the eastern
Snake River Plain came with Federal Legislation.
The Homestead Act of 1862 gave 160 acres to settlers
willing to cultivate and reside on their newly acquired
property for five consecutive years. The Desert Claim Act of 1877 provided 640 acres to settlers
able to irrigate that land.
In the Carey Act of 1894, Idaho obtained one million
acres of Federal land for homesteading, with the proviso that
the state would supervise its irrigation.
And in 1902, Idaho received funding through the
Reclamation Act to build diversionary canals in an attempt to
“reclaim arid lands” (Reed et al. 1987).
Of the hundreds of kilometers of major canals and
distribution laterals that were dug within the first three
decades of the century, only one system, the Owsley Canal (part
of the Mud Lake project) in the INEEL’s northeast corner, was
successful, but only partially so.
abandoned portion of the Owsley Canal near Road
T-9 on the eastern side of the
INEEL. Remnants of the abandoned sections of this
canal system are visible on the satellite
image superimposed over the linear sand
dunes on the northeastern side of the INEEL.
Among the other attempts at making the desert bloom, the
Carey Act’s Powell reclamation project was notable and
notorious. During the first decade of the project, a diversionary dam on
the Big Lost River and nearly 160 km of canals and laterals
were constructed by Powell Tract settlers to supply water from
a proposed reservoir above Mackay1,
in the Lost River Valley, to the proposed village of Powell
(also known as Pioneer) in what is now the INEEL’s southwest
corner. The next
decade and a half were spent revamping the project until its
final demise in 1927. The
canals, the larger of which were “70 feet wide at the top, 40
feet wide at the bottom and 8 feet deep”, never held water
(Reed et al. 1987, Schmalz 1963, Arco Advertiser 9/10/1909).
A similar project with the same fate was attempted on
the Little Lost River, with portions of canals extending across
the INEEL’s northwest boundary (Idaho State Journal
ruins of homesteads along the Big Lost River and foundations
near abandoned canals are all that remain of these strenuous
efforts to “reclaim” the desert.
During the Second World War, the Navy and the Army Air
Corps used several hundred square kilometers of the eastern
Snake River Plain as a gunnery
In 1949, the Federal government coupled these ranges
with a large parcel of land withdrawn from the public domain
and some purchased private lands to form what was called the
National Reactor Testing Station.
Livestock grazing on the newly established “Site”
(as it has come to be known by modern residents of the area)
was disallowed until drought forced the issue in the 1950’s
(Robert Sherwood, Nevada BLM, personal communication, 1994).
Now, domestic grazing is allowed on about 60% of the INEEL, including much of the area north of Highway 33 and
elsewhere along the periphery.
Disruption of natural water flows2
and introduction of exotic plant species in those areas most
heavily grazed (e.g. the Sinks) has severely degraded their
historic plant diversity; for example, some of the wetlands communities that once
thrived in the vicinity of the Sinks have been invaded and
largely replaced by stands of Russian thistle (Salsola kali) and fanweed (Thlaspi
other areas, cheatgrass (Bromus
tectorum) is the primary invader and, once established,
becomes a perennial problem for both agriculturalists and for
those interested in preserving the integrity of the Plain’s
most nearly natural habitat.
Otherwise, large portions of natural sagebrush cold
desert remain untouched by the surrounding drive for
of elk and pronghorn find refuge there, and it is one of the
few areas left on the Snake River Plain that has not been
wholly plowed under. In
1974, the Site was given its current name, the Idaho National
Engineering Laboratory, to emphasize that its mission has
changed over the years to include aspects of scientific inquiry
besides nuclear research and testing.
Designation of the INEEL as a National Environmental
Research Park in 1975 emphasized its importance as a field
laboratory for ecological research and for studying the
environmental impacts of energy development.
Except for domestic grazing and the ongoing degradation
of ground and surface water sources, much of the INEEL is a
microcosm of the eastern Snake River Plain that existed up
until 150 years ago. It
represents a unique opportunity for long-term scientific
inquiry and preservation.
dam above the present town of Mackay was finally complete in
the 1800's, settlers had begun diverting water from the Lost
Rivers and Birch Creek for irrigation. this lowered water
levels in the Sinks, but the more drastic downstream effects of
irrigation were not fully realized until sprinkling was
instituted. The first "wheellines" in the Big
Lost River Valley north of Arco appeared only within the last
12-15 years (H. Dorst, Mackay resident, personal communication,
1992). The ability to irrigate more acreage more
effectively increased the amount of water taken from the river
and from the underlying aquifer as more and more wells were