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Let the Mighty River Flow

Two men floating down a river. The American psyche resonates at the prospect.

Mark Twain canonized this adventure in his tale of how a white boy and a black man prevailed over slavery. Twain pricked the conscience of a still-healing nation that had torn its heart open in civil war.

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Brad Knickerbocker and Bob Harbison are no Huck and Jim. But in today's cover story, Brad's pen and Bob's camera touch the heart of United States environmental policy at the dawn of a new century. They canoe the Hanford Reach stretch of the Columbia River in southeastern Washington, meandering through the federally controlled Hanford Nuclear Reservation, an area half the size of Rhode Island.

The feds may return the land to the state. The unique status of this region tests the mettle of a democracy to shape a vision of land use that redresses past pollution, accommodates local mores, and preserves a truly pristine habitat.

Combine wilderness and irrigated land with the need to detoxify the millennial-lasting residue from nine nuclear-power plants and you confront not only land-use policy, but people-use policy; not only for this generation but for generations to come. Ill-conceived policies that encourage resource exploitation and land degradation will be tantamount to war zones in the next century. Such polices persist in many vulnerable regions of the world.

On a planet with 5 billion people, the millions of "ecomigrants" - environmentally displaced persons - bouncing between countries because their homeland no longer sustains them, is likely to increase. We must preserve wild places and wild creatures. Farmers who make the desert bloom with food are just as precious and every bit in need of saving as wilderness.

* Comments or questions? Write to Ideas Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail

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