The federal government needs to end its talks with tribes and state historic preservation officials and move forward with public access to Rattlesnake Mountain, says Rep. Dan Newhouse.
Both the 4th District congressman and Tri-Cities area leaders have sent letters in recent days to U.S. Fish and Wildlife calling for an end to the delay in opening the mountain to the public on at least a limited basis.
Legislation approved by Congress in late 2014 required that the public be allowed some access to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain.
But efforts to come up with and approve a plan to allow the public to visit the top of the mountain have dragged on.
An environmental study was done, including the release of a draft and public comments in late 2018. But in almost two years since then a final version of the study has not been released.
Once it is public, a decision would be made on what access will be allowed.
Most of the mountain, the tallest point in the Mid-Columbia at almost 3,600 feet high, was taken over as part of the security perimeter around the Hanford nuclear reservation in 1943 and later became part of the Hanford Reach National Monument.
But it remains closed to the public, with the exception of some wildflower tours for limited participants more than five years ago. The tours in hired minibuses were closely supervised by Fish and Wildlife officials.
Last week, Newhouse organized a private tour to the top of the mountain for a group of 21 officials. With U.S. Fish and Wildlife, he showed off the view to community leaders and elected officials and representatives of the Congressional Western Caucus.
No decision scheduled
“Everyone in our community — as well as those across the country and the globe — should have the same opportunity to experience this natural treasure right here in Central Washington,” Newhouse wrote to Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith.
“This must not be a right reserved only for elected officials,” he said. “Public lands must be made public.”
After the tour, U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Brent Lawrence said the agency has no timeframe for releasing the final draft of its environmental study.
“Because of the cultural significance of the mountain, the service is consulting with tribes, the state and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation regarding potential effects of public access,” he said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife has held 14 meetings to consult and 16 different versions of programmatic agreements have been brought forward over the past five years without reaching agreement on terms for a decision on public access, according to Newhouse.
“Recognizing the thorough, measured, reasonable and respectful approach taken by the professionals at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I strongly urge you to terminate this consultation process and move forward with implementation of the preferred alternative,” he said in the letter to Fish and Wildlife.
Rattlesnake Mountain, particularly its peak, is considered a sacred site for the Yakamas and other Northwest tribes.
Tribal rights on Rattlesnake
They would prefer no public access, and won a federal ruling in 2015 that it must consult with the tribes before conducting more wildflower tours on the mountain.
Laliik, as the mountain is called by the tribes, has been designated a Traditional Cultural Property under the National Historic Preservation Act.
The Wanapum Band and the Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes have traditionally used the Hanford area, and Native Americans retain treaty rights there. Members spend time there periodically for religious and other traditional uses, including vision quests for young adults.
“Maybe, others don’t think of it that way,” he said. “They just think, that’s just a mountain that hasn’t been developed. But to us, it is the equivalent to some of these other sacred sites.”
Former U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings — who succeeded in pushing through the legislation to open the mountain to public access as one of his last official acts before retirement — joined Wednesday’s visit to the top of Rattlesnake and acknowledged that the sweeping view was of tribal lands.
On a clear day visitors can see Mount Hood to the southwest and across Hanford to the north to the White Bluffs along the Columbia River.
Hastings said he understands that the land is sacred to the tribes, but the time for the public to be locked out is gone, he said.
“Once we got out of defense production, why deny access to what can be a focal point for the whole community?” he said.
The Hanford site now is focused on cleaning up contamination left from production of plutonium for the national nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.
“Opening access to this land in a responsible and measured way should be an opportunity to help build bridges and open dialogues with our tribal neighbors,” Newhouse said in the letter.
The access proposed as the best option in the draft environmental study would be low impact on the mountain, with no commercial development, he said during the visit to the peak.
The preferred plan identified by the draft study would allow guided tours, such as in small buses, to the top of Rattlesnake for up to 20 days annually.
On two days a year hikers and bikers would be allowed to climb the mountain, sticking to a steep, narrow road to the summit. The grade is 18 percent at one point.
Fish and Wildlife estimated that two guided bus or van tours a day for up to 20 days a year would allow as many as 1,200 people to take tours themed to topics such as wildflowers, birds, elk and geology on the closed portion of the Hanford Reach National Monument.
Fish and Wildlife officials previously estimated about 9,600 people a year might climb the mountain on the four months the summit road could be open.
Comments on the draft recommendation were split.
Some called for limited access to the mountain or the public would love its shrub steppe ecosystem to death. The mountain is on one of the largest remaining intact shrub-steppe habitats in the Columbia Basin.
Others talked about their frustration in seeing the mountain dominating the skyline northwest of Richland and west of Highway 240, but being told the public land it is off limits.
Hikers said that two days a year to hike up the mountain was not enough.
The Tri-City Development Council has supported the environmental study’s proposed plan, saying it is fine for a starting point but that access should be gradually increased.
Tri-Cities leadership support
Other Tri-Cities area leaders agreed in a letter sent to Fish and Wildlife leadership on Wednesday.
It was signed by the chairmen of the Benton and Franklin county commmissions; the mayors of Richland, Kennewick, Pasco and West Richland; leaders of the Port of Pasco, three Tri-City area Chambers of Commerce and Visit Tri-Cities; and TRIDEC President Karl Dye.
The letter encouraged U.S. Fish and Wildlife to make a decision on public access as soon as possible and then expand access within five years of implementing its management plan.
“We believe increased access would be a tremendous enhancement to the quality of life and recreational opportunities in our community,” it said.
The bottom line is that public access to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain is the law, Newhouse said during the visit to the mountain.
“We want to be able to move forward with doing this in as constructive a way possible with our Native American friends,” he said.