First-come wildflower tours planned on Rattlesnake Mountain

March 21, 2013 

— Fish and Wildlife is planning wildflower tours on the normally closed Rattlesnake Mountain, possibly including the summit, in May.

"We've been planning this for quite some time," said Charlie Stenvall, project leader of the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex. "We're excited to finally get the public into this special area, a promise we made to the community a long time ago."

Expect seats to go quickly. The last time internet registration opened for a tour that included Rattlesnake Mountain, all seats were claimed in five seconds.

That was in 2010 when Fish and Wildlife planned to mark the 10th anniversary of the Hanford Reach National Monument with public visits. However, after registration, the tours of the mountain were canceled because of a legal issue related to the monument's status as a Traditional Cultural Property.

Those issues have been worked out and morning and afternoon bus tours are planned May 1 and May 4. A total of 80 people can sign up on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 8 a.m. April 10 at www.hanfordtours.net.

Participants can register for two seats at a time and Fish and Wildlife requests that children be at least 12 years old.

The three-hour, guided tours will include time spent at the base of the mountain to see the shrub-steppe wildflowers there. If weather permits -- including not too much wind -- participants also will be able to explore the plants at the top of the mountain.

Rattlesnake Mountain, the highest point in the Mid-Columbia at 3,600 feet, is on land that was made part of the security perimeter around the Hanford nuclear reservation during World War II. That's protected it, including its archaeological, biological and cultural treasures.

Even after the security perimeter around Hanford was named a national monument, the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, which includes Rattlesnake Mountain, remained closed to the public to protect its plants, wildlife and cultural resources and allow research.

The top of the mountain is considered sacred by tribes that have traditionally used the Hanford area. As well, the ecosystem on the thin layer of soil on its wind-blown top is particularly delicate. The mountain also has other cultural resources, such as the remains of pre-Hanford homesteads.

But Fish and Wildlife wants some controlled access to the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve to allow the public to learn about its natural resources, said visitor services manager Sue McDonald.

The tours will stick close to roads, to keep the human footprint on the reserve light, McDonald said.

When the 2010 tour was canceled, the agency still offered self-guided tours of the portion of the monument north of the Columbia River that is open to the public. People who registered for the canceled tour also were given a wildflower tour last spring.

It didn't include a trip to the summit of the mountain, but they visited closed portions of the monument to see the spring bloom of Cusick's sunflowers, storksbill geranium, purple sage, phlox, fleabane, mallow, balsamroot and more.

Fish and Wildlife also has considered some controlled hunting on closed land near Rattlesnake Mountain to cull the Hanford elk herd. In recent years, the herd has been counted at 650 to 700 animals, but Fish and Wildlife would prefer it be closer to 350 elk. As the herd grew to more than 350 animals, the elk began to damage wheat and other crops on private land adjacent to the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve.

A draft plan for limited elk hunting was prepared in 2011.

However, the hunts did not happen this hunting year and are not expected to go forward next year as Fish and Wildlife continues to work through cultural resource issues. The agency will look at it again for 2014-15, said Larry Klimek, manager of the monument.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., introduced legislation this spring for the third time to allow some access to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain.

His legislation would require the secretary of the Interior to provide reasonable public access to the mountain's summit for educational, recreational, historical, scientific, cultural and other purposes. Access would be on foot, by vehicle and other nonmotorized transportation, such as bicycles.

The bill does not dictate how and when public access could happen, only that it be allowed, according to Hastings' staff.

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