U.S. House passes Rattlesnake Mountain access bill

Tri-City HeraldJune 11, 2013 

A bill to provide public access to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain passed the U.S. House on a unanimous vote Tuesday.

But it has yet to find someone to sponsor it in the Senate -- something that led to the demise of an identical bill in December 2011.

The 3,600-foot ridge on the Hanford nuclear reservation is the highest point in the Mid-Columbia, offering spectacular views of Central Washington and the Columbia River.

“These lands belong to the American people and this legislation allows the public to visit Rattlesnake Mountain,” the bill’s sponsor, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, said in a statement.

The mountain has been owned by the federal government since 1943, when it was taken over to serve as a buffer for the Manhattan Project work at Hanford. It was unused from 1960 to 2000, when it was declared part of the Hanford Reach National Monument, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although Fish and Wildlife recently opened Rattlesnake Mountain for a few wildflower tours, it has remained largely off limits to the public.

While the bill doesn’t set specific hours for access to the summit, it calls for working with the Secretary of the Interior to maintain the road to the summit, which would allow “reasonable access” by vehicles, said Hastings spokesman Neal Kirby.

Northwest tribes have opposed public access to Rattlesnake Mountain, saying it is sacred ground. Spokespeople for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation did not respond to requests for an interview Tuesday.

The public access would go beyond the four wildflower tours the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made available this year on a first-come, first-served basis, Kirby said.

Those tours were booked within 41 seconds of being opened to the public. The tours brought 80 people to Rattlesnake Mountain over two days, though high winds prevented the tours from going to the top of the mountain one of the days.

“It really is weather dependent on whether we do it at the bottom or go all the way to the top,” said Sue McDonald, Fish and Wildlife’s visitor services manager.

When people apply for the spring 2014 tours in late winter, McDonald said they will be selected in a lottery. They also will have to pay a $3 fee to offset the cost of the buses.

“We felt that idea would be fairer with people,” she said.

McDonald said she doesn’t expect the status of the bill in Congress to affect next year’s tours.

Another Hastings-sponsored bill, which would reverse a National Park Service decision to stop stocking lakes with fish in North Cascades National Park, also passed unanimously Tuesday.

Kirby said it's not clear if Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, are interested in sponsoring the bills.

“We haven’t heard any interest in someone picking up the bills on the Senate side, so it’s certainly worth an ask,” he said.

Officials with Murray and Cantwell’s offices could not be reached about the issue.

w Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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