Federal goal is more Hanford land access

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMarch 27, 2014 

The Department of Energy wants to provide additional access to Hanford land as it is cleaned up, a top official said Thursday.

Dave Huizenga, senior adviser for DOE's Office of Environmental Management, said the department has been receiving input from the tribes, Tri-Cities organizations and the general public, and will consider that input.

"The overall thrust is to try to turn some of that land back over to the community for reuse," he said.

Huizenga made the remarks at a Congressional Nuclear Cleanup Caucus briefing organized by Rep. Doc Hastings.

Discussions have begun in the Tri-Cities on future land use as DOE expects to complete environmental cleanup on much of the 220 square miles of Hanford land near the Columbia River in 2015.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a standing directive from the White House and office of the Secretary of the Interior to discuss the possibility of adding more Hanford land to the Hanford Reach National Monument, said Charlie Stenvall, project leader for the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

But at the same time, the Tri-City Development Council and the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau have worked with a consultant and held two series of public meetings to develop a vision of how the Tri-City area community would like the land used. They are proposing outdoor recreation such as hiking, biking and camping.

The local agencies are adamant that the community have a say in the future of Hanford land, rather than the matter being decided among federal officials.

Stenvall said Fish and Wildlife is following directions stemming from a memo from President Clinton when he created the monument in 2000. It directed the energy secretary to consult with the interior secretary on the possibility of adding more land to the monument as Hanford land was released from environmental cleanup.

Further instructions from the secretary of the interior directed Fish and Wildlife to work with DOE on how best to permanently protect the natural and historic resources in the portions of central Hanford that are not included in the monument.

The monument includes the security zone around central Hanford. In central Hanford, weapons plutonium was produced in certain areas, but most of those areas are separated by miles of shrub steppe habitat.

Fish and Wildlife and DOE officials are meeting at the regional and national level to discuss meeting their obligations to consider the future of Hanford land. But any expansion of the monument would require either an act of Congress or a presidential executive order, Stenvall said.

Fish and Wildlife could look at options, analyze them and make recommendations, but not decisions, he said. And it is too early in the process for Fish and Wildlife to know what natural resources are worth conserving at Hanford and how they should be preserved, he added.

However, Fish and Wildlife would only look at habitat, not historic sites such as B Reactor, he said.

TRIDEC and the Visitor & Convention Bureau have been concerned that adding Fish and Wildlife to plans could derail years-long efforts that they hope will conclude this year with congressional approval of a new Manhattan Project National Historical Park. B Reactor and other historic areas of Hanford could be included.

Fish and Wildlife was an early proponent of National Park Service involvement to preserve historic structures at Hanford, and as sister agencies in the Department of Interior, the two agencies work well together, Stenvall said.

TRIDEC has argued that the Park Service is focused on public access, while Fish and Wildlife is focused first on preserving habitat.

Stenvall countered that all of the Mid-Columbia refuges allow public access.

"It's not an either-or situation as evidenced by the refuges we have," he said.

Fish and Wildlife is required by the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act of 1997 to look at "wildlife-dependent recreation" on refuge land, which could include nature trails for hiking and wildlife spotting.

About 34 percent of the 196,003 acres of the Hanford Reach National Monument, which is part of the refuge system, is open to the public. But TRIDEC has argued that is too little and is concerned that if more Hanford land is added to the monument, the public would be excluded.

Much of the closures on the monument are beyond Fish and Wildlife control, according to the agency.

The McGee Ranch between Highway 24 and the Columbia River, the Hanford dunes, the islands in the Columbia River and a quarter-mile strip along the river all remain under DOE management rather than Fish and Wildlife management, Stenvall said. That accounts for about 30,000 acres.

Fish and Wildlife manages the Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge area, but it is closed to the public as a DOE safety buffer for the K Basins across the river. Once that land is released from cleanup, another 28,321 acres should be opened to the public, opening about half the monument to outdoor recreation.

The Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, which includes Rattlesnake Mountain, remains closed to the public, in part to preserve its ecological and cultural resources. The mountain has been designated a traditional cultural property and has long been considered sacred by the tribes.

Two Mid-Columbia outdoor groups already have told congressional leaders that they support adding additional Hanford lands that are not contaminated to the national monument.

Ridges to Rivers Open Space Network said in a letter that to assure proper management for the future, additional lands should be put under Fish and Wildlife management and then opened for public use as appropriate.

The Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society also has told Washington's U.S. senators in a letter that it is time to move administration of Hanford lands where cleanup has been completed from DOE to the Department of Interior. That letter also discusses expanding the monument.

When the monument was created in 2000, a committee was created that included Tri-City area residents to advise Fish and Wildlife. After two years of discussion, it came up with a plan that recommended increased access to monument lands and plans for campgrounds, boat launches and hiking trails.

But although the community was consulted, most of those plans have not materialized, said Kris Watkins, Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau president. The advisory committee plan is not that much different than the community vision her agency and TRIDEC have developed.

Fish and Wildlife was required to prepare a long-range management plan for the monument, which was completed in 2008. But since then tight budgets and limited staff have stalled planned improvements.

Donations have been one possibility considered by agencies wanting to add trails, campgrounds and nonmotorized boat launches on Hanford land as it is released from cleanup.

It is common for Fish and Wildlife to form partnerships with other organizations to make improvements and that is possible on monument lands, Stenvall said.

But Watkins said thin federal budgets can hamper public-private partnerships because federal agencies do not have the staff time to oversee projects or work with volunteers.

w Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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