Our Voice: Public access key to Hanford Reach National Monument's future

March 31, 2014 

Public lands should be accessible to the public.

It seems to reason that if taxpayers own the land, they should be able to use it. We understand exceptions for preservation of habitat will be needed, but restrictions should be as limited as possible.

So it is with great concern that we learn that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sees itself as legally obligated to consider bringing additional Hanford lands under its stewardship.

Fish and Wildlife already manages the Hanford Reach National Monument, much of which is off limits to the public. It would like to expand the monument on the ground being cleaned by the Department of Energy. DOE expects to have the work on 220 square miles along the Columbia River completed by the end of 2015.

As DOE’s project draws to a close, the Tri-City Development Council has been leading a campaign to try to ensure that our community has a say in how the land is used. TRIDEC hired a consultant last year to look at potential recreational uses for the land. They asked for public input and now have a plan ready to show local governments and, eventually, Congress. TRIDEC has been proactive in its approach, and community-minded. The proposal seems like a great use of the land, and would include hiking, biking and camping.

But there is no guarantee that anyone in the other Washington will listen. The other proposal that could be affected if Fish and Wildlife obtains the land is the Manhattan Project National Historic Park.

That park would include the B Reactor and other historic locations, many of which have remained off limits to the general public.

Fish and Wildlife recently sent a letter to the acting assistant secretary of environmental management requesting to discuss the fate of the cleaned land.

“The Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service treasure this landscape and we are deeply invested in the existing monument lands and the conservation values that will be realized as central Hanford area lands are remediated and preserved for the benefit of future generations,” the letter stated.

That has alarm bells sounding for local leaders, who already see too much public land in the monument that is off limits. “It seems to me Fish and Wildlife is pretty firm on limiting access to the national monument,” said Carl Adrian, TRIDEC president. “I’m afraid this is more of the same.” Fish and Wildlife says it has good reason to keep the land closed, including the preservation of pristine habitat, cultural issues with area tribes and DOEhasn’t released much of the land because cleanup efforts aren’t completed.

What few plans it did have for trails and interpretive sites and improved access have languished because of a lack of money and staff. That doesn’t bode well for adding more land under its management umbrella.

While the monument is on land designated for preservation. The areas to the south and west of the Columbia are planned for less-restrictive conservation uses. TRIDEC says its proposal fits right in with conservation, with controlled public access on designated trails. The heart of the plan would be an 80-mile trail running along the river from north of Richland to the Vernita Bridge. It sounds like the plan is a good fit for the Mid-Columbia, which is increasingly being touted for its outdoor recreation opportunities.

It was encouraging to hear Dave Huizenga, senior adviser for DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, tell the Congressional Nuclear Cleanup Caucus last week that the department wants to provide additional access to Hanford land as it is cleaned up. Huizenga said the department has been receiving input from the tribes, Tri-City 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. But hearing the community’s plea is not enough. The public needs to be a full partner in making decisions on the land’s fate.

As it pursues its obligations, Fish and Wildlife must take care not to appear as if it’s attempting to make an end run around stakeholders. Its next step ought to be some fence-mending with the community.

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