Rare tours to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain that were planned this weekend have been abruptly canceled.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday afternoon that tours of the mountain on the closed portion of the Hanford Reach National Monument had been postponed until further notice because of a legal issue.
The mountaintop became part of the security perimeter of the Hanford nuclear reservation during World War II. Since then, the public has not been allowed on the 3,600-foot summit except for occasional tours and events, even after it became part of the national monument.
Sign-up for 40 seats that were to be available on the Saturday tours opened on the internet Monday, and registration filled in five seconds.
"This is the federal bureaucracy at its most maddening," said Rep. Doc Hastings,R-Wash., in a statement. "It's been over a decade since President Clinton declared the Hanford Reach a federal monument and the public still can't set foot on the top of Rattlesnake Mountain."
Although the tours of the mountain have been canceled, U.S. Fish and Wildlife still plans to hold self-guided tours of the open portion of the monument north of the Columbia River on Saturday to observe the 10th anniversary of the monument.
When Fish and Wildlife scheduled the tours in cooperation with the Department of Energy, it assumed any requirements were addressed because the tours were part of the monument's management plan, which was approved in 2008 after years of development and discussion.
But as discussions were held with Fish and Wildlife's tribal partners and the agency's experts on the National Historic Preservation Act, the agency found it had not covered the entire legal process, said Larry Klimek, manager of the monument. "We know people will be disappointed," he said.
The top of the mountain is considered sacred by tribes that have traditionally used the Hanford area, and part of the mountain has been declared a Traditional Cultural Property.
The National Historic Preservation Act protection applies to the mountain because it is a Native American cultural site and because of other historic links such as military use, Klimek said.
Fish and Wildlife will have to work back through the steps of the National Historic Preservation Act, consulting with the tribes and coordinating with the State Historic Preservation Office, he said.
Over the next year, Fish and Wildlife will be developing a cultural resources management plan to address future activities on Rattlesnake Mountain. No decision has been made on whether tours could be scheduled in the meantime, Klimek said.
"We deeply regret the cancellation of the tours," Greg Hughes, project leader of the Mid-Columbia National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the monument, said in a statement.
"We in the Fish and Wildlife Service share the appreciation our community holds for Rattlesnake Mountain, and we will work to ensure the area's cultural sites and integrity continue to be protected," he said.
Hastings introduced the Rattlesnake Mountain Public Access Act in May, which would require the secretary of the Interior to provide public access to the summit of the mountain.
"It shouldn't take a federal law to ensure that the public has access to its public lands, but I am committed to passing legislation to make absolutely certain that public tours to the Rattlesnake summit actually happen," he said.
No registration is required for those who want to take the self-guided tours of the open portion of the monument Saturday.
The tour includes views of the White Bluffs, shrub-steppe plateaus and the last free-flowing nontidal stretch of the river. Speakers will be stationed along the route to give talks and answer questions about topics including history, wildlife and geology.
Staff will be stationed at the Vernita Bridge Rest Area on Highway 24 near the Columbia River from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to provide information and help visitors get started on the driving tour. The tour should take a couple of hours, depending on how much time is spent at each stop.
Participants can look for direction signs with the blue goose logo and watch for blue tents at each stop on the tour.
For more information, call 546-8300. A map and information is posted at www.fws.gov/hanfordreach.
w Annette Cary: 582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org