U.S. Fish and Wildlife cannot be trusted to ensure access to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain, said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., at a congressional subcommittee hearing Tuesday.
The agency is working on public access to the mountain, but it has taken longer than planned, as discussions continue with tribes that consider the mountain sacred, said James Kurth, who was just appointed chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Both testified at a subcommittee hearing of the National Resources Committee, which Hastings heads, about legislation Hastings introduced in May to allow access to the top of the mountain.
The 3,600-foot summit is the highest point in the Mid-Columbia, but most residents never have been to the top. It's been closed to the public since the federal government took it over through eminent domain in 1943 as part of the Hanford nuclear reservation for weapons plutonium production.
Most of the mountain was under private ownership then, said Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-City Development Council, who spoke at the hearing and submitted written testimony.
The mountain, which was not contaminated by Hanford production, was made part of the Hanford Reach National Monument in 2000, but remains closed to the public.
The bill would "ensure the public has access to the public's land," Hastings said, but still allows Fish and Wildlife to determine how that would be done. However, it must include motorized access, he said. Now a steep and narrow road leads to the top of the mountain.
After Hastings first introduced the bill in the previous congressional session, Fish and Wildlife offered two tours that quickly filled and then were canceled, he said.
At the time Fish and Wildlife said the tours were canceled when it learned it needed to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act, including consulting with area tribes.
"To be frank, the service has had more than 10 years, and they say it will take several more, before they can determine if they will allow the American people to have access to Rattlesnake Mountain," Hastings said. "This bill is necessary because the only way to guarantee public access is to require it by law."
Written testimony submitted by Fish and Wildlife infers the agency supports tours of Rattlesnake Mountain, "but very carefully does not say they will ever allow access to the summit," Hastings said. "If the public can visit the summit of Mount Rainier, then they certainly should be allowed to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain."
"It is the intent of the service to find the right balance between protecting the natural resources and respecting the cultural history on Rattlesnake Mountain, while making the site available to the public in a way that will increase their awareness and appreciation for this special and unique place," said Kurth's written testimony.
Fish and Wildlife has determined that limited access is appropriate, Kurth said during the hearing.
"We are in consultation with the affected tribes who consider Rattlesnake Mountain a sacred site and have opposed access," he said.
DOE determined that the mountain was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as the Laliik Traditional Cultural Property in 2007. Three tribes with historic ties to the mountain -- the Yakamas, Umatillas and Nez Perce -- have opposed public access.
The consultation process with the tribes is taking longer than anyone would desire, Kurth said.
"We hope to have a cultural resource plan finished next summer so we can figure out a way to not alienate the tribes and be respectful of their tradition and still allow access to Rattlesnake Mountain," he said.
"With all due respect, what has the service been doing for the past decade?" Hastings asked. "The position of the tribes is well known, and I fully respect their right to their views, but this doesn't explain what the service has been doing since 2000 when consultation should have begun."
Fish and Wildlife completed a management plan in 2008 that determined that Fish and Wildlife sponsored or led tours would be appropriate and also proposed a hiking trail, likely low on the mountain.
Fish and Wildlife wants to work with Hastings to find ways to speed up the process and ensure consideration of all interests along with conservation of the mountain, Kurth said.
"The lands of the monument and the entire Hanford site belong to all of the American people," Hastings said. "The views of Indian tribes are very legitimate, and they have a right to be heard and consulted, but the views of local communities and all citizens also deserve to be heard and listened to."
Not only does the Tri-City area want public access, but the mountain also has historical significance that goes beyond local interests, Adrian said.
The mountain was made part of the Hanford nuclear reservation to provide security for the site and also to prevent prying eyes on the Hanford portion of the secret Manhattan Project, he said. The top of the mountain has sweeping vistas of the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation.
Although there has not been public access to most of the mountain for 68 years, there has been considerable activity, Adrian said. That includes a Nike missile installation on the mountain side and later an observatory and communication towers on its top. A former Hanford site manager used to organize recreation runs to the top, Adrian said.
Hastings' bill would accommodate cultural, historic, scientific and recreational use of the mountain, he said.
The Benton County Commission, the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau and the Back Country Horsemen of Washington also submitted letters supporting the legislation.