The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has notified the Department of Energy that it wants to look into opportunities to expand the Hanford Reach National Monument with newly cleaned-up Hanford nuclear reservation land.
That concerns the Tri-City Development Council, which said Fish and Wildlife control of the land could mean it would remain largely off-limits to the public.
It also could interfere with efforts to create a new Manhattan Project National Historical Park that would include Hanford's historic B Reactor and other historic Hanford sites.
DOE plans to complete most environmental cleanup of Hanford in the 220 square miles along the Columbia River by the end of 2015.
To prepare for that, TRIDEC hired a consultant in January 2013 to look at options for recreational access and shared the proposed plan at public meetings in November to get public input. It is ready to bring that before the boards of local governments, before presenting it to Congress as the community's vision for future use of Hanford land.
The proposal includes controlled public access for hiking, biking and camping, starting with a seven-mile section of trail along the river from near the former Hanford town site to the Old White Bluffs ferry landing.
It would tie in with the national park proposal, allowing visitors to see what little remains of communities where settlers were ordered out to make room for a secret project to produce plutonium for atomic bombs during World War II.
TRIDEC's concern has been that the Tri-City-area community have a say in the future of Hanford land.
"If we do not speak up, someone else will," said Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president of Hanford programs.
But TRIDEC only recently learned that officials in Washington, D.C., began talking as long as a month ago about shifting the land to the monument.
Rachel Jacobson, principal deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, sent a letter Feb. 26 to David Huizenga, acting assistant secretary for environmental management, asking to discuss the final disposition of cleaned lands.
"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 said.
President Bill Clinton created the monument and signed a memo mentioning the possibility of adding more land as cleanup advanced.
But TRIDEC is concerned that so much of the land Fish and Wildlife already manages as the Hanford Reach National Monument remains closed to the public. The monument was created from the security zone around the weapons-production portion of Hanford in 2000.
Fourteen years later, about 70 percent of the almost 300-square-mile national monument remains closed to the public, according to TRIDEC.
"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."
Reasons that land remains closed include preserving almost pristine habitat, tribal cultural issues and continuing cleanup on nearby Hanford land.
Fish and Wildlife held off on making changes to the monument until a management plan was in place in 2008. It called for mostly modest changes, such as developing trails, interpretive sites and better boat launches in the areas of the Vernita Bridge and the Ringold Fish Hatchery.
But even those plans have been slowed by lack of money and staff time.
With Fish and Wildlife plans for the existing monument unfunded or incomplete, it doesn't make sense for the agency to take on additional land, Adrian said.
Most of the Hanford nuclear reservation is planned to be used for preservation and conservation once environmental cleanup is completed, as outlined in the Hanford Comprehensive Land-Use Plan. The monument is in an area planned for preservation and much of the area on the production part of the Columbia River to the south and west of the Columbia is planned for conservation.
Conservation is a less-restrictive use than preservation, Petersen said. TRIDEC believes it fits with the plan it is preparing to take to local governments that outlines controlled public access. A highlight is a hiking and biking trail of about 80 miles from north of Richland, largely following the river, to the area of the Vernita Bridge rest stop.
It proposes launches for nonmotorized boats and campgrounds that range from a commercial-style RV camping just north of Richland to primitive camping in northern areas of Hanford.
TRIDEC continues to work to get legislation passed that would create the Manahattan Project National Historical Park. That would put the emphasis on controlled public access to Hanford land, while Fish and Wildlife's focus is on preservation rather than public access, Petersen said.
Until Congress determines whether a national park is created, no action should be taken by any agency, he said.
Petersen said he wouldn't blame DOE officials in Washington, D.C., for favoring the proposal because it takes the pressure off them to make decisions on future access, such as that being proposed by TRIDEC.
But it's important for DOE to allow public access to the land, Adrian said. It demonstrates success after decades of environmental cleanup at Hanford, he said.
The land the federal government took over had multiple uses, including fulfilling tribal treaty obligations. But it also was home to 2,300 settlers who were ordered off their land in 1943, and the public has not been allowed back since then other than some limited tours, Petersen said.
Local governments, including the cities, counties and ports near Hanford, and TRIDEC told DOE in a letter four years ago that they had not been adequately consulted on access to areas with the potential to be opened to the public as cleanup is completed. It requested DOE establish a framework that would allow community interests to be considered.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; email@example.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews