Few have looked out from the top of Rattlesnake Mountain. That could change

Rattlesnake Mountain proposed access plans

Charles Stenval, former U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service project leader, describes factors and challenges considered for creating proposed plans to increase public access to the top of the tallest mountain in the Mid-Columbia, Rattlesnake Mountain.
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Charles Stenval, former U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service project leader, describes factors and challenges considered for creating proposed plans to increase public access to the top of the tallest mountain in the Mid-Columbia, Rattlesnake Mountain.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing two plans to allow more people to the top of the tallest mountain in the Mid-Columbia, Rattlesnake Mountain.

But don’t expect to drive your car up to the landmark peak outside Richland, at least not anytime soon.

Now the mountain is closed to the public other than occasional limited small-bus tours, usually during wildflower season.

On Friday, Fish and Wildlife will start distributing a draft environmental study on access to Rattlesnake Mountain to people who have requested it. Read it here.

One proposal would allow access somewhat similar to that of Badger Mountain in Richland. For up to 120 days a year, hikers and bikers would be allowed to climb to the 3,575-foot summit.

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A coyote runs along a ridge adjacent to the road leading to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain on the Hanford Reach National Monument. Tri-City Herald File

A different proposal would offer guided tours to the top on up to 20 days annually, plus access to the summit two days a year for hikers and bikers. Fish and Wildlife has tentatively identified it as its preferred alternative.

The trip to the top of the mountain would provide sweeping views on a clear day, from Mt. Hood to the southwest and across Hanford to the White Bluffs along the Columbia River in the other direction.

Visitors also might spot some of the wildlife on the unit, including elk and coyotes.

Former Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., pushed legislation through Congress in late 2014 just before he retired that requires that the public get some access to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain.

Vehicles, pedestrians and other non-motorized access are required under the law.

Focus on hiking, biking

One of the options being proposed by Fish and Wildlife officials would allow not only hikers and bikers to climb to the top, but also allow, theoretically, cars on its steep, winding road.

The draft report notes that the steep, nine-mile summit road is unsafe for public travel.

Before people would be able to drive the summit road, missing pavement would have to be fixed to allow two vehicles to pass in opposite directions.

Most of the guardrails would have to be repaired, and warning signs would need to be installed, including where drivers would begin an 18-degree drop on the way down.

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A steep and winding one-lane road leads to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain on the Hanford Reach National Monument. Tri-City Herald File

“At this point in time, there is no foreseeable funding for road repairs,” the draft report said.

Hiking and biking the summit road would be allowed under the proposed option, labeled Alternative C in the draft report. But visitors would not be allowed to venture off the road.

They could expect a round trip to the summit and down of about 17 miles, with an elevation gain of about 3,000 feet.

Fish and Wildlife officials estimated about 9,600 people a year might climb the mountain on the four months the summit road could be open.

It figures that the road would need to be closed three months of the year because of high fire danger and then three months in the winter when ice could make the steep road treacherous.

And access would be closed about two more months a year to allow Native Americans to use the mountain under their treaty rights; for maintenance work; and for other unsafe weather conditions, including lightning and high winds. The mountain often has the highest wind speeds in the region.

On days the road is open, staff would need to be on duty to monitor use.

Guided tour option

The other proposed option, labeled Alternative B, would provide a wider range of opportunities for people not able or inclined to climb the mountain. It could provide access for an estimate 4,400 visits a year.

Fish and Wildlife proposes a maximum of two guided bus or van tours a day up to 20 days a year.

The tours, which could have 1,200 participants, would be themed to topics such as wildflowers, birds, elk and geology and could also include travel on other roads in the area, including the nearly 10 miles of the gravel 1200 Foot Road.

The peak of Rattlesnake Mountain is on the 81,070 acres of the Rattlesnake Mountain Unit of the Hanford Reach National Monument to the west of Highway 240.

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A group of about three dozen elk cross a bench below the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain on the Hanford Reach National Monument. Tri-City Herald File

On two days access would be allowed by bike or foot to the top of the mountain, with participation limited by the 100 parking spaces at the Fish and Wildlife maintenance building next to the Nike Missile Site.

Alternative B also would allow access to other parts of the Rattlesnake Mountain Unit, which is to the west of Highway 240.

On the two days of hike and bike access, participants could choose to follow the 1200 Foot Road, rather than the Summit Road. Horseback riders also could travel the 1200 Foot Road, which runs roughly parallel to Highway 240 but several miles to the southwest.

In addition, visits would be allowed for environmental education, but not on the summit. Teachers could lead classes of as many as 60 students up to four days a year, with two classes a day.

The proposal allows an option for personal travel on the Rattlesnake Mountain Unit, but not on the summit road.

Personal cars could travel a gravel and dirt route mostly along the 1200 Foot Road two days a year. Up to 400 cars a day would be allowed to take the drive.

The route would take drivers past canyons cut into the side of the mountain, and in the spring past patches thick with blue lupine, said Dan Haas, Fish and Wildlife visitor services manager.

Preserved habitat

The Rattlesnake Mountain Unit has had little disturbance by humans for more than 60 years, according to Fish and Wildlife. It has served as part of the security zone around the Hanford nuclear reservation since World War II.

That’s helped preserve the land as one of the largest remaining intact shrub-steppe habitats within the Columbia Basin eco-region.

Even after the mountain was named part of the Hanford Reach National Monument in 2000, the area remained closed to the public to protect its plants, wildlife and cultural resources and allow research.

The ecosystem on the thin layer of soil on its wind-blown top is particularly delicate.

The tribes consider Rattlesnake Mountain, particularly the peak, a sacred site and would prefer no public access. It has been designated a Traditional Cultural Property under the National Historic Preservation Act..

The Wanapum Band and the Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes have traditionally used the Hanford area and Native Americans retain treaty rights there. Members spend time there periodically for religious and other traditional uses, including vision quests for young adults.

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A sign along the road leading to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain warns of the cultural and biological sensitivity of the area on the Hanford Reach National Monument. Tri-City Herald File

Fish and Wildlife launched the current process to consider public access to the Rattlesnake Mountain Unit in 2015 and since then has been consulting with tribes and state and federal historical preservation agencies.

The current Rattlesnake Mountain access plan is to offer occasional small bus tours, typically during the spring wildflower season. It has previously proposed offering up to 12 tours each spring, which would not necessarily include the mountain’s summit.

The status quo is labeled as a third option, Alternative A, in the draft report.

The last time tours were held was in 2014, before a federal judge ruled in a lawsuit brought by the Yakama and Umatilla tribes that not enough consultation had been done with the tribes to offer 12 tours.

What happens next

Fish and Wildlife kicked off work on the environmental study that produced the current draft report in 2015 by asking the public what access it wanted considered on Rattlesnake Mountain.

Many proposals were ruled out because they are prohibited under the proclamation that formed the national monument or by current law or policy. They include target shooting, building new trails for biking and cross-country use by ATVs or bikes.

Other uses were analyzed for the initial management plan for the monument and rejected. They included backpacking, camping, dog walking and hunting, other than controlled hunts for elk to control the herd size.

Public comment on the new draft environmental report and its proposals for use will be accepted from Monday until Nov. 28.

Comments may be emailed to hanfordreach@fws.gov or mailed to Rattlesnake Unit Public Access, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 64 Maple St., Burbank, WA 99323.

No public meeting is scheduled to discuss and answer questions on the plan.

Fish and Wildlife officials will review the comments and issue a final report with a decision to follow. No timeline has been set.

At the same time, the agency will need to continue consultation with the tribes and state and federal historic preservation agencies on a review to meet requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act.

Fish and Wildlife is not required to adopt one of the access plans in the report. It could keep the status quo, adapt one of the proposed access plans or propose a new plan, after considering public comments.

Annette Cary; 509-582-1533