The gem of the Mid-Columbia region turned 10 last month.
Created by presidential decree in June 2000, the 196,000-acre Hanford Reach National Monument has become a draw for visitors and residents even though more than half of it has little or no public access.
Surrounding much of the Hanford nuclear reservation, the landscape of the horseshoe-shaped monument is an ecological and cultural link to the past. And supporters, including those who were a pivotal part of a 15-year grassroots effort to protect the Hanford Reach, believe it will continue to draw more interest as an eco-tourism and recreational attraction.
A long-range management plan developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that manages the monument, includes eventually expanding public access to 30,000 more acres as Hanford cleanup progresses and developing interpretive sites and trails. About 68,000 acres now are open to the public.
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But there are no plans for large-scale amenities or new roads on the monument, which contains one of the largest intact tracts of vanishing shrub-steppe habitat in the Northwest.
Biologists have documented 727 plant species, 40 species of mammals, 246 bird and 1,500 invertebrate species on the monument and 43 fish species, including threatened and endangered salmon and trout.
"Our philosophy is to have as small a footprint on the landscape as possible," said Larry Klimek, Hanford Reach manager and deputy project leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Mid-Columbia River Refuge Complex. "A lot of the unique quality out there is the landscape. It is unique habitat, and that's why we'd like to preserve (some) of it as it is, while opening additional areas to the public."
There continues, though, to be a call by some for more access. In Congress, Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, who fought against federal creation and management of the monument, in May introduced a bill that would open the 3,600-foot summit of Rattlesnake Mountain -- which is included in the monument and remains largely off-limits to the public -- to public access.
Benton County Commissioner Leo Bowman, who served on a 13-member citizen advisory committee to Fish and Wildlife on managing the monument following its creation, supports the legislation and would like to see more local input into Reach management decisions.
"It is a gem and it should be able to be seen by more people," Bowman said. "You're not allowed to go to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain, so people can't see (the monument). The view from there should be available to people."
This week, the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to observe the anniversary of the monument's creation at an overlook under development at White Bluffs on the north side of the monument that overlooks the Columbia and Hanford.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who championed creation of the monument, plans to be there. Local officials also have been invited, although the event is not open to public because there is little parking there.
A more public celebration of the monument's anniversary is planned in October during National Wildlife Refuge Week and is expected to include tours, guided walks and more, said Jeff Howland, Mid-Columbia complex refuge manager.
From the overlook, visitors can see the last free-running stretch of the Columbia River, the Hanford site and far beyond. The view from the monument's Saddle Mountains to the north includes the Cascades on clear days.
To Michelle Gerber of Richland, who was actively involved with her husband, Eric, in the movement to protect the Hanford Reach, it remains a unique place.
"It's a museum of the landscape," Gerber said. "There's no place else where you can stand on a bluff and see nine nuclear reactors and a truly unique landscape."
Bisected by the Columbia River, the monument encompasses Rattlesnake Mountain south of the river and Saddle Mountains to the north. Nearly 66,000 acres paralleling the Rattlesnake Hills north of Highway 240 are incorporated into the monument's Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, which is closed to closed to general public access.
North of the river, the monument parallels the Columbia River from the Vernita Bridge east to Ringold, with another slice stretching from north Highway 24 to Saddle Mountain. Much of the north side is open to the public, including the popular White Bluffs boat launch for anglers.
The Columbia is the principal focus of visitor use and is expected to continue to grow in the future for fishing, hunting, kayaking, canoeing and commercial jet boat tours, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Kris Watkins, president of the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau, says the Reach has become a major draw for tourists. Visitors include the monument on an itinerary that often also includes local wineries, she said.
"I think most certainly the monument has put Tri-Cities tourism on the map. It's been a catalyst for tourism," said Watkins, who also served on the citizen advisory committee.
That's exactly what Rick Leaumont and others envisioned when they started their push to protect the Reach in the 1980s, an effort begun after the late conservationist Nick Paglieri found survey stakes in the Columbia at the Reach placed by the Army Corps of Engineers for a proposed barge project, Leaumont said.
Years of grassroots organizing ensued in the drive to protect the area, which sparked equally fervent opposition from some local leaders. Leaumont rejoiced when President Clinton issued the declaration establishing the monument.
"Eco-tourism was our selling point (to protect the Reach) during those 15 years leading up to the declaration, and some of the people who fought us now are some of the biggest boosters of the Reach," Leaumont said. "It also gives us a high quality of life here, and when you try to attract businesses and high-paying jobs, a high quality of life is what people are looking for."
There are challenges ahead, however, for the Reach and its management.
Two major wildfires, in 2000 and 2006, affected more than 125,000 acres, torching thousands of acres of the sagebrush that provides habitat for scores of species. For instance, only 16 black-tailed jackrabbits -- listed as a species of concern in Washington -- were counted during a recent survey, largely because they became easy meals for predators with the obliteration of sagebrush, said Heidi Newsome, acting lead biologist for the Mid-Columbia refuge complex.
Fish and Wildlife has replanted thousands of sagebrush seedlings to re-establish the habitat. Restoration of the habitat could allow more species to flourish, and perhaps even entice sage grouse on the Yakima Training Center to expand their territory, she said.
There have been 10 fires over 1,000 acres on the monument in the past decade, and fire has tended to spread quickly because of the explosion of cheat grass. Historically, major fires occurred every 32 to 75 years, Newsome said.
"The frequency of fire is a concern," she said.
Fish and Wildlife and others also are concerned about the proposal to open public access to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain, which is considered ecologically sensitive and has cultural significance to the region's Indian tribes.
Hastings said when he introduced the Rattlesnake Mountain Public Access Act that the view from the summit is unparalleled and should be available to the public. The public hasn't been allowed regular access since Hanford was formed during World War II.
Long-range plans could include a trail on Rattlesnake, but no widespread public access, Klimek said. Fish and Wildlife cites cultural concerns of tribes and worries about damage to the fragile ecosystem on atop the mountain.
There also is a safety issue, as the road to the top is deteriorating and one lane in places with no turnouts. It also is a steep, 18 percent grade, "so you would have to spend a lot of money on road construction" to make it safe, said Dan Haas, the refuge's conservation planner.
Bowman said he understands the ecological and cultural concerns, but believes pathways could be created without causing damage. At Yellowstone National Park, for instance, the National Park Service has balanced protecting the resource while allowing the public access, he said.
"No one wants to do any damage up there. We all understand that," Bowman said. "Just create some pathways that people can stay on, and let people see the monument."
Leaumont, who helped shepherd creation of the monument, believes it will continue to lure more visitors. Opening widespread access to the top of Rattlesnake, however, should not be mandated by Congress, he said.
"That's a decision that should be based on science," Leaumont said. "The Reach is a special place, and it should be managed in a way that keeps it that way."