More people will be able to see the view from atop Rattlesnake Mountain and the plants and animals it harbors on its slopes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday.
The agency is in the early stages of planning tours of the mountain on the Hanford Reach National Monument and has hired an employee to organize the effort, said Robyn Thorson, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agency wants to find ways that the public can visit the mountain, the highest point in the Mid-Columbia, in a way that's ecologically and culturally responsible, she said Thursday as Fish and Wildlife observed the monument's 10th anniversary.
Government and environmental leaders, some of whom have worked for as long as three decades to preserve the last free-flowing inland stretch of the Columbia River and nearby land, gathered at the White Bluffs Overlook for the celebration.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Tri-City Herald
"Just because you cannot get to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain doesn't mean there are not other places to enjoy on the monument," said Larry Klimek, manager of the Hanford Reach National Monument.
That drew no argument Thursday as about 75 guests and Fish and Wildlife employees marked the monument's anniversary under sunny skies where swallows were flying overhead.
From the White Bluffs overlook on the western side of the Columbia River, visitors looked down on the meandering blue ribbon of the river, taking in one of the best views at the monument. Mount Rainier and Mount Adams rose out of the haze in the distance, and closer in, Saddle Mountain and the Rattlesnake Mountain ridge ring the Hanford nuclear reservation. At the vista's center is Gable Mountain, a sacred site to the region's tribes.
A good eye could pick out most of the nine defunct plutonium production reactors that line the river and just past Gable Mountain is the massive vitrification plant being built to treat radioactive wastes left from plutonium production.
The monument was "preserved by unusual circumstances," Thorson said, quoting outgoing President Bill Clinton when he declared the 196,000 acres surrounding the plutonium production portion of Hanford a national monument in 2000. The land was left undeveloped and largely unused as a security and safety perimeter around Hanford during World War II and Cold War plutonium production.
Now it is home to an unusually high diversity of plants and animals, Thorson said. It has two plants and 40 insects found nowhere else, she said.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., credited with being a key champion of the monument, remembered coming to the sage- and brush-covered land as a child when her grandparents lived nearby.
"I've had a chance to work on a lot of important issues for our state, but protecting the Reach really has had a special, personal meaning for me," she said.
"I still remember how much I loved this area when I was young and how much I was in awe of the wide open landscape and the way everyone cared for the land as if it was their own backyard."
Protecting the Reach "is about capturing our future," she said. Salmon spawning habitat must be protected and families must be ensured they will be able to use the river for recreation for years into the future, she said.
"We are just a small part of time," said Rex Buck, leader of the Wanapum band, who sang the invocation.
Perhaps far in the future someone through vision and prayer will hear the words spoken Thursday at the White Bluffs overlook and the wishes that it long be preserved, he said.
Rick Leaumont of the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society brought his 9-year-old grandson with hopes the boy's grandson would one day be able to lazily float in a boat on a similar sunny day beneath the White Bluffs. But those who support the monument must continue to work on three fronts, he said.
Historically, the monument burned once every 50 years or so, he said. But over the last decade the monument has been devastated by large fires twice.
"The environment can't take repeated burning," he said. Aircraft and fire equipment are needed to keep fires to a minimum.
The monument must grow to include more shrub steppe land at Hanford as environmental cleanup there is completed, he said.
Third, management decisions must be based on good science rather than politics.
"We can love this place to death," he said.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has worked for more fire protection equipment for the monument and also has pushed for public access to Rattlesnake Mountain.
"While it has yet to be achieved, in my view it is possible to reach a workable balance between protecting environmental and cultural resources and enabling the American people to access and utilize land that they, as taxpayers, own," Hastings said in a statement read at the anniversary celebration.
A volunteer coordinator will start work at the monument this summer to prepare plans for tours of Rattlesnake Mountain, also considered a sacred site by local tribes. There is a one-lane road to the mountain top, but it is deteriorating and steep enough to burn out brakes.
The tours may be patterned after the popular tours to Hanford's historic B Reactor, which also is in an area normally closed to the public. The Department of Energy and the tribes will be involved to tell their stories, Klimek said.
Care will be taken to preserve the unique but very fragile ecosystem, Thorson said.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; email@example.com.