WASHINGTON -- The summit of Rattlesnake Mountain would be open to the public under a bill that passed the House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday.
The 3,600-foot summit is the highest point in the Mid-Columbia, but it has 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.
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, which passed on a unanimous vote, is sponsored by Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco, the committee's chairman.
"The lands of the monument and the entire Hanford site belong to all of the American people," he said.
The bill directs the Department of Interior to provide the public with motorized, non-motorized and pedestrian access to the mountain's summit.
If passed by Congress, Hastings said, it would ensure public access for educational, recreational, historical, scientific, cultural and other purposes.
"At 3,600 feet, Rattlesnake Mountain is the highest point and provides unparalleled views for miles around the monument, the Hanford site, and the Columbia River," Hastings said. "The public should expect that if they can visit the summit of Mount Rainier, then they certainly should be allowed to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain."
Last month, Hastings said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could not be trusted to ensure access to the summit.
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, James Kurth, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, told a House subcommittee.
"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," Kurth said in his written testimony.
The Fish and Wildlife Service 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.
On Thursday, Hastings said the Fish and Wildlife Service is dragging its feet.
"To put it bluntly, 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," Hastings said. "This bill is necessary to guarantee public access by law and to do so in a timely fashion."
Hastings' bill would ensure public access to the land but still allow the Fish and Wildlife to determine how that would be done, but it must include motorized access, he said. Currently, a steep and narrow road leads to the top of the mountain.
Hastings had the backing of the Tri-Cities Development Council, the Board of Benton County Commissioners, the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Tri-Cities Visitors and Convention Bureau and the Back Country Horsemen of Washington.