The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to know what access you want to Rattlesnake Mountain.
As it makes plans to comply with a new federal law requiring that the public be allowed on the mountain, it’s asking for comments on the best way to provide access and holding open houses on Oct. 14 to share information.
In December, retiring Rep. Doc Hastings got legislation passed requiring public access to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain, the highest point in the Mid-Columbia.
Access has been restricted since 1943, when much of the mountain, including its peak, were made part of the security perimeter of the Hanford nuclear reservation.
The legislation is short, laying out only a few basic requirements.
Motor vehicles will be allowed. The law gives no specifics on that, but does say that Fish and Wildlife could work with other agencies or individuals to provide guided bus or van tours to the summit. Hiking and other non-motorized access also will be allowed.
The law does not provide a deadline for opening access, nor does it say how frequently access must be available. The legislation did not come with any money to pay for additional federal staff, public safety, construction or repairs to the road to the summit.
Fish and Wildlife plans to go beyond the requirements of the legislation and also look at options for access on other parts of the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve (ALE) as it makes plans for access to the mountain’s summit, said Dan Haas, visitors service manager for the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
ALE, which also is closed to the public, is southwest of Highway 240 as it cuts across Hanford and includes Rattlesnake Mountain.
Considering all of ALE will give Fish and Wildlife more options, including for tours, Haas said. If the wind is blowing too hard for a safe tour at the summit, visitors could see other parts of the reserve.
Some restrictions to how access will be allowed will be required because of laws and regulations that apply to the mountain, in addition to the new law requiring access. Off-road driving is prohibited, as is off-road biking and off-road horseback riding. Dogs are not permitted.
But everything not specifically prohibited by law or policy is up for consideration as an access plan is prepared, Haas said.
However, there are some practical concerns.
Fish and Wildlife’s closest office is in Burbank, which would make frequent locking and unlocking of the gates near the base of the mountain difficult to manage.
The agency also is concerned about protecting property. At the top of the mountain is a $3 million communication tower system that was built to provide service for 18 Mid-Columbia agencies, many of them using the facility for emergency communications.
Research projects are set up on the mountain and disturbing them could destroy years of work to collect data, Haas said. A Rattlesnake Hills Research Natural Area was formed in 1971 and the reserve area was named a national environmental research park in 1977.
Before 1943 there were some ranches on the land, but since then there have been few people allowed on it. Having land that’s remained relatively untouched for more than seven decades is unusual, according to Fish and Wildlife.
The mountain is known for its high winds and there are no safety barriers at its summit, which could be a public safety concern.
The road to the summit is in poor condition. Much of it is single lane and what guardrail stands along parts of the road is in disrepair, according to Fish and Wildlife. The road is steep, with an 18-percent grade at one point.
The legislation does allow the Department of Energy, which owns the land managed by Fish and Wildlife, to enter agreements with the state of Washington, local government agencies or others to maintain the access road to the summit.
Although hiking is possible, the round-trip walk between the entry gate and the summit is 18.6 miles.
Fish and Wildlife has formed a working group with tribes to discuss access. The mountain, which tribes call Laliik, was designated a traditional cultural property under the National Historic Preservation Act in 2007 because it is a sacred location for Native Americans.
The Yakama Nation filed a lawsuit when Fish and Wildlife prepared to offer wildflower tours this spring that would include a guided visit to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain, in keeping with the access law passed in late 2014.
A federal judge ruled in March that Fish and Wildlife, which had consulted with the tribes for previous tours, did not follow required procedures when it decided to expand wildflower tours that could include a stop on the top of Rattlesnake Mountain, weather permitting.
Rattlesnake Mountain is part of the land ceded by the Yakama Nation to the United States under the Treaty of 1855, but the tribes retain religious and other rights to the land.
The tribes are very concerned about how the legislation could affect cultural resources at the mountain, Haas said. In court documents the Yakamas said that the tours would diminish the sacred quality of the mountain.
When Fish and Wildlife has a proposed plan, more consultation will be required with the tribes and the Washington State Historic Preservation Office to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act.
As Fish and Wildlife works on the plan it wants to hear specifics of what the public wants — the where, when and how of access, Haas said. The agency also is trying to gauge the level of interest in accessing the mountain and the rest of ALE.
Information will be included in a report that includes all ideas, determines which are feasible and outlines the next steps.
The open houses will be at 2 and 6 p.m. Oct. 14 at the Reach center, 1943 Columbia Park Trail in Richland.
Written comments may be sent until Nov. 13 to firstname.lastname@example.org or to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Rattlesnake Access Comments, 64 Maple St., Burbank, WA 99323.