More public access is coming for Rattlesnake Mountain. But how much is enough?

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 Tri-City area’s love for Rattlesnake Mountain is well documented in the public comments that federal officials are reviewing as they make plans to open the mountain to public access.

But the more than 50 comments received are split on the amount of public access that should be allowed on the mountain.

Follow the model of Badger Mountain in Richland, where people can come and go freely, said some Tri-City residents.

Limit access or the public will love its shrub steppe ecosystem to death, countered others. The mountain is on one of the largest remaining intact shrub-steppe habitats in the Columbia Basin.

No schedule has been set for when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could release a final plan and decision on access to the mountain.

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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

But with the close of the public comment period in December, comments are being evaluated, and in late March major government-to-government consultations began with tribes as required by the National Historic Preservation Act.

Area tribes have treaty rights at Rattlesnake Mountain, including for religious activities on the mountain they consider a sacred site. Laliik, as Native Americans call the mountain, has been designated a traditional cultural property.

Tours, 2 days of hiking proposed

The preferred plan identified in a draft Fish and Wildlife study released in October proposed guided tours, such as in small buses, to the top of Rattlesnake for up to 20 days annually.

On two days a year hikers and bikers would be allowed to climb the mountain, sticking to a steep, narrow road to the summit. The grade is 18 percent at one point.

Legislation pushed through Congress in late 2014 just before former Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., retired requires that the public be allowed some access to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain.

Rattlesnake Mountain is visible behind a clump of phlox wildflowers blooming on a hill near Benton City. File Tri-City Herald

It is the tallest mountain in the Mid-Columbia, but most residents have never seen the sweeping views from its top.

Although the horizons are often hazy, on a clear day visitors could see Mt. Hood to the southwest and across Hanford to the north to the White Bluffs along the Columbia River.

Most of the mountain, which is northwest of Richland and west of Highway 240, is on land seized by the federal government in 1943.

It became part of the security perimeter around the Hanford nuclear reservation and was closed to the public. But since 2000 it has been part of the Hanford Reach National Monument.

In recent years only sporadic spring wildflower tours for small groups closely supervised by Fish and Wildlife officials have been allowed on the mountain.

More open access to mountain sought

Avid hikers want more access than proposed, and some public agencies backed them in the comments they submitted.

There is no money available to improve the road, and allowing people to drive their own cars to the summit is not currently a serious consideration.

The Tri-City Development Council said in its comments that it found Fish and Wildlife’s preferred alternative of 20 days of tours and two days of open access for hikers and bikers to the summit acceptable, but only as a starting point.

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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

Fish and Wildlife estimated that two guided bus or van tours a day for up to 20 days a year would allow as many as 1,200 people to take tours themed to topics such as wildflowers, birds, elk and geology.

But within five years TRIDEC would like Fish and Wildlife to start expanding access.

Fish and Wildlife’s environmental study considered a proposal that would allow access somewhat similar to that of the smaller Badger Mountain in Richland. The proposal called for allowing hikers and bikers to climb to the 3,575-foot summit of the mountain on 120 days of the year.

But the federal agency said that would be difficult with its current staffing and funding levels, which must be shared among the eight refuges, including the Hanford Reach, that make up the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex managed from its Burbank office.

Some hikers want more trails

The Benton County Commission agreed that the preferred alternative of bus or van tours and two days for hiking and biking to the summit was a good starting point, which could be expanded upon in time.

“We believe those experiences will positively reinforce the public’s interest in and commitment to this iconic property,” leading to demand for far more days that hikers and bikers could enjoy the mountain, it said.

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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

The Inter-Mountain Alpine Club, a hiking club based in Richland, wants much more access than proposed.

It wants year-round access and new trails to the summit and at other locations for day hikes.

Public access to Badger Mountain and more recently to Candy Mountain show that hiking trails can be built and managed in a way that does not significantly impact natural resources and avoids impacts to sensitive natural and cultural resources, the club said.

Hikers for the most part stick to the trails on those mountains and behave responsibly, it said.

“The vision we have is that Rattlesnake Mountain will become the shining star destination in the region, providing miles of day hiking trails in a network of continuous walkable paths,” it said.

Someday the region could have a system of interconnected trails across the ridges of Little Badger, Badger, Candy and Red mountains that includes Rattlesnake Mountain, it said.

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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

Jim Langdon, trailmaster for Friends of Badger Mountain, was not satisfied with the proposal that hikers would follow the road rather than trails.

“Walking on pavement is not hiking,” he said.

Several people who submitted comments were concerned about the ability to preserve the largely unspoiled ecosystem of the mountain.

Fears that Rattlesnake Mountain could be harmed

Kyle Pomraning, of Richland, described himself as a hiker, biker and general outdoor enthusiast. But he is concerned that few public lands remain that are truly wild and disturbed at relatively low levels by humans.

“The value of the Rattlesnake Unit’s continued existence as one of these rare and unique ‘wild’ places greatly outweighs its value as a resource for public recreation,” he said in his comment.

Others were concerned that the public would not give the mountain the respect it deserves.

“I am an avid hiker and I see what humans do to nature all too often,” including littering, going off trail and destroying plants, and discarding cigarettes that can cause brush fires, said Janelle Bourgeois.

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Rattlesnake Mountain is seen in the fall with a dusting of snow on its top. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society said Fish and Wildlife’s preference for guided tours was a good option, as a balance is sought between public use and protection of the mountain’s ecology.

The agency could consider expanding tours to four days a month when possible, it said.

The Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, the area on the national monument that includes the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain, is “one of those rare wonderful places that we must realize we cannot visit over and over again without harming it,” said Rick Leaumont, a member of the Audubon group.

He echoed the Audubon recommendation that a webcam be installed at the summit to allow the eyes of the world daily access.

The Tri-Cities is fortunate to have a national monument so close that it can be seen as residents go about their daily lives, Leaumont said.

“The grand vista of Rattlesnake Mountain on our horizon provides a form of visual access to all every day,” he said.