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Hanford Lands Likely to get Monument Status

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, May 17, 2000

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stormed ashore at Murray's Beach on Tuesday, all but claiming the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River as a national monument.

At day's end, the only question seemed to be how much of the Hanford reservation would be included in the secretary's recommendation to President Clinton about future protection of the river and surrounding lands.

"I think this is something that would stand as a legacy to (Clinton's) administration," said Randy Settler, Yakama Nation tribal council member. "It will stand longer than his name."

One likely possibility is that virtually all the Hanford lands - not just the river corridor or the existing wildlife refuges - would gain additional federal protection under an executive order.

"You can't meaningfully protect the river and its resources without dealing with the valley on both sides," Babbitt said.

Besides, he said, monument status would create a "powerful incentive" to make Hanford cleanup a higher national priority. "This area ought to be and can be and will be a shining example of what restoration is about," he said.

Babbitt, accompanied by a legion of environmentalists and Northwest tribal leaders, toured the Reach and the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve on what was dubbed a fact-finding mission.

They stopped for lunch at a beach on the Reach named for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who prompted the secretary's visit in her bid for permanent protection of the best fall chinook spawning grounds on the Columbia River. The beach sits near the northwest edge of the Reach, about 40 miles north of Richland and a few miles east of the Vernita Bridge.

Rick Desimone, Murray's chief of staff, said he hopes the issue is resolved quickly by the administration. The Reach's future has been debated since at least the early 1990s, and Desimone sees decisive action as a boost to the region's salmon recovery efforts.

"It's important that we take the step now to prove that we are serious," he said.

Babbitt stopped short of publicly saying he would recommend national monument status under the Antiquities Act of 1906, but the river and the surrounding lands clearly intrigued him.

"It's an exceptional place," he said. "It's really an unimaginable vignette of what this whole country must have been like at one time.

"This is the last place."

Babbitt's Hanford stop was his latest in a string of visits to potential national monument sites across the West, many of which Clinton is expected to designate by the end of his term. To date, Babbitt said, "We have in many cases overlooked the most important places in the West."

Other sites under consideration are the Missouri Breaks in Montana and Steens Mountain in Southeastern Oregon.

Babbitt likely would visit the Reach, a 51-mile stretch of the undammed Columbia River that skirts the Hanford nuclear reservation, at least one more time if he recommends monument status but gave no indication Tuesday of when that might be.

Tuesday's tour included the flower-dotted flanks of Rattlesnake Mountain, the west edge of Hanford. Serenaded by horned larks and standing in a vast field of purple lupine, Babbitt waxed eloquent about the land's unique characteristics.

"This is as vigorous a steppe landscape as I have seen anywhere in the West," he said. "We are going to have to administer this very carefully."

Dave Goeke, retired Mid-Columbia official for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, narrated Babbitt's daylong bus and powerboat tours, describing the landscape from the top of Rattlesnake Mountain to the 300-foot-high White Bluffs north of Richland.

"I couldn't have asked for anything more," Goeke said. "(We said) everything we wanted to say."

Representatives from several environmental groups - including American Rivers, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society - joined the tour lobbying for their longtime goal of permanent federal protection.

"We have felt for 30 years this is a national monument, a national treasure," said Jack de Yonge, representing the Washington Environmental Council.

Goeke was one of many in the environmental contingent who want to see vast stretches of the 560-square-mile reservation protected.

"The more the better," he said, noting the interconnectedness of the ecosystems.

Mid-Columbia county commissioners, avowed opponents of a presidential dictum on the Reach, got about an hour alone to try to persuade Babbitt their plan for federal-state-county management of the Reach was superior to national monument status.

"We didn't change his mind," said Max Benitz Jr., Benton County commission chairman, after the meeting.

Said Deborah Moore, Grant County commissioner: "His mind is made up."

Moore said commissioners gave the secretary several copies of a locally developed Reach management plan that went through multiple revisions and involved many people with a stake in the Reach. She hopes at least Babbitt will incorporate local ideas in the federal management plan.

At a public meeting in Richland on Tuesday night, Babbitt invited suggestions.

That didn't mollify Benitz. "There is no indication that he is going to utilize any of the input in making his determination," he said.

Others in the crowd of about 200 seemed more accepting of the secretary's overtures of cooperation to find "as much common ground as possible."

Babbitt tried to put to rest concerns of farmers that national monument designation would threaten their water or land rights. "I am skeptical about proposals to expand the (irrigation) project along the North Slope" of the Reach, he said. "But I am certainly willing to work any way we can to make a crystal clear commitment to existing reclamation projects."

Later, he added: "Private property rights would be unaffected. Period."

Babbitt also pledged commitment to existing research and industrial facilities at the south edge of Hanford, such as Energy Northwest's nuclear power plant and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory operated by Battelle.

County plans, however, call for much more development of some Hanford lands over the next 50 years, plans that likely would be stunted by monument status.

Mid-Columbians also raised concerns about public access to public land.

"You are alienating the users of the very areas you are ... claiming to protect," said Bill Riley, with the Columbia Basin Environmental Council in Soap Lake.

Others wanted to make sure the pre-war settlement history of Hanford was not forgotten and that the B Reactor - the nation's first full-scale plutonium reactor - is preserved and opened to the public.

"Our history needs to be recorded," pleaded Annette Heriford of Richland.

The secretary committed to including in his management plan a settlement history project. "This is a remarkable, many-faceted human story ... which should not be forgotten," he said.

Tim Arntzen, owner of the tour boat company that provided Babbitt's transportation, wanted assurances he still could operate his boats if the Reach is a monument.

Babbitt said Arntzen could - but that one of the issues in a management plan would be to determine which kinds of boats are allowed.

"There ought to be a maximum amount of public access because what you want this place to be is an asset to the community," Babbitt said.

Mike Lee
Hanford Lands Likely to get Monument Status
Tri-City Herald, May 17, 2000

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