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Hanford Reach may get Lasting Protection

by Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times - May 12, 2000

The Hanford Reach of the Columbia River will be considered for permanent federal protection by U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt when he visits Pasco next Tuesday.

The issue of long-term protection for the reach, the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia, has simmered for years. The question has been whether the federal government or local jurisdictions should manage it.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., cheered Babbitt's involvement yesterday, saying the problem has defied legislative solution.

Babbitt will explore administrative solutions to protect the reach, including declaring it a national monument. That would put it permanently off limits to development. And it would do so without Congress getting involved, which Murray thinks a good idea.

"I began a long time ago trying to put together proponents and opponents to come to consensus only to have Congress not move on the legislation," Murray said. "I thought it was important for the people in the region to come up with a solution. ... It is time to do something to save salmon."

The reach is home to the last healthy population of fall chinook salmon in the state. The fish, called upriver brights, support the last commercially viable fishery in the Columbia.

"Salmon preservation is so important, this is a no-brainer," Murray said. "We have to move forward."

Babbitt's involvement was cheered by environmentalists who have fought for years to protect the reach, and blasted by local officials.

"I am amazed, flabbergasted, surprised," said Grant County Commissioner LeRoy Allison. "It raises grave concerns of whether Senator Murray is listening to the people of the state."

Max Benitz, chairman of the Benton County Board of Commissioners, fears the move will derail the efforts of local officials to steer future management of the reach.

"They (the federal government) are coming into town and saying, `We think this is in your best interest and we don't want any input from the people we work for.' That is disturbing," Benitz said.

Cynthia Bergman, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., said Gorton backs preservation of the reach but favors keeping local leaders involved.

"This is shocking," Bergman said. "The (Clinton) administration is just on a roll."

The administration also wants to ban road construction on 43 million acres of public forest land without the involvement of Congress.

Local environmentalists were thrilled.

"I have been working on this for 15 years," said Richard Leaumont, conservation chairman for the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society.

"Senator Murray has made the right decision, a courageous decision, and we thank her for it. We are confident when Secretary Babbitt sees what's here, he will find a way to protect it."

Richard Steele of the Columbia River Conservation League said he has been fighting for protection of the reach since 1965.

"Now I believe it is finally going to happen," he said.

Lynda Mapes
Hanford Reach may get Lasting Protection
Seattle Times, May 12, 2000

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