Monument Status Recommended
by Les Blumenthal, Herald Washington, D.C., bureau
WASHINGTON - Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recommended Wednesday that the Hanford Reach be designated a national monument, preserving about 200,000 acres of undeveloped federal lands along the Columbia River.
The White House is expected to give quick approval.
The designation would include almost half of the Department of Energy's Hanford nuclear reservation, which the Interior Department described as the largest remnant of the "shrub-steppe ecosystem" that once covered much of the Columbia River Basin.
The Hanford Reach is one of four areas Babbitt recommended be established as national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906. His decision came little more than two weeks after he floated the 51-mile stretch of river upstream of Richland.
"These are priceless natural landscapes that have somehow remained almost untouched by exploitation, development and urban sprawl," Babbitt said in a statement. "Protection of several of these areas, in one form or another, has been discussed for years, but no action has been taken. We may not have another chance before they are lost ..."
The designation of the Reach has been on a fast track, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she expected President Clinton to act quickly on the recommendation.
"I have talked to the president about this in the past four or five days, and I expect him to act soon," said Murray, who has been fighting for federal protection of the Reach for more than seven years.
But longtime Republican opponents of the federal designation were livid.
"In one fell swoop, this administration is destroying years of negotiations, shutting out the concerns of local people and blowing any chance of protecting the Reach in a manner that accommodates the needs of all parties," Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington said in a statement.
Praising the announcement from Portugal, where he was meeting with European Union ministers, President Clinton said each of the areas recommended by Babbitt represents "an exceptional, irreplaceable piece of America's natural and cultural heritage."
Washington Gov. Gary Locke endorsed Babbitt's recommendation, noting Congress has failed to act to protect the Reach, which he called "a snapshot of an earlier time."
Locke also urged Clinton to give local citizens and governments a role in helping manage the monument. The method of providing local input into management of the Reach has been the key sticking point in preservation talks over the past several years.
Recent use of the Antiquities Act by the president has sparked considerable opposition in Congress. House Republicans have attached a provision to a spending bill that would block creation of any additional monuments and bar funding for the most recently created ones. Clinton has threatened a veto.
The Antiquities Act allows a president to create national monuments involving areas of historic or scientific interest without congressional approval.
If the Hanford Reach is designated, it would be only the second in Washington state. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Mount Olympus National Monument, one of the first in the nation. It was eventually folded into Olympic National Park.
The Reach was closed to public access in 1943 when the Hanford reservation was created as part of the secret Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. Over the years, Hanford became the main source of plutonium for the nation's Cold War nuclear arsenal.
The closure barred dams and development along the Reach for national security reasons, and it also allowed wildlife and a run of fall chinook salmon, known as upriver brights, to thrive. The run is one of the healthiest in the region; about 80 percent of the wild fall chinook in the Columbia Basin spawn there.
Though dotted with areas of high-level radioactive and toxic contamination, the 560-square-mile Hanford reservation also has become a haven for plants and wildlife that have disappeared from surrounding lands, including a rapidly growing elk herd.
"The proposed monument contains an irreplaceable natural, cultural and historic legacy, a legacy preserved by unusual circumstances," the Interior Department said. "Within its mosaic of habitat, the proposed monument supports a wealth of increasingly uncommon native plant and animal species, the size and diversity of which is unmatched in the Columbia Basin."
The area also is rich in archaeological sites, some dating back 10,000 years, and has an equally rich geologic history.
"Numerous proposals have been made for converting portions of the proposed monument to agricultural and other uses," the department said. "Such proposals could jeopardize sensitive salmon habitat and threaten the other important scientific and historic objects within the proposed monument."
With the end of the Cold War, nuclear production ceased at Hanford, and the Reach was opened to recreation. However, development along its banks and access to the reservation remains restricted. Efforts to clean up the radioactive and toxic contamination on the reservation could take more than 75 years.
The lands proposed for inclusion in the monument have been cleaned up or are being cleaned up to meet state and federal environmental standards. No reactors or other nuclear production sites would be designated.
Much of the proposed area is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under an agreement with the Department of Energy. Under the proposed monument, that relationship would continue.
Supporters of the designation were excited by Babbitt's quick action.
"I am overwhelmed," said Murray, who had urged the administration to act after Gorton, the state's other senator, and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., had blocked her efforts to have the Reach protected under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
In announcing his recommendation, Babbitt telephoned local officials who had opposed the designation, and Murray said every step possible will be taken to ensure they are involved in determining a management plan.
Murray said any move by congressional Republicans to block the action would be "terribly irresponsible."
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., another supporter of the designation, said Murray deserves all the credit for Babbitt's recommendation and that he also was frustrated by the opposition of Gorton and Hastings.
"We did everything possible to work out a compromise," Dicks said. "But it was essential we do this. It is one of the best things to have happened in Washington state for a while."
But Hastings and Gorton were furious.
Gorton said he was "extremely disappointed" and pointed out the Reach faced no immediate threat.
Hastings singled out Murray for criticism.
"This is insulting," he said in a statement. "It is an insult to the people of Central Washington. Either Senator Murray doesn't know what the residents of Central Washington want - or she doesn't care."
The other sites Babbitt proposed for designation were the Ironwood Forest in Arizona, the Cascade-Siskiyou Mountains along the Oregon and California border and the Canyons of the Ancients in southwestern Colorado.
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