by John Stang October 15th, 2012
A bill has stalled in Congress that would open up Eastern Washington’s Rattlesnake Ridge to the public. The 3,600-foot-high ridge is the dominating feature of the Hanford nuclear reservation and the Tri-Cities area. The ridge marks Hanford’s southwestern border and had been part of the site’s security buffer since 1943 when the Manhattan Project took over the area to build a nuclear plant to create plutonium for the first atomic bombs. For centuries,the ridge has also been a spiritual site for area Indian tribes, as well as being almost pristine shrub-steppe habitat. It used to have an astronomy observatory on top as well as part of a Cold War Nike Ajax missile site. A handful of radio antennas are also on top of the ridge. It is part of the 120-square-mile Fitzner-Eberhardt Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, which along with the neighboring 134-square-mile Wahluke Slope, are the non-contaminated parts of the 586-square-mile Hanford reservation. The Fitzner-Eberhardt land is under U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Control. The Wahluke Slope north and northeast of the highly contaminated central Hanford is mostly accessible to the public.
The Fitzner-Eberhardt reserve – because of its delicate habitat and Native American spiritual significance – has been closed to the public. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working with the tribes on possibility of opening to summit to limited access. The Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes have treaties dating back to 1855 safeguarding hunting, fishing and spirituals rights on today’s Hanford, including Rattlesnake Ridge.
A narrow, long and winding asphalt road – behind a locked gate – leads to the ridge’s summit and a spectacular view of Hanford and the Columbia River.
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.,introduced a bill in late 2011 to open the ridge’s summit to the public by foot and vehicles, going around the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services efforts. Tri-Cities business interests back the bill. The U.S. House passed the bill 416-0 last December, sending it to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where it has stalled for 10 months. Hastings’ staff referred questions about the bill’s lack of progress to the Senate natural resources committee.
The Senate committee has a stack of roughly 250 land use bills in its hopper, said committeee staff member Bill Wicker. Hastings’ bill has unresolved issues raised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Yakama Indian Nation, Wicker said, who did not know the details. “That’s what got it stuck on high center,”Wicker said.
Hastings’ office and the Yakama nation did not respond to follow-up phone messages on what issues stalled the bill in committee.
The tribes have traditionally been protective against outsiders using the ridge because of its spiritual significance.