PUBLIC LANDS

Push for access to remote Wash. peak puts tribes, locals at odds

Both sides in a debate over public access to eastern Washington state's Rattlesnake Mountain agree: It's quite a view from the top.

At a windswept 3,600 feet, "America's tallest treeless mountain" rises quickly out of the sagebrush. Rattlesnake Mountain towers above the nearly sea-level Tri-Cities area 15 miles to the south.

From the top on a good day, some say you can see as far as Mount Baker hundreds of miles to the northwest.

"It is an incredible place to see just about as far as you can see," said Gary Petersen, vice president of the Tri-City Development Council.

The vista is a sacred one for the Yakama, Umatilla and other tribes of the Columbia River Basin. Laliik, as tribal members call it, has remained a place of prayer since tribal ancestors sought refuge there at the end of the last ice age as cataclysmic floods carved the region into the landscape present today.

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Rattlesnake "was the highest point by which tribal members were able to get up and out of the way of the glacial floods," said Chuck Sams, communications director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla.

But since the mountaintop became part of the 200,000-acre security buffer zone around the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in 1943, few people have been back to the top.

Despite the conversion of the buffer zone to a national monument -- Hanford Reach -- in 2000, the average visitor still can't access the summit.

The tribes, which were allowed to return to the summit as it was deemed "traditional cultural property" by the Department of Energy in 2007, want to keep it that way. Petersen and a coalition of local stakeholders, however, are pushing to allow guided tours of the mountaintop.

In the decades since he was stationed at the foot of Rattlesnake with the Nike Ajax anti-aircraft missile crew, Petersen has taken a number of people to the top of the mountain.

Despite being home to many of the reptiles that give it its moniker, Rattlesnake would be a popular destination for many people living in the nearby Tri-Cities of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland, Wash., Petersen said.

"Ninety-nine percent of the community has never been up there, and I don't know if 99 percent want to go up, but 100,000 do," he said.

To further his argument about Rattlesnake Mountain's potential, he pointed south to Badger Mountain.

Since the "Friends of Badger Mountain" organized to purchase 574 acres of the mountain near Richland, more than 200,000 tourists have used the trails the organization maintains and kept million-dollar homes from taking over the summit.

Rattlesnake would receive a similar response, according to Petersen. But as a "quasi-environmentalist," Petersen said access should remain limited.

"I don't think you would ever want to just plain open the gates and say go," he said.

Despite the radar installation DOE tore out in the last decade, the summit remains relatively pristine. By locking down the buffer zone, the military inadvertently preserved delicate scenery, including what is now the last free-flowing U.S. stretch of the Columbia River.

Tribal and nontribal interests agree the vanishing ecosystem should be protected. Safety is also a concern. Winds exceeding 100 mph frequently pummel the mountaintop. The former military access road up the treacherous front side of the mountain shouldn't be navigated by just any motorist, Petersen said.

Looking to bypass bureaucracy, he and others investigated access via the privately owned ranch on the mountain's more gently sloping backside, but were unsuccessful.

For now, Petersen is encouraging the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the national monument, to expand access. He said he "greatly respects" the tribal claims to the summit but believes responsible access like that on other tribally significant public lands is important.

Legacy of opposition

The tribes, however, simply don't see Rattlesnake as conducive to tourism.

In April, the Yakama Nation filed a lawsuit to stop Fish and Wildlife from conducting six days of wildflower tours that included Rattlesnake Mountain. While the tours have continued, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla recently added themselves to the suit.

In 2012, Fish and Wildlife said fleeting wildflower tours would not affect the cultural value of the land, but tribal opposition got support from Washington state's historic preservation officer, who disagreed days after the finding was released, according to the suit.

Faulting a lack of government-to-government consultation, the tribes say tours could be held in other areas already accessible to the public.

"It's one of the last preserved areas of both flora and fauna that we think should be further protected by not allowing public access," Sams said.

The Umatilla also are calling for protection of the land's historical legacy under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

"Because of the national defense needs in the 1940s, people were moved out of the area so quickly there has never comprehensive cultural resource mapping of the entire Hanford Reach," Sams said. "We've worked closely over the last 20 years with the Department of Energy to get those cultural resources documented."

The Reach and Hanford sit on territory the Umatilla ceded to the United States in an 1855 treaty. As cleanup continues at Hanford, the United States' largest nuclear dump, Sams said the tribes will try to assert their claim to portions of the land.

"We're working on those areas that are getting ready to become surplus to the Department of Energy and that will be released to the public domain for purchase," he said.

Legislative movement

After more than decade of pressing Fish and Wildlife to open up access to the peak in his home district, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) is almost out of time.

In the last year of his farewell term, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee tacked on an amendment to the House-passed defense authorization bill for fiscal 2015 (H.R. 4435) that would allow access. The language in the bill currently under consideration in the Senate would allow the Interior secretary to sign off on guided tours to explore the mountain's summit with motorized vehicles via the existing road. The amendment also would allow the road to be maintained.

The move looks to be the 10-term congressman's last chance to fulfill a long-standing bid for public access to Rattlesnake.

"Congressman Hastings remains hopeful that the Senate follows the House's lead in approving this bipartisan initiative before the end of the year," Hastings' spokesman Neal Kirby said in an email.

The optimism comes despite the failure in the Senate of previous legislation dedicated to the issue. Two iterations of the language -- H.R. 2719 in the 112th Congress and H.R. 1157 in the current one -- breezed through the House unanimously but never approached a vote in the Senate. Still, Hastings and his staff cling to hope that the language will see action in the upper chamber.

"In recent months and weeks, there's been a bit of a thaw in Senate action on House public lands bills, and it's hoped that further movement is on the horizon for the long list that's piled up over in that chamber," said Michael Tadeo, a spokesman for the House Natural Resources Committee.

After "cordial" meetings with Hastings, Sams said the tribes remain firmly opposed to the legislation, submitting a letter expressing their opposition to Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

The tribes haven't heard back, and no court date has been set for their lawsuit, but Sams said they will continue pushing to ensure Laliik is the same place of prayer and "reconnection with our ancestral past" that it is today.

Twitter: @DylanBrown26 | Email: dbrown@eenews.net

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