- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 4, 2016

RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) - The only sound at the top of Rattlesnake Mountain on Tuesday morning was the whistle of the wind that seems to always blow across the ridge line and the chirping of bugs not used to having their habitat invaded.

To the north were the shiny ribbons curling through the desert of the Yakima and Columbia rivers with the White Bluffs beyond. Those familiar with Hanford could pick out processing canyons and reactors that once produced plutonium for the nuclear weapons program.

Off the other side was the snowy top of Mt. Hood far in the distance. The green at the top of Rattlesnake gave way to duller hues part way down as the desert begins to dry out for the year.

To the west at least three dozen elk grazed on the side of the mountain, then startled and disappeared into one of the canyons that cut down the steep slope.

These are views the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to share with the public.

“Hopefully, in 2017 we can get the people back up to the mountain,” said Charlie Stenvall, the agency’s project leader for the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex, as he led a small group from the Herald on a tour of the mountain.

At the end of 2014, retiring Rep. Doc Hastings succeeded in getting legislation passed requiring at least limited public access to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain.

It is the tallest point in the Mid-Columbia, but most residents have only seen it from the bottom. It was claimed by the federal government in 1943 as part of the security zone around the Hanford nuclear reservation and few people have been allowed on the land since then.

Fish and Wildlife still must follow regulations before allowing public access.

One of the first steps was asking the public what access they want and compiling a “scoping” report looking at what proposals are feasible and what environmental studies are required. That study was released Monday.

Stenvall is hoping that the next steps, an environmental assessment and a supplemental access plan, can be completed by the end of the year.

Fish and Wildlife also must consult with Columbia Basin tribes, a process that does not have a timeline.

Completing those steps could clear the way to offer tours of Rattlesnake Mountain in 2017, he said. They likely would be keyed to different topics, such as viewing elk, birds or spring wildflowers and use small buses or vans for transportation.

The one-lane road to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain is steep and old.

Fish and Wildlife has offered a few limited tours of the mountain, including some with stops at the summit, in recent years.

However, in spring 2015 a federal judge ruled that more consultation with tribes was needed and tours were canceled.

The tribes consider Rattlesnake Mountain, particularly the peak, sacred and would prefer no public access that could disturb the serenity of the site.

But the tribes also understand that the law requires Fish and Wildlife to provide some public access, Stenvall said.

While resuming tours may be the first step toward legally required public access, Fish and Wildlife also would like to determine what is feasible meet the demand for more open access to accommodate individual pursuits.

There seemed to be interest in public comments for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

The scoping report refers to the possibility of “open access” days a few times a year, when those activities might be allowed on roads after an environmental study evaluates the increased access.

Many of the comments received from the public in the fall called for regulated public access that would not compromise the 81,070 acres of the Rattlesnake Mountain Unit, which is part of the Hanford Reach National Monument.

It is one of the largest remaining intact shrub-steppe habitats in the Columbia Basin.

The nine-mile drive back down the mountain to the locked access gate to the mountain showcased the Eastern Washington wildland.

The warm spring means some wildflowers had already bloomed. But there were hundreds of lupine and Carey’s balsamroot splashing the hillsides with purple and yellow.

Just off the road, a coyote paused on a small rise as the Fish and Wildlife SUV approached.

To the east was the string of smaller mountains lined up like a string of rattlers - the possible inspiration for Rattlesnake Mountain’s name.

The public will not see that view from the Rattlesnake Mountain road this year.

But for those in search of another outstanding view from a Mid-Columbia mountain, Fish and Wildlife recommends a drive across the Columbia River to the top of Saddle Mountain on the Hanford Reach National Monument.

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