RICHLAND, Wash. - Three times is a charm for the Hanford Reach, the last wild, undammed portion of the Columbia River.
Two attempts by tribes, conservationists and local officials to have the Reach and its environs protected by Congress failed. But an executive order, signed June 9 by President Bill Clinton declaring the Hanford Reach a national monument, changed everything. Now the 51-mile stretch of wild water and 200,000 acres of grasslands bordering the Reach are protected for good.
"It's been a long time in coming," said Thomas Morning Owl, chairman of the general council of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "The tribe was in favor of that type of set-aside as long as it would guarantee protection for the salmon species that are there. Because it is the last of the free-flowing areas of the river, and contains many, many of our main spawning beds of salmon."
The Hanford Reach is notable because it is one of the last remaining large blocks of rapidly disappearing shrub-steppe ecosystems, containing rare species of plant and animal communities. It is designated as critical habitat for Upper Columbia River Spring-run chinook and Upper Columbia River steelhead. It supports runs of naturally-spawning sturgeon and bull trout, listed by the Endangered Species Act. It is also simply beautiful.
"We've supported this for a number of years," says Randy Settler, Yakama tribal council member and chairman of its Fish and Wildlife Committee. "We think it's something which is going to benefit not just the Yakama Nation, but people in Alaska and Canada and off the shore of Washington.
"It's going to have tremendous benefit for people who are dependent upon fish."
Culturally, the Reach is highly significant to a number of Indian nations, including the Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce and Wanapum tribes. The towering white bluffs which line the river in much of the area contain many ancient ceremonial sites. The arid grasslands bordering the Reach are the usual and accustomed hunting grounds for the tribes and provide gathering places for traditional herbs and plants.
The Hanford Reach is also a historical site in much more modern terms. It was here, on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation during World War II, that plutonium was produced in the Manhattan Project for use in the first nuclear bombs. Plutonium developed at Hanford was used in the bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, an act that heralded the end of the war, a dubious distinction perhaps, but historical none-the-less.
Combining the Reach with parts of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation enabled a much larger tract of protected lands to be reserved than originally estimated in the 1960s, when tribes and conservationists first initiated protective measures for the area. Both parties are delighted to have gained a much needed buffer for the river against the negative effects of agricultural irrigation, such as pollution of the aquifer and erosion of the white clay bluffs from runoff.
But, situated as it is within the three fastest growing agricultural counties in Washington State, the set-aside of such a large tract of arable land for a national monument has met with some dissatisfaction.
Sen. Slade Gorton. R-Wash., who has opposed several attempts to have the Hanford Reach placed under protective status by Congress, was particularly outspoken about the move by President Clinton.
"The Hanford Reach is a beautiful part of Washington state and should be protected for future generations to enjoy," Gorton said. "However, local consensus should be the most important component in reaching those decisions. Obviously, the administration disagrees."
But conservationists like Katherine Ransel, co-founder of the Northwest office of American Rivers, and Rick Leaumont, chairman of the conservation committee of the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society, say local consensus in the town of Richland at the base of the Reach, as well as in Benton, Franklin and Grant counties, was running highly in favor of preserving the area.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., had plenty of local backing during five years of on-going attempts to get wild and scenic river designation legislation for the Reach pushed through Congress.
At the invitation of officials from all three counties, conservationists had been negotiating for seven months, finally reaching an agreement for the three counties to write a management plan, including a $12 million economic development package for the Reach. Leaumont said five of nine county commissioners favored going through with the plan, as did Mattawa port commissioners.
"Then Slade Gorton sent his chief of staff out here, Tony Williams, on a fact-finding mission," Leaumont says. "It wasn't a fact-finding mission. It was a discipline-the-troops mission. They, out-of-hand, said, 'Absolutely no,' to our negotiation settlement."
At that point conservationists and tribal officials decided they stood little chance of getting protective legislation. With the clock running out on the environmentally friendly Clinton Administration, they decided in January of this year to go for an executive order.
The results were satisfying.
"When President Clinton signed that day, we ended up at a man's house who had been working to see the Reach protected since the '60s," says Ransel. "We all just stood in a circle and held hands and called out the names of all the people who've been working toward this goal for the last 30 years and said, 'Thanks.'"
For the tribes, the next step is to assess the actual legislation. Potentially, a consortium of involved tribes will join together to work with the government to ensure they have, not only a say, but an active role in the cultural and environmental development of the Hanford Reach National Monument.
In the meantime, Settler says the Yakama Tribe is interested in the possibility of setting aside a "technical assistance area" which would preserve more lands of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and ensure that industrial or agricultural development or even actual cleanup operations on the reservation don't damage the existing spawning habitat for fish in the Reach.
If set aside, the additional lands could add thousands more acres to the monument, already the second largest nationally protected area in Washington. Only Mount Rainier National Park is larger.