RICHLAND, Wash. - Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was joined by tribal representatives, conservationists and local elected officials on a tour of the Hanford Reach, the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River in the United States.
The visit, which included a float trip down portions of the 51 mile-long stretch of river earlier this month, was part of the secretary's decision-making process on whether to advise President Bill Clinton to declare parts of Hanford Reservation and the Hanford Reach as the Hanford National and Ecological Monument.
"President Clinton has asked Secretary Babbitt to look at a number of places and get Secretary Babbitt's estimation on ... lands in the West that might need more protection than they now have," said Tim Ahern, press secretary for Babbitt. "Secretary Babbitt believes that the Hanford Reach is one of those areas."
Dotted by shallow islands and buttressed by soaring clay bluffs, the Reach spans the distance between Priest Rapids dam to the north and the reservoir near the city of Richland, formed by McNary dam to the south. The last free-flowing portion of the Columbia River, the Reach is considered by scientists and conservationists to be the last healthy spawning grounds for salmon in the entire Columbia system.
Tribal representatives from the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Wanapum tribe, spoke with Secretary Babbitt in support of declaring the Reach as a national monument.
"We had a dialogue with him in which we stressed that there were many issues that we have concerns about in the Hanford Reach area, only one of which is fisheries," said Thomas Morning Owl, chairman of the General Council of Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "We have a myriad of cultural resources that have been protected because of the way Hanford had been set up. We can't ignore the cultural resources richness we have there. Also there are many tribal rights which have got to be protected within that area."
Flowing through the enormous Hanford Nuclear Reservation, operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Reach has been sheltered from industrial and agricultural development for decades. Work on the Manhattan Project, the top-secret government effort which produced the first nuclear bomb during World War II, safeguarded the area. Later, operation as a nuclear power-generation plant as well as a producer of plutonium for nuclear weapons, guaranteed that much of the hundreds of thousands of acres incorporated by the Hanford Reservation would remain isolated and pristine.
But the Reach is situated in one of south-central Washington's fastest growing agricultural counties. Numerous studies recommend agricultural development for the Reach and much of the rest of the Hanford site. Wahluke 2000, a proposal by agricultural supporters, advocates agricultural development of federal lands bordering the northern and eastern shores of the Reach. A recently designated National Wildlife Refuge in the same area, protected only by a 30-day, renewable management agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy, is under pressure.
"We're really concerned with those types of activities because there's potential of the drying up of groundwater," said Randy Settler, assistant secretary and chairman of the Fish and Wildlife Department of the Yakama tribal council. "And irrigation would cause, potentially, radioactive concerns or heavy metals traveling at a faster rate down into the aquifer. And we're concerned also with the visible signs of agriculture that are taking place, eroding the bluffs already in areas close to the White Bluffs."
Katherine Ransel, co-founder of the northwest office of American Rivers and a member of Secretary Babbitt's tour, said irrigation was potentially responsible for a major slide at White Bluffs, an ancient ceremonial site on the Columbia, sacred to the Umatilla and Yakama tribes. The effects of the recent slide, spilling clay and debris into a large salmon spawning bed, were seen by the secretary and the rest of the group as they toured the Reach, May 12.
Providing critical habitat for upper Columbia River spring-run chinook, the Reach also supports naturally spawning sturgeon and functions as a valuable migration corridor for bull trout, a species on the Endangered Species List. The grassy, shrub-steppe ecosystem that borders the river is abundant with wildlife, including rare and newly discovered species.
"You don't have a healthy river stretch without surrounding riparian areas being intact as well," said Ransel. "And that is very clearly illustrated here.
"This area produces the only reliably harvestable runs of salmon in the entire Columbia system - which once had the largest salmon runs in the world - 10 to 16 million fish, depending upon the year. And now we have 1 percent of those numbers. We've talked with scientists who say that in order to save the salmon on the Columbia, the number one priority is to save the Reach."
American Rivers, a national conservation group, listed the Columbia as among the most endangered rivers in the nation in 1997.
Over the years, the threats to the Reach have been, and continue to be, numerous. The Ben Franklin Dam, proposed in the early 1960s, would have made the Reach just one more reservoir on the Columbia River. In the 1980s, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed dredging a barge canal through the Reach to Wenatchee, Wash.
Now, according to documents compiled by American Rivers, the Reach is being endangered by local congressional representatives.
Rep. Richard "Doc" Hastings. R-Wash., introduced legislation to: prevent protection of federal public lands in Washington state by Executive Order; attach riders to appropriations bills preventing funding for land transfers between federal agencies on the Hanford site, and place Hanford Reach primarily under the control of local elected officials intent on development.
Although polls conducted by local newspapers and local conservation groups indicate public support for preserving the Reach runs about 74 percent, Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., is reportedly in favor of control of the Reach remaining in local official hands.
Tribes are unanimously in favor of preserving the Reach. But there is also some caution being expressed. Morning Owl said that as long as concerned tribes had a substantial presence in the planning stages, as well as in the implementation and administration of a national monument, that the Umatilla tribe would support the proposal.
In the meantime, Secretary Babbitt plans to finalize the decision-making process back in Washington, D.C.
"The secretary wants to do this sooner rather than later," Ahern said. "He's pretty up-to-date on the subject. The secretary believes that this has been discussed enough and now it's time to make a decision."