At Hanford meeting, caution urged to protect land

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A draft community plan to open more of Hanford to recreational use got a generally warm reception at a community meeting Tuesday afternoon in Kennewick.

But many participants were clear that plans need to proceed carefully to make sure that the shrub steppe land, some of it largely untouched for 70 years, is protected from human abuse.

"I love the idea of access," said Scott Woodward, a member of the Tapteal Greenway group and the Ridges to Rivers Open Space Network, and one of about 35 people attending the afternoon session. "But we have got to make people stay on the trails. It is an incredible resource and it is up to us to protect it."

The Department of Energy expects much of the environmental cleanup to be completed on the majority of Hanford nuclear reservation land in two years, leaving a heavily contaminated central portion that is designated for industrial use. Most of the 586 square miles of Hanford are set aside for conservation and preservation under current land use plans.

Hanford produced weapons plutonium for more than 40 years and about $2 billion is spent each year to clean up environmental contamination left behind by that work. But between facilities that dot the production portion of the nuclear reservation and in its wide security perimeter are shrub steppe land, much of it never touched by nuclear production.

Two community agencies -- the Tri-City Development Council and the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau -- have commissioned a conceptual draft plan for how land set aside for conservation and preservation might be used for recreation.

Among plans are hiking and biking trails for about 80 miles along the Columbia River, nonmotorized boat ramps on the south side of the Columbia River, campgrounds and trails along the base and to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain.

Areas should be gradually opened to the public for recreational use to make sure adequate funding is available to protect plants and animals, said Dick Watts of West Richland. Animals there have been largely protected from humans for decades and some people will take advantage of that, he said.

He also has questions about who will be deciding the path forward for Hanford land no longer needed by DOE. Will it be Congress, DOE or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which now manages the security perimeter of Hanford as the Hanford Reach National Monument, Watts asked.

The Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society already has sent a letter to Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., saying that it is time to start the process of incorporating more Hanford land into the Hanford Reach National Monument.

When President Clinton established the monument in 2000, he direct the energy secretary to work with the secretary of the interior to permanently protect additional Hanford land, such as through adding more Hanford land to the monument, the letter said.

Hanford land provides critical habitat for sensitive species including burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks and sagebrush sparrows, the letter said.

"We support visitation, but under proper management practices because of the shrub steppe ecology," Dana Ward of the local Audubon Society, said at the meeting. Americans have a tendency to love to death their national parks and other outdoor treasures, he said.

"It needs to be opened up," said Dave Brockman, retired manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office. The portion of the river being proposed for a trail and nonmotorized boat ramps "is just beautiful. There needs to be responsible access."

Alex Nazarali of Kennewick, a former Hanford employee who helped with cleanup along the Columbia River, questioned whether it might be early for the community to be making plans for recreational use.

DOE hopes to have much of cleanup along the Columbia River completed in late 2015, but then the Environmental Protection Agency has to complete a formal record of decision on it, he said. In addition, the tribes who used Hanford land historically and retain treaty rights, have not been involved in the plan, he said.

Members of the Rattlesnake Ridge Riders, a chapter of Backcountry Horsemen, attended the meeting to ask that equestrian use be specified in plans. Riders would like unimproved, natural areas with limited amenities, such as a place to water horses, said Dan Chappel of Benton City, chapter director of the group.

Members of the chapter said they were interested in the old road from Prosser to the former town of White Bluffs being used as a trail through the Arid Lands Ecology section of the national monument with a place to camp near the Snively Canyon spring.

The mayor-elect of Othello, Shawn Logan, said his community also is interested in better public access to Hanford, which would provide jobs and educational and recreation opportunities for residents. Othello, 22 miles from Hanford, could promote access from the north, helping establish tourism in Othello, he said.

Information gathered from community meetings will be used to create a final plan representing the wishes of area residents for Hanford's recreation use. It is expected to be considered for approval by local governments, such as cities and governments, and then used to show congressional and other federal leaders what the community wishes are.

TRIDEC, the convention bureau and a grant from URS Corp. paid for development of the plan, which was created by MacKay Sposoito, a Kennewick engineering consulting firm.

A meeting on the draft proposal also was held Monday evening in Richland and another meeting is at 7 p.m. today at the Franklin Public Utility District office, 1411 W. Clark St., Pasco. Comments also may be emailed to hanford_vision@tridec.org.

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