A federal judge will allow wildflower tours on Rattlesnake Mountain to proceed as planned Thursday and Saturday.
Judge Thomas Rice of Spokane on Monday denied a request by the Yakama tribes to order the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cancel the remaining tours this year. Two days of tours were held in late April before the hearing.
The tribes had asked the court to stop the tours because the Rattlesnake Mountain area, known as Laliik, is an important religious and cultural area for the Yakamas.
The mountain is part of land ceded by the Yakama Nation to the United States under the Treaty of 1855, but the tribes retained religious and other rights to the land.
"Though the tribe certainly has a strong interest in preservation of its culture and spiritual interest, the public also has an interest in being allowed to see and experience the land, as long as precautions are taken to preserve the nature of the place," Rice said in a written order.
The wildflower tours represent a rare chance for the public to have access, in a limited way, to the mountain, the order said.
However, his ruling covered only a request for a temporary restraining order to stop this week's tours, and the Yakama Nation's case to stop possible future wildflower tours on Rattlesnake Mountain will continue.
The Yakamas have opposed tours of the mountain since 2010, when one was proposed for the 10th anniversary of the Hanford Reach National Monument. Rattlesnake Mountain is on a portion of the monument closed to the public since 1943 when it became part of the security perimeter of the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Fish and Wildlife issued a finding in 2012 that limited and controlled wildflower tours on the monument would have no adverse effect. The tribes objected then and later, but the judge found that Fish and Wildlife appeared to have followed regulations requiring it to consult with the tribes and others.
The Yakama Nation said when the first wildflower tours that included the mountain were held in 2013, Fish and Wildlife failed to follow its own management plan. Pictures from a TV station report showed visitors standing next to a rock cairn -- a manmade stack of rocks -- in the Rattlesnake Mountain area. The tribes also objected to photos being taken on the mountain.
However, the judge found that Fish and Wildlife made a convincing case that the cairn is recent and placed near a memorial plaque, rather than a prehistoric or historic archaeological site. Fish and Wildlife said it cleared areas where the bus tours would stop with an archaeologist beforehand.
Rice also found that evidence was not presented to show that the tours irrevocably damage the environment. The tours include driving on already established roads and visitors are supervised and allowed no farther than 328 feet from the bus, according to court documents.
But an increased number of tours on Rattlesnake Mountain irreparably harms the sense of solitude and the religious significance of the mountain to the Yakamas, said the tribes' attorney, Thomas Zeilman.
"The tribes' main concern is this is the tip of the iceberg," he said.
In 2013, four tours were held on two days. This year, eight tours are being held on four days. But Fish and Wildlife is proposing 12 tours over six days for the next five years, according to court documents. That expansion is a significant change in the federal plan that is arbitrary and capricious, the tribes argued.
But Rice disagreed, finding that the reasoning the federal government gave for tours not having an adverse effect held for up to 12 tours a year if they continued to be three hours long and supervised.
"There is little likelihood of irreparable harm," based on the information supplied to the court so far, the judge said in the written ruling.
The Yakama Nation had argued that wildflower tours could be held elsewhere on the national monument, some of which is open to the public.
Fish and Wildlife responded that Rattlesnake Mountain is unique. It rises from 400 feet at its base to 3,600 feet at its top, which is almost 1,000 feet higher than the Saddle Mountains, which also are part of the monument. The elevation change, plus different soil and more precipitation because of Rattlesnake's north-facing slopes, contribute to different plant communities.
Hood's phlox, Rosy balsamroot, low hawksbeard, showy mountain dandelion, wooly sunflower, longleaf fleabane, daggerpod, Leiberg's stonecrop and thymeleaf buckwheat are common on the summit but uncommon elsewhere on the monument, according to Fish and Wildlife. The middle elevation of the mountain also has different plant communities, including concentrations of flowering velvet lupine that give a lavender shade to the hills in years it flowers abundantly.
Cattle grazing was allowed through the 1979s on the Wahluke and Saddle Mountain areas of the monument, which greatly affected the plants that grow there, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Seats already have been assigned for this week's tours by a lottery held in April. The lottery began after seats for 2013 tours were claimed 21 seconds after online registration opened. There were 608 seats requested through the lottery, with most people requesting the maximum of two seats, for 152 seats available on the tour, according to court documents.
"The public interest in the wildflower tours is especially high because many members of the public have lived with the sight of Rattlesnake Mountain for many years, are very interested in the unique beauty of this land and are unable to access it at any other time," Fish and Wildlife said in a court document.