Babbitt backs Hanford Reach,
by Joel Connelly, P-I National Correspondent
RICHLAND -- Pledging that the Clinton administration will "have closure" on long-running Western land battles before it leaves office, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt yesterday toured the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River and came away committed to its preservation.
Later in the day, however, Babbitt stood in a crowded Richland hotel ballroom and heard officials from three counties argue that local control is a better way of protecting the wild stretch of river than having President Clinton designate it a national monument.
The good-natured crowd, by its applause, appeared evenly divided on the monument proposal. Babbitt argued the intricacies of water law, showed a detailed knowledge of Hanford's history, joked about bureaucracy and promised that mid-Columbia residents would have a major say in managing a monument if he recommends that path to the president.
"I will make every provision I reasonably can to be responsive" to local concerns, Babbitt pledged. "What you want these places to be is assets to the community. "
Babbitt described as "overwhelming" and "staggering" the 51-mile stretch of undammed river, where hawks and falcons swoop down from chalk-white bluffs on one side of the river, and deer and elk browse amid shut-down nuclear reactors of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
"This really is the last wild place on the Columbia River to tidewater," he said.
"What I see out there is a fabulous salmon spawning ground unequaled in North America."
He declined to say whether he will recommend designating the Hanford Reach a national monument. Using presidential powers pioneered a century ago by Theodore Roosevelt, the administration is preparing monument designations from the Santa Rosa Mountains of California to the Missouri Breaks of Montana.
After four hours on the river, Babbitt returned to Richland to meet with the county commissioners and irrigators who fervently oppose unilateral federal protection of the river.
"We feel the federal government would be better off letting local people have a part in this," said Sue Miller, chairwoman of the Franklin County Commissioners.
But Babbitt left no doubt that the Hanford Reach must be protected, and that he is impatient with Congress for failing to act for six years on proposed Wild and Scenic River designation. After observing bluff erosion along the reach yesterday, he voiced concern at threats to habitat of the Columbia River's last great wild salmon runs.
"You can see many of the conflicts coming at us -- the erosion and destruction of bluffs, the off-road vehicle tracks going straight uphill and the water from irrigation seeping through the bluffs," Babbitt said.
The Hanford Reach has remained undammed and surrounded by wild grasslands due to a World War II decision and years of political infighting.
The 560-square-mile Hanford reservation was claimed by the federal government for the Manhattan Project.
The government needed water, readily accessible power and privacy to develop the atom bomb. Yesterday, Babbitt passed the reactor that made plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Army Corps of Engineers first tried to flood the Hanford Reach with its proposed Ben Franklin Dam, and later in the 1980s to dredge the river for barge traffic.
As he stood by the swift-flowing river, its flow swelled by spring runoff, Babbitt talked to Richard Steele, a Hanford technician who has sought for 40 years to preserve the Reach.
"We can't preserve the river unless we protect the uplands," Steele told Babbitt.
Babbitt, a geologist, said he understood how irrigation could undermine one of the major natural features of the reach. "The White Bluffs are clearly a very common, loosely consolidated, Pleistocene-era sediment," Babbitt said. "If you put water on that land in large quantities, you get soup."
The struggle over the Hanford Reach mirrors major public lands controversies in the Northwest dating back to the Columbia Gorge battle of the 1980s, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness faceoff of the 1970s and the creation of the North Cascades National Park in the 1960s.
Federal protection has won support from national conservation groups, local hunters and fishermen and Indian tribes. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has championed protection of the Hanford Reach, and invited Babbitt to consider creating a national monument after efforts at legislative compromise broke down in the late winter.
"The end goal is what we are looking at. . . . Whatever tools the administration must use to keep man-induced change from destroying this, the Yakama Nation would support," said Randy Settler, a member of the Yakama's tribal council and head of its fish and wildlife committee.
Lined up in opposition -- as they were in past battles -- are local county commissioners, agricultural groups, irrigation districts and property rights advocates. In the national monument battle, they have found an ally in Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.
In an angry letter to Babbitt, an old friend, Gorton said yesterday: "Unfortunately, I fear that the real reason for your visit -- much like visits you and President Clinton have made to Utah, California, Arizona and Oregon -- is to add the Hanford Reach and the Wahluke Slope (north of the river) to the growing list of monuments that the president has chosen to designate by fiat," Gorton wrote.
Gorton said "the local community" should resolve the future of the reach "without a decision being forced upon them by Washington, D.C."
Babbitt insisted last night that he was seeking to listen and appreciate local concerns. He pointed to the administration's work with the state of Utah to develop management plans for the 1.7 million-acre Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument.
The monument in Utah's canyonlands was designated by Clinton in 1996 in the face of furious local opposition.
Babbitt met privately yesterday with irrigators and county commissioners, then held the hourlong evening public meeting in Richland.
Emotions have run strong over the reach.
A Pasco couple, Carl and Doris Mansperger, showed up at the meeting with a letter for Babbitt.
"A stated reason environmental groups want federal control over the reach is so that they can dictate through bureaucrats' actions restricting irrigation and PUD power generation based on their perception of harm to the reach," they wrote.
LeRoy Allison, a Grant County commissioner, said his constituents are still smarting over Clinton's "unilateral action" last November, which transferred 57,000 acres of the Hanford reservation to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service management. Local commissioners have favored "multiple use" including some agricultural development for the area.
"I've had constituents saying, 'Look what a job the National Park Service has done in New Mexico,'" Allison added, referring to the controlled burn that devastated the town of Los Alamos and threatened a federal nuclear laboratory there last week.
Steele, the longtime conservation advocate, says opponents of federal designation have one real goal in mind, particularly for lands adjoining the reach.
"They want control, they want to farm it," he said.
On his tour of the reach, Babbitt moved from the 3,500-foot summit of Rattlesnake Mountain to an Indian archeological site along the river. A coyote stared at him. He saw numerous deer, and bird life from tiny swallows to large pelicans and blue herons.
The former Arizona governor noted that America has created parklands to protect mountains, glaciers and forests. "When we settled the West, we brought European ideas of scenery with us," he said. Ignored, in Babbitt's view, were great natural places like the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and the Snake River plain in Idaho.
"We have overlooked ecologically important lands of the West," he said. "It is not about legacies. It is not that we are out thinking of things to do. These issues have been with us for years. The issue is to finish up what we came to do, to have closure on issues that must be faced."
Clinton recently preserved big chunks of the Arizona desert as well as giant Sequoias in California. He still has a long way to go if he wants to match Teddy Roosevelt, who proclaimed 18 national monuments, including one in Washington's Olympic Mountains.
"Obviously, the president makes the final decision," Babbitt said.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs