Interior Secretary to Consider Protecting Reachby Les Blumenthal, Washington, D.C., bureau
Tri-City Herald, May 12, 2000
WASHINGTON - Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will visit Eastern Washington next week to consider protecting the Hanford Reach by declaring it a national monument, Sen. Patty Murray said Thursday.
A White House spokesman said while no decision has been made on possible administrative action, Babbitt has been asked by President Clinton to look at areas worthy of possible protection under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
"His trip to Hanford is part of that effort," said Elliott Diringer, a spokesman for the White House's Council on Environmental Quality.
Murray, D-Wash., said Babbitt will be in the Tri-Cities on Tuesday for a series of meetings.
"We are moving on this," Murray said. "I talked with him, and he is quite positive about it."
A spokeswoman for Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said the congressman welcomes Babbitt coming to his district for fact-finding. Hastings has long pushed for a county-state-federal management plan of the Reach and is adamant about giving Mid-Columbia residents a say in its management.
"If (Babbitt) listens long enough, maybe he will get the message, and that message is that local decision-making must be part of any successful plan to preserve and protect the Hanford Reach," said Jennifer Scott in Hastings' office.
Environmentalists have long sought protection of the 51-mile stretch of river that flows through the Hanford nuclear reservation and provides critical spawning grounds for one of the healthiest salmon runs in the region.
Over the past several years, Murray has repeatedly introduced legislation to protect the Reach under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but has faced strong opposition from area county commissioners, Hastings and the state's other senator, Republican Slade Gorton.
Efforts to broker a compromise have collapsed, though there were reports Thursday of attempts to revive them. Regardless, Murray said she has had enough.
"We have tried the legislative approach, and it is clear the obstructionists won't let us move forward," she said. "Every time I turn around I hit a wall. Administrative action is the only option."
Rick Leaumont, a key Tri-City advocate for federal protection of the Reach, praised Murray for years of effort at legislation but said it's time to guarantee permanent protection of the Reach and the shrub-steppe land to the north and east.
"She has made the correct choice in asking the secretary to come out," he said. "The river is our best salesman. ... I am sure on (Tuesday) the river is going to do its magic again and something will happen. I hope it is sufficient, but it is not a done deal at this point."
Clinton's past use of the Antiquities Act has touched off controversy and prompted fierce criticism from Western lawmakers, who have likened the actions to massive federal land grabs and questioned whether the president has the authority to take such steps.
The four-paragraph law gives the president discretion to "declare by public proclamation" national monuments covering "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest."
The action does not require congressional approval. Seventeen presidents have used it in the past.
In 1996, Clinton created the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah over the objections of state and local officials. Most recently, he designated 355,000 acres of the Sequoia National Forest in California as a national monument.
Murray said she has no doubt that invoking the Antiquities Act would set off a firestorm of controversy. "But there is controversy now," she said. "People are saying no to everything."
County commissioners in the Mid-Columbia expressed surprise and anger at the possibility of an imminent federal mandate on the Reach after years of ground-level effort to create a management plan.
"It's a slap in the face to the local citizens who have participated in this process," said Max Benitz Jr., Benton County commission chairman. "It appears to me like we will be excluded."
Grant County Commissioner LeRoy Allison called the possibility of an administrative action "a real drastic move."
"Coming into a presidential election with the vice president running, it surprises me," he said. "It would appear to me this is a last-ditch effort prior to a new administration."
Babbitt spokeswoman Stephanie Hanna declined to confirm whether Babbitt would be traveling to Washington state and refused to comment on the possibility of protecting the Reach under the Antiquities Act.
But Diringer said the White House was well aware of Babbitt's trip. "Some time back, the president asked the secretary to look into areas that might warrant further protection and make recommendations," he said. "I gather he's heading out there for a firsthand look. He's been looking at all kinds of places."
Babbitt has long been a lightning rod for critics of the administration's land policies in the West. Recently, his comments about the possibility of knocking down dams have not been received well in Eastern Washington, where environmentalists have suggested breaching four dams on the lower Snake River in an effort to rebuild salmon runs.
A spokeswoman for Gorton, Cynthia Bergman, said Babbitt's visit and the possibility of administratively protecting the Reach was not unexpected.
"Why should we be surprised?" Bergman said. "The Clinton-Gore administration doesn't trust local communities to handle their own affairs. The senator and Congressman Hastings want to protect the Reach. The question is how? It sounds like the Clinton-Gore administration is prepared to step into our own back yard."
Environmentalists were ecstatic.
"Having Babbitt come and set the stage for administrative action is significant," said Bill Arthur, who heads the Northwest office of the Sierra Club. "It means it's on the radar scope nationally."
The Reach was closed to public access in 1943 when the Hanford nuclear reservation was created to produce plutonium for the nation's nuclear arsenal. The closure barred dams and other development and allowed wildlife and a run of fall chinook salmon, known as upriver brights, to thrive.
With the end of the Cold War, production at Hanford ended in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the Reach was opened to recreation. However, development on its banks and access to the reservation remains restricted.
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