Protect Reach, Says Locke Governor Calls For Federal Control Of Pristine Stretch Of Columbia River
Calling the Hanford Reach “an irreplaceable national treasure,” Gov. Gary Locke said Wednesday he wants the federal government to protect the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River from development.
Democrat Locke, a favorite in the Clinton White House, has been lobbied by both sides for support in the coming congressional fight over control of the 51-mile reach and adjacent land, which has been off-limits since World War II as part of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
With the U.S. Energy Department now ready to relinquish control, there are two opposing congressional measures for managing the pristine area.
Environmentalists who want the reach protected from development back one vision of its future, while local government officials and river users support another - for joint management, with area counties given the upper hand.
Locke’s support for Democratic Sen. Patty Murray’s measure to protect the reach under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was “fantastic news,” said Rick Leaumont, a spokesman for the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society.
“I think it will be a tremendous help to us. Our governor is, of course, a leader of our state. His support will help us to gather the support of the entire congressional delegation” for Murray’s bill, he said.
Ben Floyd, a spokesman for the commissioners of Benton County - one of three counties backing shared county, state and federal control of the reach - said his side was “of course, disappointed.”
“It’s not a major setback,” Floyd said. “This issue’s going to be decided in Congress. We have a long ways to go before this issue is settled.”
Locke issued his decision only eight days after touring the reach by boat.
In a Wednesday letter to commissioners of Benton, Franklin and Grant counties, he declined to support their position, contained in a measure introduced by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., whose district includes the reach.
“I am struck that the Hanford Reach is the last remaining stretch of river that has seen few human impacts. It is a snapshot in time, remaining much the same as it was during our pioneer days,” he wrote.
“Today, it provides exceptional habitat for native wildlife and plant life.”
Locke said he is supporting Murray’s bill “because the reach has several exceptional attributes which make it an irreplaceable national treasure warranting federal designation.
“With all but 3 percent of the river corridor already under federal ownership, I support continued federal management of the reach,” he said.
Locke also told the commissioners he supports continued federal ownership and management of the Wahluke Slope, on the reach’s north side. Expanded agricultural irrigation on the slope could further imperil an important chinook salmon-spawning area by damaging the reach’s fragile White Bluffs, he said.
Locke said he would support future legislation to keep the slope under federal control because it “is a premier refuge area containing such rich and diverse wildlife and plant life” and provides a buffer for the White Bluffs. He noted there is evidence the bluffs have suffered erosion from irrigation on lands adjacent to the slope.
“The aesthetic qualities of the reach, especially the sweep of the great White Bluffs, must be preserved,” he wrote.
The reach and adjacent shorelines have been off limits to the public since World War II, when the land was appropriated to ensure security at the 560-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation.
The federal site produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal for four decades, until the late 1980s. When the Cold War ended, Hanford’s mission as a generator of plutonium for bombs ended too. The focus nowadays is on cleanup of the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.
The reach is surrounded by an arid semi-desert landscape that has changed little in the nearly 45 years since the federal government - under the atomic-bomb-building Manhattan Project - took control.
There are no dams and few roads, buildings, irrigation canals or other development.