Seven dams upstream from the Pacific and four downstream from Canada, this ribbon of brown is the Columbia River that was.
Powerful and swift, the 51-mile Hanford Reach runs unfettered by the tinkering of engineers.
Sturgeon and chinook salmon swim beneath its boiled surface, pelicans and bald eagles soar above.
Its islands hide evidence that men gathered salmon here for at least 2,000 years, as modern fishermen still do.
On the east bank, few buildings mar the horizon, just the 300-foot face of the White Bluffs, turning pastel at sunset.
Thank Emperor Hirohito, Hitler and Khrushchev that this wide bend north of Tri-Cities was not pooled, dredged or developed like the rest of the Columbia.
Proposed dams would have flooded the Hanford Nuclear Reservation that was the nation’s answer to World War II and the Soviet threat. Barge traffic, farms and vacationers would have breached security for the stark grey reactors silhouetted against the stark grey hills west of the river.
With the Cold War over, another conflict is bringing Hanford Reach to the fore. On Saturday, a U.S. Senate subcommittee will meet in Mattawa, Wash., for a hearing on the future of this, the longest free-flowing stretch of the Columbia.
The subcommittee will consider a bill introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to protect the river and a quarter-mile on either side under the federal Wild and Scenic River Act.
The act would prevent development of the federally owned shoreline, while excluding the 3 percent of the shoreline that’s privately owned.
The debate is the same here as in the Florida swamps or the California deserts: federal protection of fragile areas versus local control.
Federal bureaucrats “don’t live here, they’ve never lived here, they have no intention of living here. But they think they know more about things around here than anybody else,” said Leo Bowman, a Benton County commissioner. “Their feeling is, the local people aren’t smart enough to make good, intelligent decisions.”
Like every other commissioner in the three counties that touch the Reach, Bowman opposes Murray’s bill. So do farmers, who would like to plant orchards on the 90,000 acres of the Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and Wahluke Slope Wildlife Recreation Area - chunks of land that are part of the nuclear reservation.
Murray’s bill doesn’t address those uplands. But opponents fear - and supporters hope - the river protection would be a likely first step toward setting them aside permanently.
“It’s like an onion,” said Bob Whitelatch, director of the Franklin County Farm Bureau, who grows grapes and fruit near the Reach. “You take one piece (of legislation) and put another on top of it. It just keeps expanding.”
The commissioners and many agricultural groups support a bill introduced by Rep. Richard “Doc” Hastings, R-Wash. It would give the Wahluke Slope to the counties.
Hastings’ bill would establish a committee of seven Washington residents to make decisions about the shoreline Murray wants preserved. Three members would be appointed by county commissioners.
Hastings and Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., successfully fought Murray’s bill last year. Then, Hastings added an amendment to an unrelated parks bill, forbidding damming or dredging of Hanford Reach. It did not address development of the shorelines.
“In the past two years, we have aggressively moved forward with our efforts to protect the Hanford Reach,” Hastings wrote in a letter to state newspapers. “Our commonsense approach strikes a balance between federal and local control.”
Hastings calls his bill the “Columbia River Habitat Protection and Recreational Access Act of 1997.” But upland habitat and public access will be reduced if it passes.
Counties intend to sell at least some of the wildlife refuge and recreation area so the land could be farmed or developed.
“There’s no reason it shouldn’t be on the tax rolls,” said LeRoy Allison, a Grant County commissioner. He’d like to see a third of the land left as is, a third farmed and a third studied before its future is decided.
More than just sage
Like the Gaza Strip in the Middle East, the Wahluke Slope is unlikely ground to raise such fervent emotions. Flat and windswept, its forest is one of knee-high sage and brown grasses, not the ancient cedars and Douglas fir of many environmental conflicts.
Rain is measured in single digits. Beetles there are as big as a man’s thumb. Rattlesnakes are common.
Together with the Army’s Yakima Firing Range and the rest of the nuclear reservation - which will remain under Department of Energy control until scrubbed of its contamination - the slope is the largest remaining piece of shrub-steppe habitat that once covered 10 million acres in the Northwest.
During a three-year study of Hanford, the Nature Conservancy found 30 previously undiscovered subspecies of insects. Scientists noted such rare birds as sage sparrows, sage thrashers, grasshopper sparrows and loggerhead shrikes.
“It’s not every day that you find a plant species new to science,” said the conservancy’s Curt Soper. “We’ve found three on the Hanford site,” including one on Wahluke Slope.
Scientists say what happens on the slope impacts more than just the plants, insects and upland animals.
Excess irrigation already weeps from the White Bluffs, causing slides in places. Spawning beds at the base of the bluffs are nurseries to more than 80 percent of fall chinook salmon in the Columbia.
Under Hastings’ bill, counties would have to submit “responsible” plans for preventing worse slides. Agricultural groups say there are ways to irrigate without causing a buildup of ground water. Environmentalists are skeptical, noting that any damage might not be revealed for 10 years or more.
“We’re gambling with losing our spawning grounds and causing a horrendous natural disaster,” said Rick Leaumont of the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society.
Wild, scenic and off-limits?
The debate over the Reach gives Larry Whitten the jitters.
A Tri-Cities native, Whitten owns Northwest Jet Boats, which builds 120 boats a year. Some of his customers cruise the Reach, as does Whitten on his rare days off.
Without federal protection, Whitten fears he will someday look up from the river to see farms, golf courses, resorts and casinos. He wants the place left alone.
But Whitten fears federal protection will bring regulations like those on the Snake River in the most remote area of Hells Canyon. During peak months, the Forest Service bans the use of powerboats for three days at a time. Tour operators oppose the midweek bans, which were requested by rafters.
“That’s a real economic hardship, especially to small operators,” said Whitten.
The Wild and Scenic River Act gives Congress three options for protecting rivers. Because it is roadless and undeveloped, upper Hells Canyon was designated “wild,” the most restrictive of the three.
Under Murray’s bill, Hanford Reach would be designated “recreational,” which prohibits shoreline development but doesn’t limit boat traffic.
The distinction doesn’t ease Whitten’s concerns.
“The feds can do what they want,” he said. “Who knows what it will be like 20 years from now?”
One of Whitten’s customers, Mark Ufkes, thinks federal protection would be good for business. Ufkes is one of two tour-boat operators on the Reach, and he recently bought 10 canoes for clients who want a quieter look at the White Bluffs.
With large government contracts drying up, the Tri-Cities has to develop alternative businesses like tourism, said Ufkes, who spent 15 years helping promote economic development in Third World countries.
“There is virtually no discussion in the Tri-Cities about the economic benefits (of the designation), and I can’t understand it,” said Ufkes, a Richland native who studied agriculture at Washington State University and natural resource policy at Harvard.
The wild-and-scenic designation would be “a great marketing tool,” said Ufkes. “It’s the United States saying, ‘This is a special place.”’
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color) Graphic with map: The future of Hanford Reach?
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HEARING A Senate subcommittee hearing on the future of Hanford Reach will start at 9:30 a.m. on June 21 at Saddle Mountain Intermediate School in Mattawa, Wash.
The following fields overflowed: KEYWORD = ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION. CONGRESS
The following fields overflowed: KEYWORD = ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION. CONGRESS