The Clinton administration threatened Thursday to veto a Republican bill that would give local government control of the Hanford Reach, the Columbia River’s longest free-flowing stretch.
Environmentalists say the bill would lead to the destruction of one of the nation’s most important salmon-spawning areas.
The bill, proposed by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., gives management of the 51-mile stretch to surrounding counties. Those counties could sell off land to be developed or farmed.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, who has proposed a different plan for the area, said if Congress is willing to approve Hastings’ bill, she will encourage Clinton to transfer management of the area to the federal government by executive order.
Currently, the land is managed by Washington state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Murray’s bill would give control to Fish and Wildlife.
At a House subcommittee hearing Thursday, Murray said local governments should have a say in decisions regarding Hanford Reach. But federal management would better balance the interests of all parties to protect the fall Chinook salmon that thrive in the swift, cold waters.
Hastings insists the debate shouldn’t focus on salmon.
Previously, Congress approved measures that prohibit dredging and damming of the area - two activities that would be detrimental to the salmon.
“We have assured that the river will be managed as effectively as possible to protect salmon runs,” he said. “So the debate should not be on protecting the salmon spawning beds - that has already been done.”
Hastings’ bill would establish a quarter-mile, no-development buffer zone along each side of the river. A commission, made up of county, state and federal officials, would manage the area. Control of a large chunk, at least a third of the roughly 80,000 total acres, would be transferred to Franklin, Benton and Grant counties.
Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, said he trusts the judgment of residents to determine the best management for the area.
“Apparently those who support (Murray’s bill) have more faith in the federal officials, not local officials, to manage this land in a wise manner,” he said.
“Permanent federal protection of the Reach provides us an insurance policy for our fragile salmon stocks,” said Murray. She and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, have introduced legislation that would make the area a Wild and Scenic River. That designation protects the area from development and encourages conservation efforts.
Tom Dwyer, deputy regional director for the Pacific Region of the Fish and Wildlife Service, testified that the Reach is the only healthy salmon run left in the Columbia River basin and is “the single-most important natural salmon-spawning area left in the lower 48 states.”
Dwyer added the administration cannot support “giving away over 80,000 acres of public land important for wildlife and public recreation and valued at over $65 million, with no restrictions on its future use.”
Hastings said his bill also addresses the sloughing of the White Bluffs - 300-foot-high cliffs near the river. Since the 1970s, landslides caused by excessive irrigation pushed sediment into the water, damaging salmon-spawning habitat.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials fear the damage will only worsen if more land is irrigated for farming.
Hastings countered that his bill requires counties to submit plans for preventing future landslides.
In 1943, the federal government took more than 350,000 acres for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which produced atomic bombs. About 200,000 acres were used as a security buffer for the facility.
Half of the buffer property was sold to private interests during the 1950s. The remaining land makes up the Reach, an area that has been largely untouched since World War II.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo Map: The future of Hanford Reach?