The crowd that gathers for a U.S. Senate hearing on Saturday could fill every motel in this central Washington farm town.
Could, that is, if there were any motels to fill.
“Several people have contacted us, asking if there are spaces for RVs, and where are the motels,” said Judy Esser, mayor of the town of 2,000.
Like most people in town, Esser wants locals to control the Columbia River and the counties to decide the future of Wahluke Slope.
Conservationists say the strong opposition to federal control is the only reason the hearing is being held in Mattawa rather than Tri-Cities. A 1995 survey sponsored by the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society showed 76 percent of voters in Richland, Kennewick and Pasco favored federal protection.
Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., picked the site and will chair the hearing. Last year, Gorton helped defeat the bill that will be discussed Saturday.
“Sen. Gorton is saying the 150,000 people who live down here aren’t as important as the people who live in Mattawa,” said the Audubon Society’s Rick Leaumont.
Gorton spokeswoman Melissa Dollaghan said Mattawa was a good choice because it’s close to the Reach, centrally located and has a building large enough to handle the crowd.
“Obviously, there was discussion about several different locations,” said Dollaghan, who didn’t know why the Tri-Cities were ruled out.
Wahluke School District Superintendent Bill Miller said the school gymnasium holds 700 people. If the parking lot fills, Miller said, cars will be parked on the playground.
No one knows how many people to expect. The activist group Save The Reach hopes to fill a bus for the 50-mile drive from Tri-Cities. Audubon members are bringing picket signs in case they can’t get in the building.
The state farm bureau is urging its members to attend, but has lots of competition.
“You’ve got cherries going on, you’ve got asparagus, the hay’s down” and ready to bale, said Bob Whitelatch. “We don’t get Saturdays off like the guys in town, the Audubon people.”
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