River stretch ignites a fight

  • Salmon flourish on the Columbia River - Christopher Anderson/Spokesma

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It's a historic irony that the most pristine stretch of Columbia River real estate was protected from development by bomb-making at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Military patrols made sure no one got close.

These days, anglers can fish freely for salmon on the Hanford Reach, a 51-mile stretch of river that boils past the chalky cliffs of White Bluffs in south central Washington, where pelicans and bald eagles soar.

But post-Cold War politics threaten this idyllic scene on the longest free-flowing run of the Columbia.

There's been vigorous local opposition to an effort by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to designate the Hanford Reach and a quarter-mile on either side of its shores under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

That would put the reach under the control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, giving it protection from most kinds of commercial development - excluding the 3 percent of shoreline that's already privately owned. Under Murray's bill, the reach would be designated "recreational," which doesn't limit boat traffic.

After cruising the reach in August, Washington Gov. Gary Locke declared his support for Murray's bill, calling the reach "an irreplaceable national treasure."

The fate of the reach will be decided in Congress, however, and Murray's bill doesn't have the bipartisan support it needs.

It's opposed by a bevy of Republicans in Washington's congressional delegation, including Sen. Slade Gorton and Rep. "Doc" Hastings, who represents the Hanford area. They'd like to see legislation that gives more control of the area to local people.

Agreeing is every county commissioner in the three rural counties that touch the reach. Benton County Commissioner Leo Bowman, for instance, complains that federal bureaucrats "feel local people aren't smart enough to make good, intelligent decisions."

Other opponents include farmers who'd like to plant orchards on the 90,000 acres of the Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and Wahluke Slope Wildlife Recreation Area - chunks of federal land on the reach that still belong to Hanford.

While Murray's bill doesn't include these lands, opponents say protecting the river is only the 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 near the reach. "You take one piece of legislation and put another on top of it. It just keeps expanding."

Bowman supports a rival bill introduced by Hastings, which would give the Wahluke Slope to the counties. It's called the "Columbia River Habitat Protection and Recreational Access Act of 1997."

Because the counties would sell at least some of the wildlife refuge and recreation area for development, Hastings' bill would actually reduce upland habitat and public access.

Gov. Locke said he opposes expanded agricultural irrigation on the Wahluke Slope because it could further imperil an important chinook salmon-spawning area by damaging the reach's fragile White Bluffs.

Most conservationists agree. "We're gambling with losing our spawning grounds," said Rick Leaumont of the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society.

Hastings' bill would establish a committee of seven Washington residents to decide what should happen to the shoreline Murray wants preserved. Three representatives would be appointed by county commissioners.

"Our common-sense approach strikes a balance between federal and local control," Hastings said.

In May, House Democrats introduced a bill identical to Murray's bill. Sponsors are Reps. Norm Dicks, Adam Smith and Jim McDermott of Washington and Earl Blumenauer and Elizabeth Furse of Oregon.

Then in September, Hastings declared he'd won the battle in the House. Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, assured him that no bill would move that "fails to include an active role in the decision-making process for local citizens or which designates the Hanford Reach as wild and scenic."

"It's surprising that Congressman Hastings would allow someone from Texas to play a role in the decision about the future of the Hanford Reach," protested Rex Carney, Murray's press secretary.

Murray says she won't give up. "I continue to believe it's the right thing to do for the region, and I'm going to continue to do everything I can," Murray said.

Support for her bill came in mid-October from the Clinton administration. At a House subcommittee hearing, Murray said the White House might issue an executive order to protect the Hanford Reach if Congress fails to adopt a measure protecting the waterway. And if Hastings' bill made it to the president's desk, said a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official at the same hearing, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt would advise Clinton to veto it.

The writer works in Spokane, Washington, for the Spokesman-Review.

You can call ...

The Washington, D.C., office of Sen. Patty Murray, 202/224-2621; or,

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's regional office in Portland, Ore., 503/231-6121.

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