Balance preservation with access for Hanford Reach

With much of the cleanup work complete, the Department of Energy doesn't have much use for the Hanford Reach National Monument.

Though it owns the roughly 300-square-mile property, it is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The area has a checkered past, with the federal government seizing public and private lands in 1943 to create a cushion around Hanford, home to the Manhattan Project during World War II.

The land kept people from getting too close to the top-secret work and provided some buffer in case of a problem at the site. That need continued as much of the nation's plutonium was produced there during the Cold War.

Even though the area received its national monument status in 2000, a buffer was still vital during cleanup while weapons-grade plutonium was shipped off the site and radioactive spent fuel was processed.

But now that all that is behind us, it's time to start thinking about what to do with the monument, including the 120-mile Fitzner/Eberhardt Arid Lands Ecology Reserve.

Much of the land has been used for environmental research over the years. And because it was so closely guarded, the lands have been much more protected, providing a better glimpse at what the landscape looks like in a natural state, providing an ideal setting for studies of flora and fauna.

When the tricky cleanup work was done, DOE and Fish and Wildlife agreed that part of the $1.96 billion in stimulus money should be used to work on the buffer zone.

Nearly two dozen old buildings were taken down. Fifteen buildings and communications towers on Rattlesnake Mountain were replaced with one of each. Old dump sites were cleaned up, old fencing was removed and items used in prior research projects were disposed of.

That work was finished in 2011, paving the way for future public and government use.

Most of the monument north of the Columbia River is open to the public, including Saddle Mountain, which offers some great views of the area.

Now that many of the federal hurdles are cleared to public access to the ALE, Fish and Wildlife is working on the next step to access with the local tribes.

Much of the land is designated a Traditional Cultural Property because of its importance to the tribes.

Fish and Wildlife believes it's possible to have responsible access while protecting the resources there, both cultural and natural. Tours are key to showing the public why the national monument is important. "If people see it, they appreciate it," said one Fish and Wildlife biologist.

While the future access issues are ironed out, research continues with dozens of projects by Pacific Northwest National Laboratories scientists taking place over the years.

Two of the leading researchers on the site were killed 20 years ago in a plane crash, and the ALE was renamed in their honor.

With our lawmakers pushing to create a national park for the B Reactor, the time is right to take a holistic approach to public access and tourism at Hanford.

The national monument is a key piece of that vision.

It's important to protect the ALE for research and historical and cultural assets, but it's also important that public lands be just that: public.

A responsible and reasonable approach is needed to create an asset for our community and beyond.