Our Voice: Public access to Rattlesnake Mountain a lofty goal that looks a little closer today

The view from the top is almost always better.

And that's just what many locals would like to experience from the top of Rattlesnake Mountain, the highest point in the Mid-Columbia.

But public access has long been forbidden, because the mountain was included in the security zone around Hanford beginning in World War II.

In 2000, there was a glimmer of hope when Rattlesnake was included in the Hanford Reach National Monument, but it is on part of the monument that remains closed to the public.

The glimmer became a bit brighter Thursday when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to lead four tours on the mountain this spring.

Each trip is limited to 20 people, so the total comes to just 80 visitors. But public access to Rattlesnake has to start somewhere.

These first tours should go a long way toward designing a program that admits more visitors while protecting the resource. It's a delicate balance between access and preservation, and a slow start is a smart approach.

We've long been advocates for creating a reasoned form of public access. It is public land after all, managed by Fish and Wildlife on our behalf. And it beckons as a good hike and a great vantage point for taking in the sights of the region.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., agrees and recently introduced a bill to open the mountain to some public access.

We're hoping the third time is a charm; Hastings introduced the bill twice before without success. It passed the House last year but didn't make it to a vote in the Senate.

"As I've said many times, people are permitted to scale the top of Mount Rainier and they should have the opportunity to take in the sights from the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain," Hastings said in a statement.

While we could argue that Mount Rainier is quite a bit more spectacular, Rattlesnake is the Mid-Columbia's highest peak and the best way to appreciate Eastern Washington's disappearing shrub steppe. We can see it being a destination for day hikers and visitors.

The bill would force the secretary of interior to find a way for the public to use the mountain's summit for recreational, scientific, historical and other purposes. People would hike, drive or use non-motorized transportation such as mountain bikes.

While the bill doesn't define a date or methodology for access, it does require the public be allowed on the mountain in some fashion. It's possible that Fish and Wildlife's four spring tours would satisfy the mandate.

Fish and Wildlife has been trying for years to come up with a plan, but the process was bogged down in talks with Native Americans who consider the mountain sacred ground.

Striking a balance between public access and preserving the mountain's ecosystem and protecting its cultural significance to Northwest tribes is paramount to any plan.

Hastings' intentions are good, but even if the bill passes, there's no definitive plan for broader public access. The existing 15-year management plan for the monument shows much of the mountain off limits to the public.

In addition to protecting the environment and respecting Native American treaty rights, there also are concerns about the safety of the existing road, built during the Cold War.

But the bill is a step in the right direction. So are the public tours planned by Fish and Wildlife (see today's Page A1 for details).

Let's hope these actions are taking many more of us one step closer to the top.