Our Voice: Rattlesnake Mountain tours should continue

Sometimes it feels like we could use a regionwide seminar on cooperation.

Folks in the Mid-Columbia are pretty good about working together much of the time. But with a mix of federal government agencies, state and local jurisdictions, organizations, agencies and tribes, things can get complicated.

Sometimes we're surprised by the lack of cooperation -- such as we're seeing in the current debate about the fate of restored Hanford lands.

Other times we're not so surprised -- we've grown to expect push back every time there is even a mention of allowing members of the public on Rattlesnake.

The Yakama Nation recently asked a federal judge to prevent wildflower tours on Rattlesnake Mountain.

The tribes say the cultural significance of the mountain and surrounding lands "is not conducive to tourism and recreation" and that it would be harmed by allowing the tours.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wildflower tours are so popular that a lottery is held for the seats on the bus. Few of us ever have the opportunity to visit Rattlesnake Mountain, which is closed to the public. Whenever there is any opportunities to visit the mountain, demand is great. When online registration opened last year, the tours filled in 21 seconds.

For those of us who have had the privilege to visit the top of the mountain and take in the view from the highest point in the Mid-Columbia, we understand the appeal. And we understand the Yakama Nation's desire to ensure this special place isn't ruined by overuse.

But we have long argued that there is a way to balance public access with preservation.

Public lands, by definition, should allow for at least some public access, even if it is limited.

Rattlesnake Mountain was designated a Traditional Cultural Property by the Department of Energy in 2007 for its religious and cultural significance to the Yakama Nation.

The Yakamas have been against the tours, which visit the Arid Land Ecology Reserve and Rattlesnake Mountain, since their inception three years ago. But Fish and Wildlife has stood strong, issuing a finding two years ago that the tours didn't affect the integrity of the Traditional Cultural Property.

The tribes are unhappy that no government-to-government communication regarding the tours has taken place. The federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation suggested earlier this month that Fish and Wildlife consult the tribes before launching the tours. But Fish and Wildlife held firm and notified the tribes that the tours would take place.

We agree with that stand. Fish and Wildlife has taken into account the mountain's importance to all and came to a reasonable conclusion that a few busloads of people looking at wildflowers won't cause any permanent damage.

Many in the community complain that Fish and Wildlife doesn't allow us enough access to lands in the Hanford region. We've raised that concern ourselves. But in this case, the agency is fighting for the public's right to access.

The tribes have asked a U.S. District Court judge to issue a temporary order to stop the tours unless Fish and Wildlife makes changes and consults with the tribes under the protocol listed in the National Historic Preservation Act.

That's not likely to happen in time to prevent the final two tours from taking place next week. We can see the need for communication, but when the answer is always no, as seems the case with the tribes, it makes it a moot process.

Fish and Wildlife should continue to find ways to allow the public access to the lands it controls in the Hanford area, including Rattlesnake Mountain. And the tribes should join that process, sharing the lands they hold sacred with the public and educating us all as part of the program.