Our Voice: Work to make Rattlesnake accessible to tribes, public

We love Rattlesnake Mountain.

But the mountain access continues to remain elusive. It is a drama that heightens every spring when the flowers begin to bloom.

It looked like wildflower tours were going to be business as usual this year, and a few more people would have the opportunity to explore one of our region’s treasures.

But, as often happens, a judge and area tribes changed all that.

We understand the tribes’ attachment to the highest point in the Mid-Columbia. And our government agrees, designating it a traditional cultural property under the National Historic Preservation Act in 2007. That means the tribes must be consulted on undertakings that may impact it.

The mountain pretty much has been off limits to the public since 1943, when it was included in the security perimeter for Hanford. In 2010, U.S. Fish and Wildlife started talks with the tribes about public access. The wildflower tours were a first step, though the tribes have fought them since inception.

The tribes have said year after year that the tours taint the sacred site. In fact, it seems they consider just about any access to the mountain by nontribal members as an intolerable encroachment.

The wildflower tours were the one time in the recent years when those lucky enough to secure a spot could visit Rattlesnake. Last year, it was touch and go as the Yakama Nation led the opposition and filed suit to stop the tours. But a federal judge sided with Fish and Wildlife and found that the public had a stake in access to the mountain, along with the tribes.

Fish and Wildlife decided to expand the tours, which fill up quickly. The agency saw the addition as a minor change, but the tribes saw it differently, as did the same judge who allowed the tours to continue in 2014.

U.S. Judge Thomas Rice’s decision ultimately put a stop to this spring’s tours. Changing the tours that had previously allowed up to 50 people to access the mountain to up to 1,500 over five years was a significant increase, the judge said. The law was clear that the agency should have talked to the tribes before going forward with additional wildflower tours.

So we have a government agency required to provide access, a coalition of tribes that doesn’t want anyone on the mountain who isn’t a member, and a judge who is walking a fine line to be fair to both sides. Oh, and no wildflower tours with spring upon us.

What a mess. The public deserves access to Rattlesnake Mountain, as do the tribes. Finding a long-term compromise is key, instead of one that has to be decided in the federal courts each spring.