Hanford Reach group to propose a conservation plan to determine how monument will be managed
But we have come to the last, longest un-dammed stretch of the Columbia River between salmon runs, in boats powered by paddles rather than outboards. The only fishermen before the fall chinook fishing picks up in August are the few who make the trip for sturgeon and smallmouth bass.
The drone of their boats comes and goes, and then we enjoy long stretches in which the noise is limited to the sighing of the river and the ceaseless calling of the birds.
The thermometer is on its way to 90, a fairly typical late spring day in the central Washington desert.
"In a good year, we'll get seven inches of rain here. And there haven't been many of those lately," said Dan Haas, a planner for Hanford Reach National Monument, which then-President Clinton created amid controversy in 2000 and which others are now trying to decide how to manage, in a process that could have a big impact on recreation.
We got a late start, launching about 10 a.m., and the heat sears our legs. The sun lights up the White Bluffs, 300-foot cliffs that form the east bank of the river. It glints off the random steel roofs and razor wire on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, on the sage-covered west bank that is excluded from the monument.
The heat has sent mule deer to the river's edge, where most bed under black locusts, Russian olives and other non-native trees. Sometimes, ears are all we see of them.
But the heat doesn't stifle the birds, including the ubiquitous red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds.
We see mallards and mergansers and pelicans. We see cliff swallows by the thousands. We spot a nest of ravens, 15 feet off the water. We collect a blue-dun feather that dropped from a heron startled by our passing.
Monument manager Greg Hughes points out the aerie of prairie falcons, and we soon spot the two adults, riding thermals above the White Bluffs.
Hughes and his team from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working on a management plan with an advisory group of citizens and state and local officials.
The committee must try to balance a growing demand for recreation with the primary purpose of the monument: Protecting the unique plants, wildlife and landforms found within the 195,000-acre monument.
There's a lot at stake. Beneath our canoes is the Northwest's last best spawning grounds for fall chinook salmon.
Sections of the monument host species of plants and insects not known to exist anywhere else on Earth.
The monument is one of Washington's last big patches of shrub-steppe habitat, which past generations called "wasteland" and considered worthless. It is ever more important as sage-dependent species like sage grouse and pigmy rabbits become rare in the state.
After more than a year of work, and with more than a year left to go, the committee is being expanded from 13 members to 19.
"A number of individual groups felt like they wanted their voices heard on the committee and they went to congressional representatives who made sure they were included," said committee chairman Jim Watts, a retired labor organizer and member of Friends of the Reach, which lobbied for the monument designation.
"I don't look at that as a bad thing as long as the existing continuity isn't lost."
Most of the newcomers will represent counties surrounding the reach and agricultural interests, two constituencies that generally opposed monument designation. Farm groups had hoped some of the land would be converted to agriculture. Counties liked that idea, or wanted some kind of development that would bring more tax dollars.
Neither will happen now that the monument has survived a court challenge.
"What everybody has come up with is they like it the way it is, that you can come here and feel like you're in the middle of nowhere," Hughes said. "They don't want to clutter it up."
But the reach faces several environmental challenges, the most obvious of which -- radioactive contamination left over from Cold War weapons production -- is not an issue for the advisory committee.
The group's biggest environmental challenges may be the spread of non-native cheatgrass in the path of fires and the sloughing of the White Bluffs.
Geologists have said the sloughing is most likely caused by irrigation above the bluffs. A recent study suggests there will be no easy fixes, recommending that agencies get to work on the problem as quickly as possible.
The sloughing is so massive in one place that it has created a moonscape the size of several football fields, shifting the course of a river channel. Hughes plans to post signs warning visitors to stay off the unstable field, which continues to grow.
Other issues will have a direct impact on recreation. Among them:
•Determining which areas of the 195,000-acre monument should be open to the public, and for what types of uses.
Currently about 60,000 acres are open for use during the day, for such activities as hunting, hiking and bird watching. The rest of the land is off-limits, although boaters may use the 45 miles of river (most islands are off-limits).
•Whether to provide a boat launch at the Vernita Bridge, the northern boundary of the reach, where the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for years has managed 800 acres that now are within the monument.
The state contends a launch is badly needed. As many as 200 boats a day are trailered over rough, informal roads to be launched over the river bank during the peak of the fall chinook season.
And boater visits is sure to grow, "as people learn what a beautiful place it is to visit" during the off-season, said Jeff Tayer, regional director for state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
• Whether to build a campground at Vernita, or to allow camping there at all.
The state's lease with the U.S. Department of Energy says it cannot allow camping. But a city of campers springs up at Vernita each salmon season. With no outhouses or trash cans and nothing to prevent people from driving their rigs anywhere they desire, the place looks weary from abuse.
• Whether to provide a boat-in campground in the heart of the monument. As it is, boaters and other visitors must depart at night -- no great trick for those using powerboats but a tremendous inconvenience for canoeists and kayakers.
From Vernita to the rough Ringold boat launch downstream is about 33 miles, with the White Bluffs launch between the two. Covering the entire stretch takes about 14 hours, "if you're a good paddler," Haas said. That's assuming calm weather in a place where winds are common.
Paddlers embarking on a two-day tour of the entire reach must drive out from the White Bluffs after the first day, then return by car the next day.
"Everybody, regardless of whether it's environmental groups or recreational groups, wants access to the reach," Watts said. "But they don't want to love it to death."
And therein lies the problem.
"Obviously, what has preserved it in the past is the fact that
it's been largely off-limits to everybody."
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