H.R. 2719: Rattlesnake Mountain Public Access Act of 2011

H.R. 2719

Rattlesnake Mountain Public Access Act of 2011

Date
December 13, 2011 (112th Congress, 1st Session)

Staff Contact
Sarah Makin

Floor Situation

On Tuesday, December 13, 2011, the House is scheduled to consider H.R. 2719, the Rattlesnake Mountain Public Access Act of 2011, under a suspension of the rules, requiring a two-thirds majority for passage. 

H.R. 2719 was introduced by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) on August 1, 2011, and was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources.  The Committee held a markup of the bill on November 17, 2011, and ordered the bill to be reported by unanimous consent. 

Bill Summary

H.R. 2719 would require the Secretary of the Interior to provide public access to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain in the Hanford Reach National Monument for educational, recreational, historical, scientific, cultural, and other purposes, including motor vehicle access, and pedestrian and other nonmotorized access. 

The bill would require the Secretary of the Interior to enter into cooperative agreements to facilitate access to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain with the Secretary of Energy, the State of Washington, or any local government agency or other interested persons, for guided tours, including guided motorized tours to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain.  The bill would also require the Secretary of the Interior to enter into cooperative agreements with the Secretary of Energy, and with the State of Washington or any local government agency or other interested persons, to maintain the access road to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain.

Background

According to the House Committee on Natural Resources House Report 112-321, Rattlesnake Mountain is a 3,527-foot, windswept, treeless, sub-alpine ridge overlooking the Hanford nuclear site in Benton County, Washington.  The highest winds recorded on Rattlesnake were around 150 mph.  While parts of the western slope of the mountain are privately owned ranch land, the eastern slope has been under federal protection for the past several decades.  In 1943, Rattlesnake Mountain was seized by the United States government using its condemnation authority and it became a buffer zone for the Manhattan nuclear project at the Hanford site.  In 1956, the Army installed a Nike Ajax missile base on the southeastern end of the ridge and maintained the site until 1960, when it was closed.

On June 9, 2000, President Bill Clinton issued Presidential Proclamation 7319 to establish the 195,000-acre Hanford Reach National Monument, managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Department of Energy (DOE).  The monument became one of only two to be administered by FWS in the United States.  Eight years after the designation of the monument, in 2008, FWS published its Hanford Reach National Monument Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement.

Public comments submitted to FWS in the development of the 15-year management plan were in favor of increasing public access to specific areas of the Monument, and specifically, to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain.  A paved road leading to the summit already exists and is maintained by DOE due to the presence of communication towers located on the mountain.  The summit of Rattlesnake Mountain provides some of the most panoramic views of the region, the Monument and the entire Hanford Site.

FWS, however, made a determination in the management plan that the entire Rattlesnake Mountain Unit should be kept closed to the public “due to resource concerns.”  The only exceptions to the ban were individuals who obtain a Special Use Permit, limited to approved ecological research and “environmental education activities.”  According to FWS, only two Special Use Permits have been issued since the adoption of the management plan. In October 2010, the FWS announced it would conduct two limited public tours of Rattlesnake Mountain, but abruptly canceled them just days before they were to occur, without explanation.

H.R. 2719 would ensure reasonable access to lands owned by the American people, which has been essentially non-existent in the ten years since the Monument was designated, despite recent indications that FWS supports such access.

Cost

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), H.R. 2719 does not specifically authorize appropriations, but it may affect when a public access road to the summit opens.  Rattlesnake Mountain is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.  Therefore, public access to the site is currently being evaluated by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in compliance with section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.  Based on information from the Department of the Interior, this evaluation is scheduled to be completed by the end of fiscal year 2012.  The cost to provide public access to the mountain summit under current law will depend on the outcome of that evaluation and other ongoing FWS studies. 

The legislation could influence the magnitude and timing of federal expenditures related to Rattlesnake Mountain; however, CBO expects that any change in costs relative to those expected under current law would be minimal.  There is an existing road to the summit; however, providing public access to it may require road improvements that would cost a few million dollars according to the agency.  Any such costs would be subject to the availability of appropriated funds.  H.R. 2719 would not affect direct spending or revenues; therefore, pay-as-you-go procedures do not apply.