EVER SINCE the United States government appropriated 560 square miles of farmland, orchard, sand dune, riverbank, sagebrush, and lava on central Washington's Columbia plateau back in March 1943, local residents and governments have dreamed of someday getting control of their property back—at least the part of it not inadvertently rendered lethally radioactive during the federal tenancy.
Late last year it began to look as if the dream might come true. After seven years of planning and seven months of negotiation, representatives of Grant, Benton, and Franklin counties and environmental groups came up with a draft plan for returning some of the Hanford nuclear reservation to local oversight.
It was a delicate balance, ready to collapse at a touch, and a touch was not wanting. When someone within Washington's congressional delegation leaked the draft to the local newspaper, it gave local politicians unhappy with their share of the land-use booty an excuse to dig in their heels. Still, the hard-wrought compromise might have been salvaged if conservationists, the big winners under the plan, had been willing to settle for three-quarters of a loaf.
Instead, they too said the plan was dead and called on their staunch ally Senator Patty Murray to beg the feds to save the region from itself. This she duly did: Last Wednesday, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recommended President Clinton set aside 200,000 acres of the site—nearly 60 percent of the total and virtually all the land not bulldozed or polluted by 50 years of plutonium manufacturing—as a National Monument.
Monument status or some similar protection had long been an option for one portion of the site: the 50-mile stretch of undammed, freeflowing Columbia River known as the Hanford Reach. But such continuing federal control over the bulk of the site has always been anathema for advocates of "local control," among them Senator Slade Gorton, who even before Babbitt's announcement last Wednesday had added a rider forbidding monument status for Hanford to an unrelated spending bill currently before Congress.
Gorton's ploy may play well among antigovernment voters in central Washington, but it is highly unlikely to have the slightest impact. Even before stating his own position on Hanford protection, the president has said he will veto the spending bill if it contains Gorton's rider when it reaches his desk. And the US Supreme Court has consistently granted presidents enormous latitude when interpreting their right under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to declare by proclamation "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States."
Not content with getting the Clinton administration to side with their cause, some advocates for the environment have blamed Senator Gorton for the failure of the compromise plan that would have afforded local interests some say over the disposal and future of the Hanford site. According to this scenario, county officials were reluctantly preparing to sign off on the draft when the senator sent Chief of Staff Tony Williams out to the Tri-Cities on an emergency mission to stiffen their spines.
Unfortunately for those who like to think of Gorton as an embodiment of Satan where the environment is concerned, this scenario is not supported by nonpartisan observers who were present at meetings between Williams and the county officials. "I think that Gorton's office was getting mixed signals from the field and sent Tony out to get the facts," says Ben Floyd, one of the staffers on the effort to build local consensus for a Hanford land-use plan. "People talk about 'having an agreement,' but we never really had one. The draft that got leaked to the press basically reflected the environmentalist position with a few sweeteners thrown in, and I just don't think we could ever have gotten a majority of the county commissioners to agree to it."
DESPITE ITS INDIFFERENCE to local control or consultation, the Babbitt plan is a lot less all-engulfing than opponents feared—and proponents may have hoped. Most of the area proposed for inclusion is already "protected" to some degree. Its 312 square miles wrap almost all the way around the heart-shaped Hanford reservation, embracing the desert-scrub landscape of Rattlesnake Mountain on the southwest, the vast sweep of Saddle Mountain and the Wahluke Slope north of the Columbia, then extending south in a narrow strip along the river almost to the city of Richland, with a wide westward bulge to encompass the fragile dunes and grassland of the east central site.
Gable Mountain and Gable Butte, two areas of great spiritual significance to Plateau Indian tribes, are also included as protected "islands" within the reservation. The rest of the area—the heart of the heart, so to speak, is left under Department of Energy and state control. There's even a little swatch along the northwest reaches of the river where "high-intensity recreation" is envisioned, while Benton County's dream of space for a high-tech industrial park adjoining Energy Northwest's nuclear power station and the offices and laboratories of Battelle's Pacific Northwest National Labs is not, at least for the moment, foreclosed.
One reason the secretary's proposal is so comparatively modest is that it's closely based on a multiyear Department of Energy study that drew on the suggestions and expertise of exhaustive discussions with state and local officials, the tribes, environmentalists, and the general public. But like most such federal initiatives, benevolent and otherwise, it lacks one sanction theoretically fundamental to good government: the consent of the governed.
Senator Murray may well have believed that the glacial local planning process was hopelessly deadlocked when she appealed to higher authority for a quick solution to the problem of Hanford Reach. But a Gordian-knot solution brings its own problems with it. Local authorities and citizens see themselves once again cast as the bad guys: know-nothings or worse interested only in a quick buck at the expense of environmental values. And once again Big Government has imposed its solution, unwilling to trust those most directly concerned in an issue to act in their own best interest, or that of the public good.
One of those concerned about the downside of protection-by-fiat is Battelle's Todd Peterson, who was called on to facilitate the local process aborted in January. "I think we had what was needed to reach an agreement that would have been a model of its kind. Through working closely together the participants developed trust in each other. They had what was needed to reach an effective agreement: deep, extensive understanding of the issues through living with them over a long period, respect for each other and for the process.
"One of the fundamental problems of governance in our time is that a gap exists between local authorities with that kind of knowledge and people with technical knowledge, expert knowledge that can produce acceptable solutions. They don't have access to each other's special expertise. My work is increasingly dedicated to finding ways to bring people together, the ones with global knowledge and those with intimate knowledge of conditions on the ground. If we can't find a way to do that, it calls our whole system of government into question. I'm hoping that within the parameters of the monument decision we can still find a way to get the local process back on track. If we can't do that, we're all going to lose out."