Ongoing post-fire habitat restoration on the Hanford Reach National Monument will require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to temporarily close approximately 30,000 acres north of the Columbia River, starting Tuesday, Feb. 26.
The agency will attempt to keep the area open on weekends during the project. However, weather conditions may require crews to work on weekends to complete the work prior to spring native green-up.
The closure area covers lands west of parking lot seven along the Ringold River Road and from the river north to Highway 24.
While the closure may last nearly 30 days, the agency is making every effort to finish the work sooner, weather dependent.
It is important that visitors heed closure signs for their own safety and for the safety of the crews conducting the restoration operations.
Visitors may call the Hanford Reach National Monument at 509-371-1801 for up-to-date information on closure periods during the rehabilitation effort, including potential weekend closures.
The closure is necessary to continue restoration efforts on 77,135 acres of native grasses and shrubs burned in last summer's wildfires.
Restoration work began in December 2007, with a little more than 700,000 native upland and riparian shrubs already planted.
Efforts now shift to invasive weed control and soil and stream stabilization, with aerial spraying for cheatgrass beginning on the Wahluke Unit and the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve.
On July 13, 2007, three lightning-caused wildfires quickly grew together, creating the Overlook Fire. Before it could be contained, the fire spread through 21,071 acres of shrub-steppe and riparian habitats, damaging the ecology and landscape by removing native shrubs and grasses from areas open to the public on the Wahluke Slope.
Another fire caused by humans, the Milepost 17 Fire on Aug. 13, 2007, burned approximately 4,708 acres on the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, also known as ALE.
Three days later, Aug. 16, 2007, another human-caused fire, the Wautoma Fire, burned more than 72,600 acres. It included 51,356 acres of grassland, shrub-steppe and riparian areas on the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve.
Immediately after the fires, burned area rehabilitation plans were developed to address short and long-term rehabilitation needs. The plans, developed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service experts, in consultation with Native American tribes and technical experts, included aerial spraying for weed control and seeding of native species on 11,000 acres, hand-planting 42,000 native shrubs, hydro-mulching 500 acres of erosive soils along Highway 24, and rebuilding fences.
Aerial spraying operations will begin this week and could continue for three to four weeks. Application buffer zones where chemicals will not be used will be strictly followed around water resources and private lands.
Chemical applications will only be made during periods of light wind and when no inversion layers are present.
Treatment areas will be closed to the public during aerial operations to ensure both public safety and the safety of the treatment teams. This includes the temporary closure of White Bluffs Road, which closes access to the WB10 Ponds, White Bluffs Overlook and White Bluffs Boat Launch. Boat launching areas at the Vernita Bridge, Ringold River Road parking lot seven and Ringold Fish Hatchery will remain open. Closure signs will be posted during the aerial operation period.
"We realize that these areas are the most frequently used areas of the (Hanford Reach) Monument," said Greg Hughes, manager for the Hanford Reach Monument. "However, our overriding concern for public safety and the safety of our employees and contractors make these temporary closures necessary. This time of year is one of the slowest visitor use periods, which helps minimize any inconvenience to the public. Also, most of our visitors this time of year are frequent users, and we know they support restoration efforts and understand the need for short-term closures for the long-term benefits."
While the ecological structure and function of the burned areas cannot be restored in a short period of time, these efforts jumpstart the recovery of ecological processes and habitat quality. Shrub-steppe is one of the slowest habitats to recover naturally, and without intervention, the Hanford Reach Monument could take decades or longer to fully recover.
Quickly halting the establishment and spread of invasive plants, and promoting native species establishment, will not only benefit native plants and animals, but will help prevent the area from being even more damaged by future fires.
"The (Hanford Reach) Monument provides habitat for plant and animal communities that are in serious decline throughout the West, and it is important that we reestablish a functioning ecosystem as quickly as possible in support of these unique resources," stated Hughes.