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Climbing banned at sacred Washoe site

LAKE TAHOE, Nev. - Recreational climbing at Cave Rock is about to be banned. Or is it? The final decision on the new rules rests in the hands of a federal judge.

In August, the U.S. Forest Service and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit concluded its long-awaited study and announced an immediate halt to climbing at Cave Rock, a site sacred to the Washoe Tribe located on the lake's southeast shore.

But the ban has led to some serious backlash from the climbing community and is headed to a courtroom. Immediately after the decision a Tahoe-area climber and the Colorado-based advocacy group, the Access Fund, filed separate appeals challenging the ruling. Both were rejected by the Forest Service on Nov. 5 and now the Access Fund, a non-profit group that represents more than one million climbers nationwide, has filed a lawsuit.

"The Access Fund has reviewed the USFS's closure of Cave Rock and believes the decision is unconstitutional. As a result, the Access Fund has been left with no alternative other than to file a lawsuit on behalf of the climbing community," organization leaders wrote in a November press release. The lawsuit was filed in federal court on Dec. 15 and will argue that "banning rock climbing at Cave Rock to support Native American spiritual practices is an unconstitutional establishment of religion."

The fate of Cave Rock climbing has been debated for years. The two sides had tried to settle on a compromise several times but couldn't find common ground. The volcanic formation, known for its steep rock face and high difficulty routes, has been a popular rock-climbing destination for technically skilled climbers for decades.

But it's that popularity and damage caused by climbers that has led to the closure, said Rex Norman, a Lake Tahoe Basin spokesman. According to the environmental impact statement, from which the decision is based, climbers have independently installed approximately 46 bolted climbing routes, many inside the sensitive cave and added a concrete floor all without prior consent from the Forest Service.

The report concludes saying that to provide the necessary immediate protection of Cave Rock's cultural, historic and archeological resources which make the site eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, climbing there must end. The ruling also calls for the removal of all bolts, anchors and platforms installed in the rock. The sides have agreed, however, to allow climbing to continue there until the suit is settled or at least until late spring.

The Access Fund isn't buying the Forest Service argument. They feel climbers are being blamed for all that has happened over the years and question why they're being banned from the area when hikers, fishermen, picnickers and stargazers aren't.

"Is it just climbing that offends the Washoe's religious beliefs?" the Access Fund wrote in its failed appeal. "The Washoe believe that the presence of anyone at Cave Rock, except a few select Washoe shaman, endanger the lives of all people."

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The appeal goes on to say, "the Washoe consider no part of Cave Rock as more or less special, but that all of its parts are equally important, and that hiking, fishing, scenic viewing, stargazing and other low impact activities 'disturb the traditional users of the property.'"

Jason Keith, the Access Fund's policy director, points out that the Cave Rock climbing guidebook asks users to "climb and behave in a respectful manner" citing its importance to the Washoe saying, "either treat it with respect and reverence or leave."

And since 1995, he says, his organization has been working with local climbers to identify a compromise that would keep Cave Rock open for climbing on a limited basis, while at the same time accommodating the religious interests of the Washoe.

Keith said Access Fund representatives have even met directly with members of the Washoe Tribe, and repeatedly suggested solutions similar to those in effect at Devils Tower in Wyoming, where voluntary closures are instituted for limited time periods out of respect for Native American religious practices, but their proposals were rejected.

Access Fund officials said it has been proven at Devils Tower and elsewhere that religious and cultural practices can co-exist with recreational activity on federal public lands. And it's quite possible that if the ban is proven to be religion-based it will be overturned, Access Fund officials said.

But Norman, the Forest Service spokesman, denied the focus of the closure is on the climbing community and that it has anything to do with Washoe beliefs. He said the controversy is often portrayed as an "Indian religion versus climbers" issue but it is anything but that. In fact, he said, administrators never met with tribal members to discuss their religious beliefs in determining their management policy for the area.

"We know they have great reverence for the site but religion doesn't enter into it, Native American or otherwise," Norman said. "If we are singling out anything we are singling out negative impacts. Not the people doing it."

Tim Seward, general counsel for the 1,600-member Washoe Tribe, said Cave Rock has historically been reserved for Washoe doctors and that only authorized shaman should enter the area. Seward said vandalism, graffiti and the overall abuse of the site has forever tainted it but said the Forest Service decision to ban climbers will help bring some respect back to the area.

"The tribe believes it is a thoughtful compromise," Seward said. "We are very pleased that the Forest Service has taken an interest and reached a decision that will protect the site from further harm."