Agency meets with tribe
Washoe Tribal member Darriel Bender remembers stories of when his father and two other tribal men traveled to Cave Rock in the 1930s and inquired about why there were crews preparing to blast a tunnel through the formation.
The Washoe men were run off by the construction boss, Bender says.
“Nobody listened to Indians in those days. Indians didn’t count,” he said.
More than 60 years later, activities of non-Washoe people at Cave Rock have again drawn the Tribe’s attention – as well as much of the nation’s. But this time, people are listening.
“This is the first time an agency has gone to the Washoe Tribe for their feelings on anything at Lake Tahoe,” Bender said.
For that, the Washoe are thankful. For the U.S. Forest Service’s recent proposed action concerning the future of Cave Rock, however, the tribe is not satisfied.
“The Washoe people – we have to fight for this. It’s part of Washoe culture. We can’t sit by and have it continued to be desecrated and used in this way,” Bender said. “There’s not one group of people on the earth who could compromise on something like that.”
The future of Cave Rock – an ancient volcanic rock formation on Lake Tahoe’s east shore – has become controversial in recent years. Rock climbers love to scale the formation; it provides some of the most difficult climbing routes in the country. However, the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California says that the rock is a powerful spiritual place.
In 1997 the U.S. Forest Service ordered all rock climbing at the site halted because of its cultural significance to the Washoe Tribe. But because of the outcry from rock climbers who threatened a lawsuit, the forest service lifted the ban. Several public workshops were held from January through May 1998 to obtain public input from both sides.
The result was a proposed action issued by the Forest Service this January. The action calls for the elimination of about 20 percent of the climbing routes bolted to the rock and a prohibition of any new bolt installation. Maintenance of the existing routes could continue.
The proposed action is not a final decision and marks the beginning of a formal public participation process.
When issuing the proposal, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Forest Supervisor Juan Palma published a statement: “While I hope that additional people will choose to avoid Cave Rock out of consideration for the feelings of the Washoe Tribe, my proposed action does not mandate complete human avoidance. I cannot dictate the viewpoints of those who do not share Washoe beliefs, nor can I deprive the public of use of public lands.”
Many climbers agree with the action.
“I think it’s really positive,” said Terry Lilienfield, a South Shore resident and rock climber. “It encourages us to share the resource.”
Lilienfield said she recognizes that the Washoe Tribe does not want climbers there and sympathizes with them. On the other hand, “We really love it and try to take care of it – and respect it,” she said.
Many climbers are working to educate the climbing community about the rock’s importance to the Washoe Tribe, Lilienfield said. They want to encourage climbers to leave the rock if a member of the Washoe Tribe is there, wanting to use the site for a spiritual reason.
“I know it’s not enough; I know the Washoe don’t want us there at all,” she said. “But we feel like we’re not doing the rock any harm.”
The Washoe Tribe has about 1,600 members today in Nevada and California, and while that number fell as low as 300 in the 1800s, the population of the Washoe Tribe is believed to have been about 3,000 to 5,000 prior to European settlement. The traditional homelands of the Washoe Tribe exceeded 1.5 million acres, and Lake Tahoe was considered the center of their world.
Bender said Cave Rock was a spiritual place that most Washoe members avoided. Only Indian doctors, or medicine men, traveled to Cave Rock. Indian doctors continued to visit Cave Rock into the early 1900s.
“They came into communication with the Maker, the creator of all things,” Bender said. “It was like a renewal. What they did or said – we don’t know.”
Even though two tunnels have been bored through the formation, the Washoe still see it as a powerful place.
Unfortunately for the tribe, however, Cave Rock provides the best rock climbing in the area.
Jim Landis, manager of a climbing gym in Truckee called Gravity Works, said he feels sympathy for the Washoe Tribe but knows many climbers will lose an important part of their lives if all climbing is banned.
“It is one of the few really rad climbs in the area. It’s cutting edge; that’s why climbers don’t want to lose it,” Landis said. “My customers would definitely miss it. It’s definitely the premiere climbing location in this area.”
The public comment period on the proposed action ends on March 1. A public workshop has been scheduled for Feb. 25 for anyone interested in commenting on the action. The public is supposed to have another opportunity to comment on the management direction when a draft environmental impact statement is released later this year. A decision regarding the long-term management of the Cave Rock area is expected by the end of 1999.
A closure order issued at the end of December 1998 is still in effect, which prohibits any activity, including the installation of new climbing bolts, that damages or defaces the surface of the rock. Rock climbing using existing bolted routes is currently allowed.
What: Public workshop concerning Cave Rock proposed action
When: Thursday, 3 to 7:30 p.m.
Where: Kahle Community Center, 235 Kingsbury Grade, Stateline
For a copy of the proposed action: Call Lisa O’Daly (530) 573-2669
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