Careful study before Cave Rock decision to be made | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Careful study before Cave Rock decision to be made

The Forest Service’s long-awaited – or dreaded – final decision on the future of Cave Rock may be only a few months away.

However, rock climbers and Washoe Indians still disagree on what’s best for the volcanic rock formation they both love.

And they likely will never agree. The Forest Service’s current plans allow for continued climbing at Cave Rock, an action the tribe decries.



The first of a series of meetings was held earlier this month with Forest Service representatives, tribal members, climbers, Nevada State Historic Preservation Office officials and others. Under discussion now is not what each party wants, as was the focus in countless earlier meetings, but rather how to minimize the impact of what the Forest Service is proposing.

“With what the Forest Service is proposing in the (Environmental Impact Statement), the proposed action would adversely affect Cave Rock’s proposed eligibility for National Historic Preservation,” said John Maher, archeologist for the Forest Service’s Tahoe unit. “The consultation is to ensure we’re taking every measure we can to reduce impacts to the property.”




Maher said he didn’t know when a final decision could be ready but estimated it would be at least four to six weeks.

Formed millions of years ago from volcanic eruptions, Cave Rock stands near the water’s edge on Lake Tahoe’s east shore. When the lake’s level was higher millennia ago, waves cut the caves into the rock for which it is now named.

The Washoe Tribe, whose members lived in and around the Tahoe Basin long before anyone of European descent, considered Cave Rock a powerful spiritual place.

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 tribe exceeded 1.5 million acres, and Tahoe was considered the physical and spiritual center of the Washoe world.

Highway tunnels were blasted through Cave Rock in 1931 and 1957. And a new group of people fell in love with the formation – rock climbers. It provides some of the most difficult climbing routes in the country.

The 1990s saw Cave Rock’s management become controversial.

Cave Rock is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, and while placing bolts for climbing is generally allowed on National Forest land, the federal agency in 1996 determined climbing was adversely affecting the heritage resource there. In 1997 the Forest Service ordered all rock climbing at the site halted because of its cultural significance. But because of the outcry from rock climbers – and likelihood of a lawsuit – the Forest Service lifted the ban.

Numerous meetings have been held since then, and the Forest Service came out with a draft environmental document last year proposing to allow limited climbing. It called 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, but additional recreational use of the area – climbing or otherwise – would be discouraged.

Climbers support the plan, but the tribe has objected.

“I hope there can be some resolution where both climbers and the tribe can enjoy it,” said Terry Lilienfield, a Tahoe climber. “It’s a really stupendous natural place. I agree with the plan that came out. We are willing to do some other things, but it’s hard to know what the Washoe would accept.”

While the tribe has been accused of being unwilling to compromise on the issue, Washoe Chairman Brian Wallace says that’s not the case.

“The discussions about Cave Rock started out at a point of compromise, and now it’s going in another different direction,” Wallace said. “That’s frightening.”

Beyond its own opinions, however, the tribe is opposing the Forest Service’s plans on another front: The proposal, says the tribe, violates the Forest Service’s own rules.

“From a technical point of view, Cave Rock is eligible to be a national historic site. It should be treated with no less protection as other historic sites,” said Tim Seward, attorney for the Washoe Tribe. “The Forest Service plan has a range for land-use planning, and protection of cultural and historic sites ranks above recreation. Now we’re in a preferred alternative that flips all that on its head.”

Seward said a hypothetical comparison to what is happening would be if South Shore’s Tallac Historic Site was used as a skateboard park.

“If that became a great place to skateboard, and people came from all over to skateboard there, that would be prohibited,” Seward said. “Not that skateboarding is bad; it’s just not the right place for it.”

Rock climbers, who have voluntarily replaced the brightly colored climbing slings hanging from the bolts with duller material to camouflage their presence, are willing to compromise more as long as a total ban on climbing doesn’t happen, according to Paul Minault, regional coordinator for the Access Fund, a national nonprofit advocacy and conservation group for climbers.

“Short of an outright ban, we’re willing to bend over backwards to accommodate the tribe,” Minault said. “It’s a resource we’d like to see saved. We think that climbing and religion are not incompatible. Our position is we’d like to share the resource with the tribe.”

Minault said the climbers are willing to voluntarily leave the rock alone for reasonable periods of time if given notice that tribal members want to visit it for spiritual reasons.

A similar agreement has existed for several years in regards to the famous Devils’ Tower in Wyoming. Climbers voluntarily don’t use the rock during the month of June to give the area’s Indians time to hold ceremonies there. Minault said there is about 85 percent compliance among climbers, the recalcitrant ones often being tour guides or foreigners who were unaware of the agreement.

That shouldn’t be an issue at Tahoe, said Minault, who believes Cave Rock climbers would voluntarily comply.

The tribe’s Wallace said he plans to continue working with the Forest Service, trying to express the Washoe’s views.

“We’ll continue to provide our input and do our best job to clearly express our views,” Wallace said. “Along with this, concurrently, we’re going to do a little more work on public education and clearly articulate what the tribe’s views and concerns are.

“We want to be a positive participant in (the consensus process), but not at the expense of forsaking everything we uphold as important.”

While the long-term plan for Cave Rock remains in question, a ban on the installation of new climbing bolts is in place through 2000. That prohibition has existed since 1997, and, after monitoring the rock last summer, Forest Service officials said climbers have been complying with the rule.


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