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Cave Rock climbers get a boost from lawyers

Jenifer Ragland

The U.S. Forest Service decision to overturn a three-month climbing ban at Cave Rock was largely the result of legal pressure from the Access Fund – a national climbing advocacy organization.

“The government attorneys felt the original order would be difficult to defend against some of the arguments brought up by outside climbing groups,” said Colin West, recreation and engineering staff officer with the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “We changed it under (the Access Fund) suggestion that we modify the order to only prohibit the installation of new hardware.”

Forest Service officials on Friday issued an order saying climbers could use existing bolts at the popular recreation area, but could not put in additional anchors.



In February, the agency instituted a temporary climbing ban before determining by Dec. 31 a permanent solution to preserve what is a historical and spiritual site for the Washoe people.

A Washoe Tribe spokesman characterized the decision as one more blow to a community that has nothing left to give.



“The tribe members feel some sense of betrayal and disappointment with the U.S. Forest Service and the United States in general,” said Brian Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. “The original order gave them some hope, but now the elders are saying, ‘Why should we have expected anything different?'”

Conversely, climbing enthusiasts said they are happy to be allowed back onto one of the most popular and accessible sport climbing areas in the basin.

“We went out there yesterday, and some of the best climbers in Tahoe were there,” said 17-year-old Ryan Shreve. “We’re really happy just to be climbing back there again.”

Climbing advocates argued the closure order was a violation of the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment, which prohibits favoring any one group’s freedom of religion, said Paul Minault, Access Fund regional coordinator for Northern California.

“What the Forest Service had done was unconstitutional, because they closed public property to public access in order to protect the religious uses and beliefs of a particular group,” he said.

In addition, Minault accused the agency of not complying with the National Environmental Policy Act, in that it did not study the environmental or social effects of closing Cave Rock before doing so.

“Local climbers were very angry the Forest Service issued an order with no prior notice or public discussion,” Minault said. “At the same time, they had given Brain Wallace a copy of the order to review and comment on … which suggested bias against climbing and favor of Indian interests.”

Local climber Chad Praul said the success of the Access Fund in this case should encourage other climbers to join the organization.

“I know a lot of climbers, and almost none of them are members of the fund,” he said. “Climbers in this area should realize that the Access Fund is key to keeping major climbing spots like Cave Rock open.”

Wallace said he is most disappointed that the Forest Service decision was based on pressure from groups who don’t even live in the basin, as opposed to the Washoe people, who regard Lake Tahoe as their birthplace.

“It’s hard not to feel some sense of bitterness,” he said. “In their attempt to recognize the tribe’s historical interest in Cave Rock, the Forest Service ended up enshrining the rights of people who have been involved in its deterioration.”

But in defense of the Forest Service, West said agency officials felt they should put their energy into coming up with a long-term solution rather than spend time and money defending a short-term closure.

“We could all go to court and spend a lot of time arguing what to do in the short term, but we would much rather put energy into a long-term solution that will recognize the significance of Cave Rock,” he said.

Wallace said while he hopes some positive outcomes will result from the long-term planning process, he is all-too-familiar with political and legal realities.

However, he continues to believe strongly that there will come a time when the tables will turn in the favor of indigenous people.

“The day that we are delivered from this, setbacks like Cave Rock will make the victory all the more sweeter.”

But reflecting on the situation, he said he could not help but notice the bitter irony of it all.

On Memorial Day, he and fellow tribe members mourned the many Native American soldiers who died in combat while defending the very government that drove them from their land.

“These men fought so hard to make this country worth dying for, and this is how they are repaid,” Wallace said. “This is how their country says ‘thank you.'”


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