From the road to City of Rocks, rock climbers can see another set of buttresses and spires in the distance. The largest visible formation, Castle Rock, lies in Castle Rocks State Park in southern Idaho and has climbs bolted and ready for rock-hungry fingers. But beyond that, to the northwest, the land changes at an unmarked boundary between state park and federal land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. There, climbing goes from encouraged to banned.
That ban was issued on March 31, following an environmental assessment on climbing by the BLM that required contacting Native American tribes with cultural resources in the area to determine if climbing would negatively impact those resources. The tribes said it would, and the BLM shut down 40 climbing routes and cancelled all plans to develop what climbers saw as a potential for hundreds of new routes in a world-class climbing area. The Access Fund, an advocacy organization that works to keep climbing areas open and to conserve the climbing environment, has called the ban too restrictive and filed an appeal in April that, if not resolved by the BLM, could land in federal court.
Brian Fedigan, president of the Boise Climbers Alliance and Southern Idaho regional manager for the Access Fund, climbed in the Castle Rocks area more than 20 times last year. He described it as an amazing wilderness setting with bullet-proof granite. It's also a popular destination for Boise climbers who established many of the routes in the area, Fedigan said.
Both agencies he represents support cultural closures, he said, but he disagrees with BLM's blanket closure on an area that has 33 climbable rock formations. Other regions have employed more location- and time-specific closures in a compromise Fedigan said he would like to see reached at Castle Rocks.
"We want to take care of it--tribes and cultural resources--but we want to be able to use it," Fedigan said. Hiking, hunting and grazing are all still permitted on the BLM land.
Because of the litigation, BLM officials are not allowed to discuss the issue, according to Mike Courtney, field manager for the BLM field office in Burley, which handled the field survey that led to the ban. The field survey was specifically crafted to analyze the effects of climbing, he said.
"I wouldn't say we picked on one user group, but we had a proposed action, we analyzed it, and for various reasons we were unable to come to a finding of
most no significant impact, which only means that with an [environmental assessment], we can't authorize the climbing," he said. "At some point in the future we could, but it would take a more significant document, like an environmental impact statement."
At present, BLM officials have no immediate plans for such an analysis but will start a land use plan for the area again in 2012, which will include an environmental impact statement, Courtney said. Completing the statement generally takes between four and five years.
During the survey, the BLM approached the Shoshone-Bannock and Shoshone-Paiute tribes to ask if they wanted to have input in the decision on climbing at Castle Rocks. Based on the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868 formed between the U.S. government and the Shoshone-Bannock tribal government, those are rights still kept by the Shoshone-Bannock. Claudeo Broncho, fish and wildlife policy representative for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, was involved in those conversations.
For the tribe members who still live in Idaho and Wyoming, the Castle Rocks area is one of the closest spots to pick pinyon nuts--which are still a significant part of their diet--and to hunt, according to Broncho.
"It's not an altar," he said. "It's hard to understand because ... some of the cultural significance is a lot different than what yours would be, so the values are different in regards to what I believe in and what you believe in."
He acknowledged that the tribe had been contacted by the Access Fund but wasn't certain if anyone from the tribe had responded.
They're open to talk, he said, but activity like climbing that is going to impact the culture would be met with opposition.
"It's like somebody going into the cemetery, maybe in downtown Boise, and having a picnic and having a party there on the graves," he said. "There's a cultural significance there, and you're not going to go climbing around in a church. Myself, I would respect it because it's someone else's belief."
Castle Rocks is almost 2,000 acres, 1,440 of which is the state park. A few hundred acres are Forest Service Land, and 320 acres are managed by BLM. Only about 300 climbs have been closed, according to Wallace Keck, superintendent for City of Rock National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park manager.
"There's plenty of places in Castle Rocks to climb, but some of the better spires and taller pinnacles are on BLM, and so they would be off limits," said Keck.
When Castle Rocks State Park was created in 2003 and an environmental assessment was completed, Keck said, park developers talked to the Native American tribes with cultural resources in the area. The tribes only asked to continue gathering pine nuts and hunting, both of which are allowed in state parks. But with the BLM land, he said, the tribes protested climbing.
Closing a few routes, he said, won't stop people from coming to the area, where more than 700 routes exist, according to Keck.
Climbers comprise a small user group--the Boise Climbers Alliance has between 60 and 100 members--but it's a group that has invested in the Castle Rocks area. The Access Fund helped purchase the land that went into making Castle Rocks State Park, Keck said.
Jason Keith, director of the Access Fund, said he has seen maps from the BLM that mark specific cultural sites, which would allow for climbing restrictions just in those areas.
"We're saying, it's obvious. Instead of closing 400 acres, they could have limited their closure to probably about 20, and left a lot of climbing areas open," he said.
When Keith met with Courtney in November to look over the Climbing Access Plan, it looked good to go, he said, with perhaps just some restrictions on bolting. The appeal the Access Fund filed on the ban asked for an administrative remedy to what they have called a capricious and arbitrary decision that led to an overly restrictive ban, Keith said. During this appeals process, he expects Access Fund members may participate in a conversation that will bring all the invested parties to the table to discuss ways to resolve the dispute without taking the matter to court.
"The closure of public lands is an extreme measure that should be justified," Keith said, arguing that BLM needs to consider a reasonable range of alternatives. Keith worked during the process to open Castle Rocks State Park for climbing and said neither the tribes nor the State Historic Preservation Office mentioned cultural resources in need of protection then.
"They raised a few concerns, but they never said, 'Hey, climbing is going to cause these adverse effects to cultural resources in the state park,'" he said. "These cultural sites on the BLM land are literally a stone's throw away. So, either they dropped the ball before and didn't recognize the significance or they're really overstating the significance now."
Brad Shilling has climbed and worked as a climbing ranger at Castle Rocks for 15 years. He was one of the climbers and land managers who saw the potential in this corner of Idaho as a world-class climbing area, a development challenged by the BLM ban on climbing.
"It was a surprise. I thought we were moving forward," he said. "Management by closure is so extreme." But, he said, BLM's assessment states the reasons for the closure and he understands why protecting cultural resources sometimes comes with blanket bans.
As climbing ranger for the Castle Rocks State Park and City of Rocks, Shilling maintains trails, processes applications for routes, and educates visitors on issues. He says the boundary for the ban is basically invisible.
"The BLM has not posted this on site, so somebody walking out there, they wouldn't even know when they crossed onto BLM, and much less that you couldn't climb beyond this invisible line," he said. "I have high hopes that they're holding back because they don't really want to go forward with this action."