Epic Losses

Photo Courtesy of:
Shannon Millsaps | Silver Mine, NC

Sometimes, no matter how hard we fight, access battles don't go our way. Here are three battles the climbing community lost.

Cave Rock, NV

In 2003, the Access Fund sued the U.S. Forest Service to challenge a climbing ban at the popular Cave Rock on the shore of Lake Tahoe in Nevada. The Forest Service issued the ban on the grounds that climbing is a "noncompatible" use with Cave Rock, a site sacred to the Washoe Tribe. The Forest Service decided that the mere presence of rock climbers and our “permanently implanted equipment” diminished the setting, feel, and association of Cave Rock. Climbers were the only recreational group subject to the ban, while hikers, picnickers, boaters and anglers were free to use the rock and the surrounding area as they wished. Access Fund fought a five-year legal battle against the Forest Service, arguing the climbing ban violated the U.S. Constitution because it favored the religious preferences of the Washoe Tribe over everyone else’s privileges to access public land. In 2007, we lost the lawsuit when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban. However, the Access Fund’s lawsuit forced federal land managers across the country to do a better job of justifying closures—they now know how far climbers are willing to go to protect their access to public land. We also learned the importance of reaching out to and working with Native American tribes whenever possible. We miss Cave Rock dearly, but we’re comforted by the fact that we’ve seen better decision making from public land managers as a result of this battle.

Twin Sisters, ID

In 1995, the National Park Service banned climbing at Twin Sisters in the City of Rocks, Idaho due to its status as a Cultural/Historic Landmark along the California Trail. Even though a 1993 study found that climbers caused minimal visual and environmental impact, park planners argued that climbing on Twin Sisters distracted from the experience of historians and the public who travel to City of Rocks to experience the historical setting. Access Fund made several attempts to find a compromise with the NPS—including proposals to only allow climbing in areas that history buffs rarely visit, or only during months when historic pioneer wagons were not traveling through the area. When a compromise could not be reached, Access Fund filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 1998. We argued in court that the Park Service did not adequately analyze the impact of climbing, which was not even visible to the overwhelming majority of tourists on the California Trail, and that wagon train pioneers themselves often climbed the Twin Sisters to assess the surrounding landscape. But in 2000, a judge ruled that the Park Service had properly given greater weight to preserving the cultural value of the Twin Sisters and could legally ban climbing. The Access Fund regrets the loss of climbing at Twin Sisters, with technical ascents dating as far back as 1962, but we will continue to look for new opportunities to reopen some of the important routes at this City of Rocks classic.

Howards Knob, NC

In 1993, the 65-acre parcel of land that was home to the premier bouldering of Howard's Knob was purchased by a real estate developer and closed to climbing in preparation for a subdivision of million dollar vacation homes. Sitting atop a beautiful ridge overlooking Boone, this bouldering area was a mainstay for Carolina climbers and is environmentally significant to local residents and conservationists. Climbers joined forces with local residents, Appalachian State University students, and environmentalists to launch an epic battle to protect the area and re-open it to climbing. Together, we worked to form the Watauga High Country Land Trust (now known as the Blue Ridge Conservancy) to preserve Howard’s Knob and other natural areas around Boone. The Trust quickly began negotiations to purchase Howard's Knob, with financial support from Access Fund and Trust for Public Lands. After a real estate appraisal of the property was completed, the Trust made a fair offer, which was quickly countered with a price far above appraised value. The coalition tried everything, including protracted negotiations with the landowner to get closer to appraised value, creative funding solutions with the university, and Hail Mary grant requests—all proved unsuccessful. When the developer prepared to build his massive vacation home in full view of the town of Boone, a groundswell of local activism ensued. Local climbers scaled trees to prevent the bulldozers from moving in. They were arrested and fined for trespassing, only to return three days later hauling portaledges and a week's worth of food and water. A week later, 500 people marched in the streets of Boone to support preservation of "The Knob.” Although the activism garnered coverage by CNN and national print media, it only succeeded in slowing down the development. The developer shut down further discussion and proceeded to build his vacation home. So far, further subdivision and development has not taken place, however the land remains in developer hands—closed to climbing. Access Fund, local climbers, and Blue Ridge Conservancy continue to watch like hawks, looking for a new opportunity preserve the area. Despite this epic loss, the silver lining is bright—local climbers and the land trust that was created from this battle have gone on to protect thousands of acres of land and open dozens of new climbing areas.