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Whose Rock Is It Anyway?

An Indian tribe wins the first round in a long fight with rock climbers

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Today Washoe shamans still make the long pilgrimage to De’ek wadapush, although some have turned back at the sight of the rock face swarming with climbers. In 1999, the supervisor of the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin unit responded to the Washoe’s concern by outlining five alternatives, from prohibiting all non-Washoe from visiting Cave Rock to leaving it open to all. The Forest Service then held public meetings and invited written comments.

Climbers pointed out that they had cleaned up the site, which, by 1987, had become a hangout for teenagers. "It smelled like an outhouse," says Schuller, "full of beer cans, broken glass and campfire scars."

Following the hearings, the Forest Service recommended a compromise: climbers could continue to climb the rock but could not put in new bolts or establish new routes. The Forest Service would remove nonhistoric graffiti and ban all-terrain vehicles but permit hiking and picnicking. The Washoe refused to accept these terms. "In the long view, only the repatriation of Washoe homelands is acceptable," says Wallace.

In 2000, the appointment of a new Forest Service supervisor, Maribeth Gustafson, tipped the scales toward the Washoe. In the 2002 impact statement, she decreed a ban on climbing on grounds that it lessens the site’s historical value. Climbers responded predictably.

"We view a ban on climbing at Cave Rock as arbitrary, capricious and unconstitutional," says Jason Keith, policy director of the Access Fund, a Boulder, Colorado-based organization dedicated to keeping crags open to climbers. If the Forest Service finalizes the ban, as it’s expected to do, the fund plans to appeal the decision.

In the meantime, Brian Wallace and other Washoe cling to the belief they will someday repossess not only Cave Rock but all of Lake Tahoe. "Why not?" he says. "We’ve stared down extinction.

"We believe that eventually we’ll find our way home."


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