Following a lengthy legal battle, work to remove 46 rock-climbing routes from a once-popular South Shore climbing spot began this week.
On Thursday, a contractor working for the U.S. Forest Service started removing approximately 350 bolts that make up the routes at Cave Rock " a distinctive rock formation on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe between Zephyr Cove and Glenbrook.
Removing the bolts is part of the Forest Service's Cave Rock Management Plan, which has banned climbing at the geologic formation since February 2005.
In the plan, the Forest Service cites the rock's spiritual significance to the Washoe tribe as one of the reasons to exclude climbing from site. The rock is a sacred site to the tribe.
The Access Fund, a Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit group dedicated to protecting recreational climbing areas, unsuccessfully challenged implementation of the plan in federal court in 2005 and 2007.
Lawyers for the fund argued that the ban is unconstitutional because it gives a religious group exclusive control over public property.
They also argued that banning climbing while allowing hiking, picnicking, boating and fishing is illegal and could set a dangerous precedent for other federal lands with sites of cultural importance.
But Forest Service lawyers countered the claims, contending the climbing ban wasn't solely in response to the Washoe tribe's religious beliefs, but was also to protect of the rock's status as a cultural and historic site.
The rock was part of the original settler's road around the lake and has been declared eligible for the National Historic Register as a traditional cultural property and archaeological site.
In upholding the climbing ban in August 2007, a three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco noted that if the Forest Service was giving exclusive control over public property to a religious group, the federal agency would also have banned hiking, fishing, boating and picnicking at the rock because those uses also don't agree with Washoe beliefs.
"The Forest Service's chosen alternative not only provides for general public use and access well beyond members of the Washoe Tribe, but also permits activities that are incompatible with Washoe beliefs," the panel wrote in its decision.
Allowing other recreational activities, while banning climbing has been viewed as an inconsistent policy by some climbers.
Although most climbers have accepted the ban, there is still a "small contingent" who are upset at the loss of Cave Rock's challenging routes, said Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Heck.
Several people have been seen climbing at the rock in past weeks, Heck added.
The Forest Service has received no specific threats, but Heck said there is a concern that opponents of the ban might interfere with the contractors' work.
Forest Service law enforcement officers will monitor Cave Rock closely as work to remove the bolts continues, Heck said.
Removing all of the bolts is expected to take about a month, depending on the weather.
The Forest Service also expects to remove a concrete floor in the cave above the rock's eastbound tunnel. About 60 percent of the bolts to be removed are also in the cave, according to the Forest Service.
Once removed, the holes left by the bolts will be filled with specially made granite plugs, Heck said.