Climbers sue to open up Cave Rock |

Climbers sue to open up Cave Rock

by Geoff Dornan

Climbers and advocates for public access to federal lands have asked a federal district judge to overturn the U.S. Forest Service decision banning rock climbers from Cave Rock.

The Access Fund filed its lawsuit in December. Thursday they filed papers asking the court to rule the climbing ban unconstitutional because it gives control over public property exclusively to a religious group.

The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California has named Cave Rock as among its most sacred places, a religious site members say is being desecrated by climbers.

But rock climbers have touted Cave Rock as one of the nation’s premier climbing spots for decades.

After a public hearing process and Environmental Impact Statement, the Forest Service decided in 1999 to limit recreational climbing at Cave Rock and prohibit placement of any additional climbing irons.

But, the lawsuit charges, in November 2002, the forest service “abruptly and unexpectedly changed the Cave Rock Management Plan.”

They said Maribeth Gustafson, the new forest supervisor, ordered an immediate and permanent ban on all climbing.

After the Access Fund objected, the lawsuit says she agreed to limited comment on the decision, but “made it clear that she would implement (the permanent ban) regardless of public comment.”

The ban was issued last July.

Thursday Access Fund asked the court to declare the ban unconstitutional because it “impermissibly promotes religion in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

In addition, the Boulder, Colo., climbing organization argues the ban is contrary to other federal court rulings including the one involving climbing access to Devil’s Tower National Monument which ruled that any mandatory closure of public lands for religious purposes is unconstitutional.

In that case, the court allowed a voluntary closure of the tower to climbers during American Indian religious deliberations at the site each June.

“Mandatory closures of public lands for religious purposes are unconstitutional; voluntary closures of public lands for religious purposes, however, constitute an impermissible accommodation of religious activity,” the lawsuit says.

They also asked the court to reject the forest service amendment declaring Cave Rock closed to climbers as “a protection of traditional and cultural property.” It termed the protection as a maneuver designed to sidestep the constitutional mandates.

“Listing Cave Rock as a traditional cultural property does not change the fundamental nature of Cave Rock as a religious site,” the complaint argues. It says the Washoe Tribe has always said Cave Rock is a religious, sacred site and that the government can’t now change that to a cultural property to evade legal challenges.

Finally, the lawsuit says the attempt to list it on the National Register of Historic Places is just another dodge and won’t work because that listing doesn’t ban climbing and, in fact, doesn’t even prevent destruction of cultural resources.

One example of that would be the fact that the Mapes Hotel in Reno was listed on the national register yet was demolished by the City of Reno.

The Access Fund asks the court for an order throwing out the forest service ban on climbing at Cave Rock, declaring the process Supervisor Gustafson used to close it “fatally flawed” because it violates the federal Administrative Procedure Act, declaring the decision “arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion.” It asks the forest service be enjoined from enforcing the ban on climbing at Cave Rock.

Tribal Chairman Brian Wallace was out of town and unavailable for comment. Tribal Counsel Tim Seward could not be reached for comment. But the tribe has said for decades Cave Rock is a sacred place best respected by “human avoidance.” Only a few male tribal members and no women were allowed there. They have steadfastly refused to negotiate a compromise saying climbing the 300-foot basalt pinnacle is desecration of their religious heritage.

Contact Geoff Dornan at or 687-8750.