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May 28, 2013

Castle under Siege

The area that most of us know as ‘Castle Rocks’ in southern Idaho is a jigsaw puzzle of land management jurisdictions, known collectively as the Castle Rocks Interagency Recreation Area. The bulk of the land in the Castle Rocks Interagency Recreation Area is managed by the State of Idaho as Castle Rocks State Park, and another chunk is managed by the US Forest Service. The climbing in both of these jurisdictions is open.

Map
However, last month the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced plans to permanently ban rock climbing on its 400 acre portion (about 17% of the 2,300 total acres) of Castle Rocks. While the land in question is only a relatively small portion of greater Castle Rocks, the proposed closure is still of great concern to the climbing community. It is estimated that about 40 existing routes, hundreds of potential lines, and countless boulder problems find themselves on the chopping block now that the BLM climbing ban has come to fruition.

The BLM climbing access saga started in early 2003, when the Idaho Parks and Recreation Department, the BLM, USFS, Access Fund, and leading climbing representatives in the area convened to draft a comprehensive climbing management plan that would govern climbing activity throughout all of Castle Rocks Interagency Recreation Area, with a primary intent to protect cultural resources. Shortly after the plan was written, it was adopted by the State of Idaho for use in Castle Rocks State Park, the chunk of land that contains the majority of climbing resources.

The BLM, however, did not approve the management plan (even though they played a large role in the planning and deliberation processes), but instead implemented a “temporary” closure in May 2003, which prohibited climbing, placement of fixed anchors, and camping.

The BLM claimed that the closure was needed to evaluate the potential adverse impacts to known historic and cultural resources in Castle Rocks, which are of importance to local Native American tribes. (It should be noted that this “temporary” closure has been extended every year through 2012). In May 2009, six years after the “temporary” closure was implemented, the BLM finally opened the issue up to public comment, proposing three management alternatives ranging from adoption of the climbing management plan (which would allow climbing as long as it didn’t disturb cultural resources) to a full climbing ban. The BLM stated its preferred alternative was to adopt the climbing management plan.

During the planning process, BLM archaeologists surveyed the cultural resources in their 400 acre tract, concluding that most were in excellent condition and even going so far as to say that “many of the archaeological resources have been undisturbed by contemporary human activities”. As a requirement of the planning process, the BLM also needed to obtain an official finding that climbing would have “no significant impact” on these cultural resources from the Idaho State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO). However, when the SHPO issued a letter requesting more information from the BLM to be able to complete the assessment, the BLM never responded, citing a lack of manpower.  

In March 2010, the BLM chose to permanently ban climbing, citing SHPO’s inability to provide a finding of no significant impact as the basis for the ban—a finding that SHPO could not issue because the BLM never responded to their request for additional information.

Along with its decision to ban climbing, the BLM published a map showing the location of the cultural resources in relation to the climbing resources. Ironically, this map demonstrated that the majority of climbing locations are well-removed from the cultural resource sites, making it hard to cite the potential adverse effects to these cultural resources as a reason for the climbing ban, given the geographic separation. (This map has since been removed from the BLM’s website to keep the specific locations of sensitive cultural resources confidential. The BLM asked Access Fund to keep the map confidential, and we have honored their request.) This map, coupled with the fact that the BLM’s own archaeologists had already stated that these cultural resources were undisturbed by human impacts (climbing had been happening here since at least the 1960’s) makes this climbing ban difficult to justify.

Fast forward to April 17, 2013—the BLM notified the public of its intent to officially implement its March 2010 decision to: (1) close the BLM managed lands in the Castle Rocks area to staging, traditional climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering; (2) prohibit overnight camping and the construction of new trails; and (3) remove bolts from existing bolted climbing routes from BLM-managed lands. The Access Fund, Boise Climbers Alliance, Eastern Idaho Climbers Coalition, and American Alpine Club have formally protested the decision and are awaiting the BLM’s response.

The Access Fund supports reasonable and legitimate closures that protect natural and cultural resources, but this particular ban is unjustified and unnecessary. The Castle Rocks climbing management plan (that the BLM itself helped to develop in 2003) has already proven to be successful for managing climbing and cultural resources at Castle Rocks State Park. Similar climbing management plans have proven successful for several other BLM offices across the country (Shelf Road in CO, Red Rocks in NV, and Indian Creek, Moab/Castle Valley and San Rafael Swell in UT), demonstrating that climbing and cultural resources can co-exist when properly managed. There should be no reason why Castle Rocks cannot be managed in much the same way.

The Access Fund hopes to be able to work with the BLM’s Burley Field Office and the local Native American tribes to establish climbing management policies that protect the historic cultural resources, while still allowing for legitimate recreational uses of this public land.