CORRECTION: The BLM is proposing a ban on climbing in Cedar Fields, commonly referred to as “Massacre Rocks,” not in Massacre Rocks State Park.
By Jamie Hale
Dozens of members of the local rock climbing community swarmed officials from the Bureau of Land Management at Pocatello City Hall Monday night. Some threw accusations and others simply listened, but nearly everybody challenged the organization at every turn.
The group’s anger was sparked by a BLM proposal to shut down Massacre Rocks and Castle Rocks parks to any and all rock climbing. The BLM said the proposal isn’t definite by any means, but the very idea was enough to get the climbers up in arms.
The two parks are known to host some of the best climbs in southeast Idaho and attract climbers from all over the world. Many of those climbs, however, are on land presently owned by the BLM and formally occupied by ancient Native Americans.
At Massacre Rocks, known officially as Cedar Fields, 248 climbing routes, 6 general climbing areas and 17 climbing walls happen to be located in the American Falls Archeological District–a bed of cultural sites that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in July 1999.
Castle Rocks, which has been under temporary closure since 2003, also faces permanent closure, as it too has what the BLM calls “pristine cultural resources.”
The BLM is concerned that climbers in both parks have already damaged some of those cultural resources, and could damage more if allowed to continue climbing.
“The issue with the climbing is that the climbers like to be at the base of the cliffs, where a lot of rock shelters were. So on some climbs what we have is trampling on the vegetation, we have loss of soil, then you’ve got 12,000 years of artifacts sitting on rock that people are standing on,” said Mike Courtney, field manager of the Burley BLM office.
Courtney said although the Castle Rocks issue has been contentious for years, the issue at Massacre Rocks only came to his attention a year ago, prompting his office to assess just how much climbing there was in the area. He said they found nearly 700 bolted routes in the archeological district alone, leading to the proposed ban.
But the climbers don’t see it as so black and white. In their eyes, they’re being singled out as the primary destroyers of cultural artifacts in the area. Meeting attendees pointed out the fact that boaters and bikers aren’t being asked to stop their activities. Some even questioned how bad climbing is for the resources.
Primarily, they’re just upset at the prospect of losing some of the best climbs in the region.
“I understand that the BLM’s goal is not to just close off a large portion of public land, however, as someone who uses this land on a regular basis that’s sort of how it feels to us,” said Pocatello climber Jason Whitcomb.
A Kansas native, Whitcomb didn’t start climbing until he moved to Poky seven years ago, but said he’s now a member of the tight-knit community that has loved having such great climbing so close to home. “Instead of us having to drive 2 1/2, three hours away to climb, we have world-class climbing 30 minutes away,” said Whitcomb.
The BLM isn’t out to crush their spirits or ruin their fun, said Courtney, they’re just abiding by the law. According to several federal laws, the agency is duty-bound to protect important natural, cultural and historic aspects of our nation’s heritage. Since this land is on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s hard to argue that there’s no value in it.
But the proposed ban is far from reality. The BLM will hold another meeting Wednesday night in Burley and will be taking public comments until November 11. Courtney said the BLM is hoping somebody in the public will have an alternate solution to an outright ban that they didn’t think of. Otherwise, they’ll proceed with the current proposal.
Whitcomb said he’s hoping for that compromise as well. He said he isn’t sure yet what that would look like, but it’s something he’s definitely seen other places. “There’s lots of other areas of the country that have cultural resources that don’t do these types of overarching demands,” said Whitcomb. “I would like to find a way to see these cultural resources protected without closing down climbing. Whether that’s possible, I don’t know.”
Contact Jamie at JHaleTBA@Gmail.com