Climbers spar with BLM over possible park bans

26 Sep

A climber scales the Wild Onion Wall at Massacre Rocks, one of the two Idaho parks the BLM is considering closing to rock climbers. (photo by Austin via

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


2 Responses to “Climbers spar with BLM over possible park bans”

  1. Brian R Gard 09/27/2011 at 12:45 am #

    A number of us racked on minds trying to find an alternative, the problem the BLM
    sees is that the foot traffic at the base of the climbing walls is damaging vegetation
    and with the loss of vegetation could erode down exposing ‘cultural resources’.
    One simple solution offered at the meeting was to cover the bases of climb with
    sandy to bury them deeper, but the BLM has to defer to the Sho-Ban tribes
    on any action. It was suggested to excavate sites where cultural resources
    might be found, but the archaeologist named Suzzane said that it cost 10,000
    dollars a cubic yard to excavate and they are not allowed to excavate unless
    approved by the tribe and the Native Americans really did not like their
    ancestors artifacts being put up for display in a musem, they regaarded this like
    digging up your grandparents bones to put on public display. Cultural Resources
    are deemed to be there because there was 12,000 years of occupation by Native
    Americans, but just what the ‘cultural resources’ are we do not know, they have
    none to shows us and have forbidden themselves to dig them up. In all probability
    they are deep under the sand at the base of the cliffs and probably being more
    covered each year than being up by erosion. Climbers by walking and hanging
    out at the base of a climb ‘might’ threaten a resource that might be there,
    but this cannot be verified, and to be on the safe side to protect the resources
    it is proposed to close much of the area down to closing. I guess it is time
    someone called Congress.

    Brian R Gard

  2. Troy Neu 09/27/2011 at 7:49 am #

    Just a couple of corrections. There aren’t any climbs at Massacre Rocks State Park. There area in question is actually across the river and west of the park, there is no connection between the two. There is no where near 700 bolted routes in the area in question, it’s more like 150. I think the BLM likes to exaggerate this point for effect. The other point that they leave out is that less than 10 of these routes are near “contributing sites”

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