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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

One issue the Washoe will continue to press with the President in the coming months is Cave Rock. This picturesque outcrop on the edge of Lake Tahoe is the tribe’s most sacred site in the Basin. It’s also a popular spot for rock climbers. The Washoe say climbing Cave Rock is sacrilegious, but the climbers defend their right to access the cliffs. Willie Albright reports.


CURWOOD: One issue the Washoe will continue to press with the President in the coming months, is Cave Rock. This picturesque outcrop on the edge of Lake Tahoe is the tribe's most sacred site in the basin. It's also a popular spot for rock climbers. The Washoe say, climbing Cave Rock is sacrilegious, but the climbers defend their right to access the cliffs. Similar conflicts between recreationists and keepers of tribal traditions dot the West, and as Producer Willie Albright reports, a meeting of the minds for the two sides in this particular controversy, seems very far away.

JAMES: (Speaks in Washoe language)

ALLBRIGHT: Washoe elder Adele James invokes a prayer of blessing at a workshop that was part of the runup to the presidential forum at Lake Tahoe. She's saying the Tahoe is sacred to the Washoe, that her people were forced out by the white man, who has ruined the Lake, and that the tribe would like some of its land back. Adele James recalls the time when the tribe spent its summers here and migrated to the desert in winter. With President Clinton's promise to return land to the tribe, the Washoe may spend their summers here again. For generations, the Washoe have been living in a colony 70 miles away from the lake, but the tribe still considers the lake its homeland, and Cave Rock the center of its spiritual life. (Wave washes up on lakeshore.)

WALLACE: Cave Rock still holds as much power to members of the tribe, as it did in historic and prehistoric times.

ALLBRIGHT: Brian Wallace is Chairman of the Washoe tribe. Standing inside a traditional willow hut by the lake, he says Cave Rock is not named for the 4-lane highway tunnel blasted through its base, but for the caves higher up, that his people have held sacred for 10,000 years. Chairman Wallace says Cave Rock has come to represent the tribe's continuing struggle to return to Lake Tahoe.

WALLACE: The site may have been significantly diminished or desecrated over time, but it still hasn't lost the power that it represents, that stirs our souls and is why we come to Lake Tahoe and always have longed to return.

ALLBRIGHT: But Cave Rock is also special to members of the international rock climbing community, who say it is one of the most unique and difficult climbs in North America.

(Tinkling of climbing gear)

ALBRIGHT: To scale the 45-degree overhangs, climbers have sunk hundreds of steel bolts into the rock and poured concrete in some of the caves.

(Man: All this rock--)

ALBRIGHT: The Washoe call this desecration. Tom Herbert is an internationally renowned rock climber, who has pioneered many of Cave Rock's most difficult ascents. Today, Herbert and his partner are free-climbing an impressive rock face high above the lake.

HERBERT: If the Indians, or another group say, "This is sacred to me, you cannot climb here," and it works, well, what's next? Now you'll hear, "That area's sacred to me--you can't climb there either. And--Ok, Mike, I gotcha--and that lake's sacred to me, don't swim in it." Where does that stop?

ALBRIGHT: Tom Herbert says rock climbing is a spiritual experience for him that is as valid as the Washoe's beliefs. He also questions the argument that climbing desecrates Cave Rock, when there is already a highway running through it.

HERBERT: I suspect that there's not much they can do about it, so they're trying to win a small victory, win a small battle, I should say, when it's nothing. It's nothing compared to what's going on there.

(Birds in the distance)

WALLACE: Ongoing desecration in any form is something that's objectionable to the tribe, and that's not to say that Washoes didn't protest the blasting of the tunnels through the rock.

ALBRIGHT: And, says Chairman Wallace, the tribe's concerns are finally being heard. In February, the tribe got the US Forest Service to institute a climbing ban, backed up by a $5,000 fine. Faced with similar bans across the country, 7,000 climbers formed the Access Fund, to protest the Cave Rock closure. The group says climbers have proven their good will by hauling away garbage and cleaning up the graffiti on Cave Rock. They want their interests considered, too. In May, the Forest Service then rescinded its ban until the end of the year. The Access Fund has offered to stop bolting on Cave Rock, and other concessions, but Chairman Wallace says he will continue to push for a complete climbing ban.

WALLACE: We've been compromising for the last 172 years here in the Basin, and that option hasn't worked very well for us in the past, and so we don't think it's going to do anything more for us in the future.

ALBRIGHT: The Forest Service expects to issue a management plan for Cave Rock by the end of the year. For Living on Earth, I'm Willie Allbright, at Lake Tahoe.



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