Rock Climbers" Ban At Tahoe Promotes Religion

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A U.S. Forest Service climbing ban on a Lake Tahoe landmark is unconstitutional because it promotes religion, a rock climbing group contends.

In papers filed Thursday in support of its federal lawsuit against the agency, The Access Fund claims the ban at Cave Rock gives control over public property to the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.

The Boulder, Colo.-based group maintains the tribe has always said Cave Rock is a religious, sacred site. The Washoe tribe has opposed climbing on Cave Rock, located on U.S. 50 between Glenbrook and Zephyr Cove on Tahoe's east shore.

The Access Fund argues the ban runs contrary to other federal court rulings that have held mandatory closures of public lands for religious purposes are unconstitutional.

In a case involving Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming, the court allowed only a voluntary climbing closure of the monolith during tribal religious ceremonies each June.

The group also asked the court to reject a Forest Service amendment declaring Cave Rock closed to climbers as "a protection of traditional and cultural property."

"Listing Cave Rock as a traditional cultural property does not change the fundamental nature of Cave Rock as a religious site," the complaint argues.

The group filed the lawsuit in December in U.S. District Court in Reno.

Tribal Chairman Brian Wallace was out of town and could not be reached for comment. A phone call Sunday to the Forest Service's South Lake Tahoe office wasn't immediately returned.

The Forest Service has agreed to postpone until May implementation of its Cave Rock management plan, which means climbing is allowed for the time being.

The management plan would allow such activity as hiking and picnicking to continue at Cave Rock. But it would ban climbing and require removal of climbing hardware on the volcanic core.

The plan calls for the land to be protected as a cultural resource and managed as it was prior to 1965. The rock did not become popular with climbers until the 1980s.

It's primarily used by expert climbers because the rock face is sheer and requires technical skills.