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Park Service, Climbers Focus On Future Of New Reserve

August 11, 1990

CITY OF ROCKS, Idaho (AP) _ Deep in the southern Idaho desert near the Utah border, packs of climbers from Austria to Argentina are scaling an eerie landscape of stone to the accompaniment of bawling range cattle.

Hidden among the Albion Range south of Burley, the City of Rocks is gaining prominence as one of the top rock-climbing destinations in the world. But its new status as a national reserve may pit government oversight against the free-wheeling philosophy of the growing circle of climbers.

″It’s come into its own in probably the last three years,″ said Alison Osius, associate editor of Climbing magazine and a member of the U.S. Climbing Team. ″It was a well-kept secret for a long time.″

The license plates on the Volkswagen vans, 4-wheel-drives and old jalopies parked among the wildflowers are more often from Colorado or Pennsylvania than Idaho. Some of the climbers may not even speak English, but heard about the outstanding granite at the City of Rocks in their native German, or French, or Spanish.

The white rock outcroppings resemble irregular, broken molars jutting from the jawbone of the surrounding hills.

The precambrian rocks of the Cassia Batholith are among the oldest on th continent, dating back 2.5 billion years. They were buried about 50,000 feet below younger stone, but migrated to the surface some 28 million years ago to be eroded by wind and water.

The weathering effect transformed them into temples, spires and grottoes that quickly gained nicknames from pioneers on the California Trail in the 1860s. They bear such names as Dolphin Rock, the Dragon’s Head and the Old Hen with Her Chicks.

With their penchant for unique names, the climbers also have coined the ″routes,″ or the miniscule toeholds, razorlike rock edges and overhangs that mark the way to the top. Some of the classics are ″Scream Cheese″ and ″Crack of Doom.″

The difficulty of the climb is rated in increments through the Yosemite Decimal System. The steeper the pitch, number of handholds or location of steel bolts for safety lines are all considered.

″Dolphin Rock probably has the highest concentration of hard climbs in the United States,″ said Randy Vogel of the American Alpine Club. ″But there’s also moderate and intermediate climbs. It’s got the full spectrum.″

But what happens when a sidetrip to see exotic geology becomes an end destination for a mushrooming sport?

The National Park Service is compiling a comprehensive management plan for the reserve, due out in early 1992. It will include the findings of a public committee and opinions from scoping hearings already conducted, said David Pugh, City of Rocks superintendent.

Pugh said about 35,000 people visited the area in 1988, doubling to some 75,000 last year.

″It would not surprise me that in 10 years’ time, we have a quarter- million visitors,″ he said. The non-climbing faction currently makes up about 65 percent.

The Parks Service’s main responsibility is to maintain the historic and scenic resources at the City of Rocks. Sport climbing is being included in the management plan, but comes second to those other values, Pugh said.

Some options include climbing bans in areas with historic values to quotas on those scaling the formations, he said.

The most conspicuous conflict is created by the steel bolts climbers install up the route to attach carabiniers and safety ropes. Climbers contend the protective devices applied with power drills are so small and unintrusive as to be invisible to people on the ground.

Pugh agrees to an extent, but points out that hundreds of new routes have been pioneered in the past few years alone, and most feature bolts.

″The climbing community is concerned that we will be very restrictive,″ he said. ″I don’t foresee it. I’d be surprised if the management plan prohibits across-the-board bolting.

″But who determines how many bolts are needed on a climb? There’s an inch- and-a-half hole that, for all intents and purposes, will be there forever,″ he said.

In many cases, the climbers could first walk to the peak and ″toprope,″ or string ropes down to the bottom, Pugh said. While toproping would alleviate the need for bolts, it may not seem as thrilling to the mountaineers, he said.

Vogel labeled the bolt question a ″red herring, a touchstone″ the Park Service concentrates on, when the true issue is public use of the roads to the park, lavatories and paths to the rocks to avoid trampling plants.

″You’re dealing with climbers as people, people as users. What’s happening on the rocks has no environmental impact,″ he said.

Pugh predicted no climbing will be allowed in the areas where pioneers scratched their names on the way west.

″They’re as historic as Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Ill.,″ he said. ″It was one of the largest migrations in history. They’re a kind of message board, saying, ’I made it this far.‴

Vogel is head of the American Alpine Club’s access fund, which is considering buying property with rock formations outside the reserve. First, the group would try to gain permission to climb from private landowners, without purchasing the land.

″We’re not trying to set up private climbing,″ he said. ″We just want to assure access.″

Pugh said he was troubled about the implications of privately owned plots adjacent to the public reserve.

″It throws it wide open,″ he said. ″It’s sort of like having a no-man’s land with a hodge-podge of uses.″

The debate over the City of Rocks National Reserve has an optimistic tone. Climbers are conservationists and dead against defacing the rocks or damaging the surroundings. The Parks Service realizes climbing is the largest recreational use and is trying to accomodate it.

Both sides would like to maintain the remote, other-worldly feel of what for decades was called the Silent City of Rocks.

″It’s the perfect place to go for training,″ Osius said. ″It’s both sport climbing and wilderness. It’s a perfect place to go for your soul.″

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