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Climbing to be Permanently Banned at Massacre Rocks, Idaho

The BLM’s decision, made in acknowledgement of the site’s importance to the Shoshone-Bannock people, will remove hundreds of routes—significantly changing climbing opportunities in southeast Idaho.

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On October 26 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Massacre Rocks, Idaho, stating that they intend to permanently close numerous crags to climbing.

Massacre Rocks is the single largest climbing area in southeast Idaho, with hundreds of single-pitch basalt sport routes. The BLM’s decision, which was made to protect historical and cultural resources important to the Shoshone-Bannock people, will prohibit all forms of rock climbing on 3,846 acres of the American Falls Archeological District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The land has been continuously occupied for 12,000 years, and includes the Soshone-Bannock people’s traditional wintering grounds. The BLM’s decision will lead to the removal of hundreds of existing routes, but it will not impact climbing on abutting lands managed by the Idaho Department of Land, which are home to some 250 additional sport routes. 

“It’s a very difficult situation,” Access Fund Executive Director Chris Winter told Climbing. “One of our core values is that access should be sustainable. And that means not only sustainable in that we’re protecting natural resources but also cultural resources and social values.”

Winter is disappointed in the process through the BLM reached this decision. Back in 2011, the BLM conducted its initial assessment of the impact of climbing and other recreational activities on the American Falls Archeological District, aiming to design a new management plan that took into account the Shoshone-Bannock people’s concerns for the land. But then, in part because the issue was contentious, the BLM held off on issuing a draft plan until 2021. During this 10-year pause, however, climbers and tribes repeatedly allied with one another in other conservation efforts—Bears Ears being perhaps the most famous example. And Winter wishes that climbers had been given the opportunity to develop the same sort of dialogue around Massacre Rocks.

“We encouraged the BLM to start a new scoping process because so much had changed,” said Winter. “We thought we could find common ground with the tribe—or at least get a better understanding of each other’s views, which would lay the groundwork for a more collaborative relationship. So we were really disappointed that we didn’t have the opportunity to start that scoping process over.”

Losing a sizable portion of Massacre Rocks is a blow for local climbers in the nearby cities like American Falls, Pocatello, and Idaho Falls, as well as for students and faculty at Idaho State University, who had been conducting climbing courses there for years.

There is a 30-day protest period, which ends on November 24, during which people can lodge complaints about the BLM’s proposal, but despite his reservations about the process, Winter says that the Access Fund is not planning on protesting. “We urge the climbing community to respect the decision that the bureau of land management has published,” he said, “because we think that the protection for this particular place is important.”

“In the bigger picture,” he added, “it’s important for the climbing community to come to terms with our moral and social responsibility with respect to cultural resources and the history of indigenous people in this country. I think that’s fundamentally important to the climbing community and one of our core values at the Access Fund. What that means in practice is that it’s hard; and it’s going to continue to be hard and uncomfortable for climbers. We may lose access to some areas that we care about. But we’ve proven that we can work with tribes in many places around the country. And the best way for us to do that is to come from a place of mutual respect and understanding, to keep our hearts and minds open to what it means to share this land, and we hope that they come to the table with this same frame of reference. But it’s going to be hard. And I don’t think this issue is going to go away any time soon.”