One park clamps down on climbers

  • Climbing North Mountain at Hueco Tanks State Historic Site

  • Prehistoric Jornada Mogollon culture masks at the Cave Kiva


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Invasion of the rock jocks."

In November 1992, managers at Hueco Tanks State Historic Site were gearing up for another busy climbing season, when vandals scrawled what staffers suspected was gang-related graffiti across one of the park’s most visited rock art sites. Known as the Cave Kiva, the site is chock-full of stencil-like masks painted by prehistoric Native Americans.

The 860-acre park, just 30 miles east of the buzzing border town of El Paso, Texas, had become a popular picnic and party spot for urban residents. In 1992, 152,000 people came here. For years, staffers had dealt with vandals wielding spray paint and Magic Markers, off-road vehicle enthusiasts joy-riding across the fragile desert landscape, and revelers smashing beer bottles.

Thousands of climbers also flocked to the park’s arid canyons and jumble of pocketed boulders during the winter months. Boom-boxes blared loud music at the base of popular chalk-smeared rocks, grasses and ferns were trampled, and discarded energy-bar wrappers fluttered in the wind. Renegade climbers chipped and glued holds on the rocks. The graffiti in Cave Kiva, and more found throughout the park over the next several days, forced managers to take drastic measures, says park ranger Alex Mares. For two weeks, “We shut the place down and locked the gate,” he says.

In the six years that followed, staffers tried to keep the resource damage in check. They boosted the entrance fee — a policy that was scuttled when locals complained it was meant to price them out of the park — and closed some picnic sites and climbing areas.

Climbers were furious. Some ignored the closures, sneaking into the park at night to climb and add bolts to new climbing routes. Even though local climbers and a representative of the national group, the Access Fund, were present during planning meetings, climbers complained they felt shut out of the process. “They took some of what we suggested and just twisted it,” says longtime local climber James Robertson.

Finally, in 1998, park officials settled on a public-use plan that’s known among climbers as one of the most restrictive anywhere. Nowadays, more than two-thirds of the park is restricted to guided tours only — led by park staff, volunteers and commercial guides — and many of the most popular boulders and walls are permanently closed to climbing. In the area where unescorted climbers and hikers are still allowed, their number is capped at 70 per day, with no more than 230 total visitors admitted to the park on any given day. Staffers say the site logs around 30,000 people each year, less than a fifth of the number who visited Hueco Tanks in 1992, the year that the vandals left their notorious mark.

“We’re achieving our number-one goal, which is protecting our rock art,” says park manager John Moses.

The new plan is also helping to heal a tired and battered landscape. Staffers say that even though West Texas is in the grip of one of the worst droughts on record, plants are returning to previously trampled ground.

While many climbers have struck Hueco Tanks from their “must-do” list, others have accepted the park’s strict regulations and are trickling back for a chance to climb on the Swiss cheese-like textured boulders.

“I don’t think this would work everywhere, but it’s an excellent model of how a sensitive area can be managed,” says Robert Rice, 27, a local climber who runs a guide service and campground just outside the park. “It’s not as good as free rein, but it’s created access.”