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
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.
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
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.
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
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