CASPER, Wyo. "There are nearly 200 separate climbing routes up the granite face of Devils Tower National Monument, and Andy Petefish will be able to guide you up any one of them this month - thanks to a ruling by a federal judge.
Petefish and other climbing guides have
won the first round in what looks to be a long court battle between
commercial climbers and Native Americans at Devils Tower. U.S.
District Court Judge William Downes granted a preliminary
injunction June 8 that stops the National Park Service from
prohibiting commercial climbing during the month of June. The Park
Service had tried to limit climbing activity to protect religious
use of the area by Native Americans, but Downes ruled that any ban
would amount to entanglement of church and
While the government has the right and
even the obligation to accommodate American Indian religious
practices at Devils Tower, it cannot do so by forcing guides to
refrain from leading ascents of the tower in June solely because
some Indians find the activity offensive, Downes wrote in his
He also hinted that any attempt by the
Park Service to make mandatory a voluntary June moratorium on
private climbing at the tower (HCN, 4/15/96), as the agency has
suggested it might if individuals continue to climb in large
numbers, will meet with similar action on his
"Such regulations require climbers to
conform their conduct in furtherance of those American Indians'
religious necessities. This amounts to impermissible government
entanglement with religion," Downes wrote.
Park Service had issued a climbing management plan in March of 1995
that notified commercial guides of its intention to prohibit
commercial climbing on the tower beginning this
Efforts also began last year to encourage
private climbers not to climb in June out of respect for the
growing number of Indians who conduct sun dances, ritual sweats and
other ceremonies at the tower around the summer solstice. That
voluntary ban cut tower ascents by 85 percent last June compared
with the same period in 1994. Park Service officials said this June
will likely match last year's reduced numbers.
his decision, Downes added that the benefits of banning commercial
climbing in June were far outweighed by the damage to the First
Amendment rights of Petefish and other guides. But he did uphold
the rest of the climbing management plan so long as the June
moratorium remains voluntary.
"The simple request
that climbers refrain from climbing during the month of June ...
seems to be a permissible accommodation of American Indian
religious practices in light of the government's legitimate
interest in protecting and preserving for American Indians their
inherent right to exercise the traditional religions," he
Devils Tower Superintendent Deborah
Liggett said that although Downes' decision restricts the Park
Service's ability to manage the tower effectively, she was pleased
that the judge allowed the rest of the plan to stand. She noted
that commercial climbing only represents a fraction of total
ascents made at the tower each year. Attorneys for the government
said they haven't decided whether to appeal Downes' decision to the
10th Circuit Court.
The more important question,
said Liggett, is how individual climbers will respond to the
decision: "The plan has the support of the climbing community. I
expect most people to continue to respect (the June moratorium)."
writes for the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming.