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One Man's Rock Is Another's Holy Site

Rock climbers in legal battle with Park Service and Lakota tribe over access to Devils Tower

To the Lakota, Cheyenne, and some 21 other Plains tribes, the 1,270-foot igneous rock that rises out of the Black Hills of Wyoming is a sacred tower.

"Mato Tipi," or the Bear's Lodge, is a revered religious icon, scored long ago by the claws of a mythical Ursidae giant.

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But to the piton-packing crowd, the formation made world famous by the film "Close Encounters of a Third Kind" is an alluring challenge: a striated lava core that offers some of the best crack climbing in the world.

The clash between these two views of Devils Tower - and its use - is the source of a legal battle that may have implications for the recreational and religious use of federal lands throughout the nation.

At issue is whether public access to native American sacred sites can be denied under the Constitution's First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

On June 8, a federal judge weighed in on the side of the rock climbers.

US District Judge William Downes ruled against a National Park Service ban on all commercially guided climbs of the butte during June. The judge ruled that the climbing ban amounts to unconstitutional government support of a religion.

Fight goes on

But the legal battle is unlikely to end here. Greg Bourland, president of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. says the judge's ruling conflicts with a May 24 executive order issued by President Clinton to specifically protect some 50 sites sacred to native Americans on federal lands.

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In Arizona, for example, another fight is brewing over plans by the University of Arizona and the Vatican to build a telescope on federal land that is also a sacred site to Apache tribes.

At Devils Tower, the National Park Service spent two years holding public hearings and attempting to negotiate a compromise.

"Climbers are not being denied access. Individuals can climb 12 months a year. Commercial climbers can climb 11 months of the year. This plan does not deny access," says US Attorney for Wyoming Carol Status, who represented the National Park Service in the case.

For many tribes, June is a month when important cultural and spiritual ceremonies are held.

"The Lakotas, for about 10,000 to 12,000 years, performed an annual Sun Dance at Devil's Tower," says Mr. Bourland. The Sun Dance is the most important of the seven Lakota ceremonies, he says.

Since the 1978 passage of the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act, growing numbers of native Americans have made an annual pilgrimage here to mark the summer solstice, which falls on June 21 this year.

But this is also a popular month for climbers to ascend the rock that rises over the Belle Fourche River.

"We can hear them [the climbers] cussing and shouting. Sound really carries from that high," says a Lakota woman who has led a religious ceremony at the tower for the past 10 years. "The tower looks trashy with abandoned pitons and ropes, some fluorescent. It's not treated respectfully. We have no contact with them, but the attitude overflows," she says.

The number of climbers scaling Devils Tower escalated from 300 in 1973 to an average of 16,000 a year by 1994. Each year, about 400,000 people visit the nation's first national monument.

Last year, the park service issued a voluntary climbing ban in June and officials say they got about 85 percent compliance.

Increases in the number of climbers, in climbing technology like battery-operated power drills to put bolts in the rock, and in search-and-rescue costs created the need for new policies, mandated by the National Parks Service at all sites with climbing, according to Deborah Liggett, superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument.

But Todd Welch, an attorney for the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver, compares the June climbing bans to Baptists wanting the Mississippi River closed to commercial boats.

Mr. Welch brought the court injunction on behalf of Devils Tower tour guide Andy Petefish, four climbers, and the Bear Lodge Multiple Use Association.

"I'm glad the judge finally upheld the Constitution," says Jerry Knapp, president of the association, which includes climbers, ranchers, and members of the logging, mining, and timber industries.

Still, the feud over the use of Devils Tower has made some climbers more sensitive to the Lakota's viewpoint.

Rock cleaning crew

After hearing the Indians complaints, the Gillette (Wyo.) Climbing Club cleaned the basalt butte last year, removing the netting and pitons left there. John Gunnels, former president of the club and a member of the Devils Tower climbing management work group, angrily recounts how one climber trashed prayer flags and bundles left by Indians who came there to pray.

Still, Mr. Gunnels doesn't want to be told he can't scale the tower.

Rock climbing, he says, combines the skills of chess, weight lifting, ballet, and gymnastics. "It takes you where you've never been. Devils Tower is my favorite place on the planet. Arguably it's the best crack climbing in the world," says Gunnels.

But Lakota elders who testified at a hearing last month in Casper, Wyo., said they cannot teach their children respect for their religion when they go to the summer ceremonies if they see people "playing" on such an important shrine.

Johnson Holy Rock, an elder and former president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, compares the situation to someone climbing on the National Cathedral during a service.

Superintendent Liggett tries to put the best face on the court ruling, noting that the judge didn't lift the voluntary ban on climbing in June.

"The judge supported everything but the commercial climbing [ban]," she says. "It's unfortunate that climbing for profit was approved, and obviously we're disappointed." Park officials are still considering whether to appeal the decision.

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