The 400-acre area known as Castle Rocks has been closed off and on to climbers since 2003, and may close permanently sometime this summer. Agency officials say they hope make a decision this month, depending how much feedback they receive from the public.
Mike Courtney, BLM field manager in Burley, said both the Shoshone-Bannock and Shoshone-Paiute tribes consider the land sacred and are worried cultural resources could be destroyed if climbing continues. BLM surveys have determined the region contains important archaeological resources and artifacts, including spearheads dating back thousands of years.
Courtney said the agency spent time combing the trail routes and climbing walls with the intention of finding middle ground with sport climbing enthusiasts. But unfortunately, Courtney said, environmental impact studies showed all the climbing areas posed at least some risk to resources the agency aims to protect.
"We kept running into resource issues with the locations of the trails and the potential climbing routes," Courtney said Friday. "We inventoried the entire area, and a lot of the areas at risk are the most desirable (climbing) areas.
Citing those and other reasons, a report from the BLM dated April 12 proposed closing the Cassia County area to climbers for good, although hikers and hunters would still have access to existing trails. Courtney said the plan targets climbing because soil erosion and vegetation destruction are most severe around staging areas, the spot near rock walls where climbers prepare for their assent.
But the BLM's plan has left regional climbers upset. They argue they've offered less prohibitive proposals that still protect the area's abundant cultural heritage and environment.
"They reversed course really quickly and went from considering the climbing management plan to coming to a decision that banned climbing right away," said R.D. Pascoe, a policy director with the climber advocacy group Access Fund.
Pascoe argues rock climbers are willing to avoid historical or archeologically significant sites, and his organization and local climbers came up with a plan that offered guidelines for when the BLM can close certain routes.
The BLM's most recent proposal, he said, unnecessarily eliminates all climbing access.
Several other routes at the nearby City of Rocks Natural Reserve will remain open for climbers. But Doug Colwell, founder of the Boise Climbers Alliance, said Castle Rocks is considered a national or even international destination by many of the sport's enthusiasts.
"When you go down there on Memorial Day weekend you will see people from other countries because it's a very well-known intermediate rock climbing area," Colwell said. "We believe there are areas we could compromise on."