Thirty-two miles east of El Paso, the four rocky crests of Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site rise above the Chihuahuan Desert like beacons. Native Americans have lived in this 860-acre stretch of Texas for thousands of years, and their ancestors scaled the scalloped boulders at Hueco to collect rainwater from the eroded hollows. After local students visited in the 1950s and word spread about the best bouldering crag in America, a new generation of rock climbers established their history at Hueco. Now after recent route closures due to newly discovered “invisible” art, climbers are taking a stand — and showing conservationists how to respect the land you play on.
Hueco features one of the best-preserved collections of indigenous rock art in the American Southwest, and it’s the only archaeological site in the region where every period of local human history — from prehistoric to present day — is represented. The visual chronology begins with “archaic” Native Americans’ simple, painted figures and ends with the carved names of Spanish and Anglo-European colonists, but the bulk of the art is from the Jornada Mogollon tribe, which lived in the area for roughly a thousand years.
In 1992 a vandal wriggled through a small gap beneath a boulder and scrawled graffiti across a cave wall painted with several Jornada Mogollon pictographs. Though the incident was gang-related, rangers had chafed under the increasing traffic at Hueco since the park became a bouldering mecca decades before. They argued that climbers littered, strayed from paths, and sometimes climbed across pictographs. In response to the defacement, the superintendent locked Hueco’s gate for two weeks and added restrictions when the park reopened.
Eight years later park officials confirmed a public use plan. Rangers closed several illustrated boulders, three of Hueco’s four sectors were restricted to tours and guided climbing only, and daily admittance was capped at 70 for the fourth zone. “[Hueco Tanks has] 10,000 years of ongoing human activity,” says Senator Rodriguez, who doubled down on restrictions in 2014. “It’s a special place in so many ways, from the history as a place of restoration, refuge, and prayer, to the flora and fauna that could only exist in this desert oasis.”
In February, a few days before the American Alpine Club hosted the 2017 Hueco Rock Rodeo, park rangers started handing out sheets of paper at the registration kiosk on North Mountain, the unguided sector. On those pages are a list of 18 bouldering areas, newly closed until further review, because scanning had revealed hidden art. But when the revelers and pros arrived in their Subarus and ratty vans, nobody seemed to mind. One scruffy white kid even had a tattoo collage of Jornada Mogollon masks on his calf.
The boulderers’ reaction to newly closed routes and stricter park rules was respect and understanding. Despite plenty of room for conflict after decades of tightening recreation restrictions, climbers, park officials, and First Nations representatives formed a working group and discussed their concerns for balancing recreation access with historic preservation. When rangers began to scan all climbing boulders to identify faded pictographs undetectable to the naked eye, climbers assisted them.
“We respect the Native American community and work hard to make sure climbing doesn’t negatively affect cultural resources, wherever they are,” says Erik Murdock, the policy director for the Access Fund, an organization devoted to keeping climbing areas open. “Hueco is an important piece of American bouldering history, but we’ll also always respect the values of our Native American partners. We don’t see these as competing interests.”
In fact, the pro-climbing group has shown its commitment to protecting public lands for everyone and fought alongside representatives from the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation for over a decade to halt a proposed copper mine at Oak Flat, Arizona. Last year, they helped a five-tribe coalition successfully lobby for the Bears Ears National Monument.
Aaron Mike, a native lands coordinator for the Access Fund, grew up on a Navajo reservation and is passionate about the overlapping agendas of the climbing community and First Nations tribes. “Native American tribes and climbers share a common interest in protecting the environment,” he says.
The detente seems to be working. True to their word, park rangers reopened the classic Five Bimbos boulders for climbing in early March after a 17-year closure for revegetation, which the Climbers of Hueco Tanks Coalition called a “privilege.”
Dr. Kendra Moore, Hueco’s Community Outreach Interpreter, agrees. “A utopian vision of the park depends on who you’re talking to,” she says, “but for me, it’s to find a balance between recreation and preserving the rock art. Both groups share a common motivation: preserving Hueco.”