Jurisprudence: Hey, Get Your Ropes Off My Cathedral!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, June 1997

Jurisprudence: Hey, Get Your Ropes Off My Cathedral!

A Wyoming judge is left to answer a thorny question: To whom does Devils Tower belong?
By Bill Donahue

For The Record
Look East, Track Fans
"If the races justify the hoopla, fine," says Pete Cava, communications director of USA Track & Field. "But many of us are afraid that these big-money matchups may just lead to a lot of hokey crap." Cava is referring to this month's super-hyped Toronto event pitting Olympic 100-meter gold medalist Donovan Bailey and 200-meter champion Michael Johnson in a $2 million, made-for-TV sprint over 150 meters. Yet if there is a reason to be thankful for the sudden boom in match-racing, it's not the sub-15-second duel in Canada, but rather a pairing that will be held one day earlier at the Adriaan Paulen Memorial meet in Holland, featuring Ethiopian 5,000-meter world champion Haile Gebrselassie and Noureddine Morceli of Algeria, who holds world records in the mile, the 1,500, and the 2,000. The two African Olympians will go head-to-head over two miles for a chance at $1 million, the only catch being that the winner must crack eight minutes to collect his seven-figure prize — a format that promises to inspire leave-it-all-on-the-track performances. "Two consecutive four-minute miles is on the edge of what's humanly possible," concedes Gebrselassie's manager, Jos Hermens, noting that the current record is more than seven and a half seconds slower. "But these two runners may just be able to push each other there."

Who Needs Natural Wonders? I've Got a Faux Rainforest!
"Hey, I can't solve all the world's problems," says Miami philanthropist Robert Kramer. Maybe not, but with an endangered jewel like the Everglades right next door, one wonders why an environmentally concerned benefactor would instead funnel $1 million into a 3.5-acre, man-made rainforest. In March, Kramer — trustee of the multimillion-dollar Simons Charitable Trust — dropped the sum on the Fairchild Tropical Garden in Coral Gables. The research facility, which studies endangered flora and educates visitors on the dangers facing Caribbean wildlands, features the only "tropical rainforest" in the continental United States, complete with liana vines, strangler figs, ferns, palms, iguanas — and sprinkler heads suspended 25 feet in the air to provide the requisite "rain." South Florida environmentalists don't begrudge Fairchild the money, but they do think a priority check is in order. "People don't look at problems in their own backyards," says Alan Farago, the Sierra Club's Everglades specialist. "What about investing in our own declining environment?" Replies an intrigued Kramer, "Hmmm. The Everglades is a worthy project. Maybe I'll give to it next year."

Andy Petefish is speaking his mind. And he doesn't much care that his words seem aggressively un-PC. "I'm a Euro-American," says Petefish, owner of Tower Guides, which leads visiting climbers up Wyoming's Devils Tower. "I don't want to understand Indian religion, and I don't have to."

Actually, that remains to be seen. Any day now, U.S. District Court Judge William F. Downes is expected to decide what the month of June holds for one of the nation's premier climbing venues. Either the 867-foot spire will be closed to commercial climbing or, if Petefish prevails in his suit against the National Park Service, the rock will be open for business. Of course, there's far more to it than that. Basically Downes must choose between the constitutional protection of religious freedom and the guarantee that separates the affairs of church and state; wherever he comes down, the impact of the case — and its effect on the ability of American Indians to defend their sacred lands — will be felt throughout the West.

The uproar at Devils Tower can be traced to 1995, when the Park Service instituted a plan that encouraged climbers to steer clear in June, thereby honoring the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other groups who celebrate the summer solstice at the base of the rock, which they believe is infused with sacred power. Last year, the agency went a step further, issuing a monthlong ban on guiding at the Tower — a move that was quickly countered by Petefish, a brash 37-year-old so obsessed with his cause that he claims he divorced his wife so as to focus exclusively on the case. Petefish convinced Downes to grant an injunction against the ban. Now he's back in court, hoping to win a permanent decision. "The whole notion of paying the Indians back through sympathy is idiotic," says Petefish. "All of these land issues were resolved a long time ago."

Ironically, most Devils Tower habitu‰s don't share such views. Last June, Tower Guides was the only commercial operation to actively oppose the ban, and all told only 181 climbers scaled the monolith, 86 percent fewer than in 1994. "Climbers know it's not in their best interests to just say 'screw the Indians,'" argues Sally Moser, executive director of the Access Fund, a climbing advocacy group. "Isn't that what Petefish is saying?"

Perhaps that's not Petefish's exact intent, but if Downes upholds his initial ruling, he'll establish crucial precedent that could divest American Indians of their most potent preservation tool. "In the eighties," explains Jack Trope, attorney for a coalition of eight Plains tribes, "Indians sought to force the government's hand by saying, 'If you build a road here, you'll violate our freedom of religion.' That didn't work, so now we're trying to convince public agencies to voluntarily enact protection."

The approach seems to have been effective. In November, for instance, the U.S. Forest Service forbade New Mexico's Santa Fe Ski Basin from building a new lift on a mountain held sacred by the Tesuque Pueblo. Then, in February, the Forest Service honored the Washo tribe by enacting a ban against climbing at Cave Rock, a popular Lake Tahoeûarea spot. But if Petefish prevails this month, such decisions would be opened up to legal challenge — a result that many fellow climbers hope will not come to pass. "After all, we regard rocks in an almost spiritual way," says Tedd Stymiest, manager of Adventure Sport, which guides at Devils Tower and elsewhere. "We should be able to show compassion for another group that feels the same."

Illustration by Thomas Fluharty

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