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A reference to this essay by Sherm caught our attention eye in rec.climbing in 1999, and appeared in

Thoughts on the Hueco Tanks troubles
By John Sherman, author of Hueco Tanks Climbing and Bouldering Guide

Editor's note: John Sherman first came upon the Hueco Tanks scene in the mid-1980s and, at one point, had climbed very nearly every one of the boulder problems of the park, putting up about 500 of them himself. His Chockstone Press guide "Hueco Tanks Climbing and Bouldering Guide" combined enyclopedic knowledge of the site with a sharp, entertaining writing style and became the classic guide to the park's boulders and crags.

Much has been written and discussed about the newly imposed restrictions on climbing at Hueco Tanks. Little, though, has been said about alternatives to the recent management decisions. Below, I will present a plan to manage the park for the benefit of the public (after all, Hueco Tanks is public land). As well I will present my opinion on how the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's (TPWD) present restrictions will affect Hueco Tanks' future.

June '98 letter to Texas Dept. of Parks and Wildlife

On June 26th, 1998 I sent the following letter to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department:

Dear Sirs,

I am disappointed by the proposed new restrictions at Hueco Tanks State Park. They seem contrary to the TPWD mission and philosophy statements. I would like to suggest a more positive approach to protecting the cultural and natural resources there, while providing recreational opportunities for visitors.

I have spent the better parts of 13 winters climbing and exploring at Hueco Tanks and am intimately aware of the problems the park faces. In addition I have done contract work of TPWD to catalog the climbing in the park. The most pressing problems at HTSP are vandalism of art sites, erosion, and over-pressure on the camping facilities. I will also discuss issues specific to climbing.

1. Vandalism
The vandalism to the art sites has been caused by local graffiti artists, and occasionally by kids throwing rocks at paintings. Several years ago, every visitor to HTSP was required to have a Parks Passport. At the same time the backcountry permit system was instituted. Almost overnight, virtually all vandalism ceased. The people who were inclined to vandalize were not willing to spend $20 to do so. As well, the amount of litter decreased dramatically--I could fill my pack with litter, return to the same site weeks later and it was still clean. El Pasoans complained that they couldn't afford to picnic there for one day a year, hence the passport fee was canned. The backcountry permit stayed in place, but was proven to be ineffective--rangers were too busy processing paperwork in the office to go outside and enforce the regulations.

The proposed new regulations will probably work no better. Declaring most of the park off limits will do nothing to deter vandals, it will only keep responsible visitors from enjoying all the park has to offer. I propose that instead of closing most of the park to unaccompanied access, that once again the TPWD Passport be required to enter the park. It worked before, it can work again. It will free rangers up from shuffling papers and allow them to patrol the park to enforce regulations instead.

2. Erosion
Comparison of aerial photos of Hueco Tanks from the 1970s with recent photos shows that vegetation has made a remarkable comeback. The biggest current erosion problem at HTSP is in the gully between North and East Mountains and along the southwest margin of "The Pit." My formal training is as a geomorphologist, a specialist in landforms. Any geomorphologist will tell you that the scraping out of The Pit caused that erosion. This created an artificially low level to which all drainages toward the center of the park will eventually cut down to. Nature wants it this way and all the trail building in the world will not stop it. A more substantial approach is needed.

I propose bulldozing the main earthen dam between North and West Mountains back into The Pit. Once The Pit is filled, nature will eventually backfill all the gullies leading into it. Removing the dam will also restore that area to a more natural appearance. I suggest making a deal with Fort Bliss to supply the labor as an exercise for their heavy equipment trainees. Cost to TPWD will be minimal.

On a much smaller scale is the erosion caused by the proliferation of casual trails in the park. I believe an established trail system should be developed and low-impact education given to visitors.

3. Camping
The last copy I've seen of the draft management plan called for a three-day camping limit. This will only serve to decrease revenue by discouraging visitation from people out of state. As well it will increase illegal camping outside of the park boundary. This in turn will cause problems for local landowners and the sheriff, whose time would be better spent on other duties.

I propose retaining the 14 day camping limit and increasing the size of the campground to at least double its current size. The revenue generated by additional camping fees will quickly pay back for this capital improvement. Moreover, it will continue to generate revenue which can then be used for trail building, art site restoration, hiring of more rangers to patrol the park, education programs for visitors, backcountry toilets, and so forth. Allowing more visitors to camp in the park will also help decrease illegal entry.

4. Climbing
Compared to the above issues, climbing issues are minor. However, as this tree has been so scrutinized at the expense of seeing the forest, I will address these issues as well. Many of the newly proposed restrictions are designed to restrict and discourage climbing at HTSP. I feel this is a shame. Climbers are people too, just like rangers, bird watchers, and archaeologists. Discriminating against them is unfair. Furthermore, they generate more revenue for HTSP that any other user group. To turn them away would be a big mistake. Revenue would be slashed, programs dropped, rangers laid off, yet vandalism to art sites would not diminish one iota. I believe climbers can be one of the strongest allies HTSP can have.

In the past vandalism to rock art has frequently been followed by increased restrictions on climbing. This has done nothing to halt the vandalism, because climbers are not the problem. I believe the presence of climbers in an area can be a deterrent to vandals. I suggest that the only areas that should be closed to climbing are those routes and boulder problems where a climber could conceivably touch or damage rock art while climbing. These routes are already clearly marked in the climbing guidebook, and climbers have been good about voluntarily staying off these routes. Hence no damage to the rock art has occurred. There has been a problem with some climbers climbing in off limits areas, often through ignorance of what exactly is closed (route closures are referenced to the guidebook, but the guidebook is not for sale in the office). In areas such as the Kiva Cave wall and Bucket Roof, it is physically impossible for a person climbing the established routes to contact rock art. I believe these areas should be reopened to climbing, and the areas where an actual hazard exists should be closed. A route closure policy that makes sense to climbers would be welcome. As it stands, many climbers view the existing route closures as unfair and spiteful jabs at themselves.

Chalk is a visual disturbance. Years ago only color-matching chalk was allowed, but found to stain the rock. This was due to the clay-based pigments used to color the chalk. I believe it is possible to create a non-staining, water-soluble colored chalk. Due to the great popularity of Hueco Tanks as a climbing destination, I believe chalk manufacturers would work to develop such a chalk. Selling the chalk at the office would be another source of revenue. As well, more research into colored chalks will benefit other climbing areas with a chalk problem. A colored chalk regulation should be phased in gradually, to allow manufacturers time to develop a tinted chalk acceptable to both the park and climbers. TPWD could lead the way for parks worldwide in this respect.

Casual trails to climbing areas are a problem. An established trail system is needed. This should be designed with input from climbers as well as other groups that might venture off-trail. A trail system designed without climbing in mind will not solve the current problems.

I believe the above suggestions are all positive ways to deal with the HTSP's problems, while not discriminating against individual user groups. These will provide for greater revenue allowing increased ranger presence in the backcountry. This will help protect the resource, while allowing sustained recreational use. I believe all my suggestions are in line with TPWD's mission and philosophy statements.

Please respond to these suggestions. It's not too late to save Hueco Tanks. If you have other issues you would like me to respond to, I'd be glad to give further input.

John Sherman

Hueco's future

Not surprisingly, I received no response to these suggestions. Shortly after I penned this letter, restrictions even harsher than those I was addressing were enacted at HTSP. Before I explore what affect the new restrictions will have on Hueco's future, let me first share with you the TPWD mission and philosophy statements (as presented in the HTSP draft public use plan of September 1997).

    To manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas for the use and enjoyment     of present and future generations.

    We seek to balance outdoor recreation with conservation as we achieve greater self-sufficiency.     On one hand, we must manage and protect our natural and cultural resources. At the same time,     we must generate increased revenue by adding value through more and better public services.     We affirm that a culturally diverse well-trained staff will best achieve this balance. And we must     never forget, not in the haste of business, nor in the pride of science, that the outdoors should     above all be a source of joy! Providing the outdoor experience, whereby young minds form     values, will be our greatest contribution to the future.

The new restrictions at Hueco have not been a "source of joy" for climbers or many other members of the public. Neither will they generate increased revenue, add value, or allow the park greater self-sufficiency. Most sad is the prospect that they will probably do very little to address the problem of vandalism. What will they do? I envision the future as follows.

For the first few months of the plan, certain rangers at Hueco will be elated at the highly reduced number of climbers at Hueco Tanks. But with over 50% of Hueco's revenue flushed by the virtual abolition of climbing, they will find that pretty soon they won't have a paycheck. Pink slips in hand, they'll have to go find new jobs.

In the meantime, vandals will pay as much attention to the new regulations as they have to the "$1000 fine for defacement of rock art" signs in the past. I can already see a spray paint-toting youth from El Paso or Juarez walking up to a sign stating "No unaccompanied access beyond this point." Instead of turning back, he or she will scribe his or her gang's tag on it, en route to finding the nearest rock art to deface. This will be easier than ever, seeing as no climbers will be present to provide a deterrent. Sooner or later, the defacement will be discovered and cries of outrage will emerge from the local community. This will be followed by increased restrictions on climbing in the park and everybody will heave a big sigh of relief, knowing that "something has been done about it."

After a few rounds of defacement-induced climbing restrictions, the entire park will be closed to climbing. Lo and behold, vandalism will still continue. At this point, TPWD will throw up its hands and declare that the public can't be trusted with access to the park. A 10-foot tall chain link fence topped with razor wire will be built around the park. Only the select archaeologists who fought for the initial climbing restrictions we're stuck with now would be given the combination to the lock at the front gate. All of the rest of the public would be banished.

This leaves Hueco with only the fence to guard its treasures. With no influx of revenue, it will be impossible to hire guards. This being the case, within weeks multiple holes will be cut through the fence, their size to be determined by the wheelbase of the vehicle being driven through it. At this point access to Hueco will be free and available to the entire public, many of who will be eager to add their names to the rocks. Private four-wheel drive and biker rallies will be held there weekly. Birdwatchers will stay away, claiming the noise of the drag races down the Front Side quarter-mile are scaring away the wildlife (and they will be right). Families will stick to the "safe" sections in the park. The Escontrias Ranch House will be a burned out shell after a high school ditch day bonfire. Gangs will fight over who owns West Mountain. Visits by bona fide archaeologists will be as infrequent as always.

What about the climbers? They'll scramble throughout the park, climbing whatever they choose, though being leery of the glass shards filling the huecos within bottle-throwing distance of the ground. And myself? You can visit me at my campsite in the East Spur Maze. Drop by for a beer. No ranger will be there to tell us we can't drink. We'll raise our steins and shout a toast, "Here's to the success of the new regulations."

Bottoms up.