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Access Threatened at Sunset Park (TN)

Submitted by saxfiend on 2008-03-20

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by John Liles

Climbing at Sunset Park, one of the premier trad areas in Tennessee, is in danger of being nothing but a bittersweet memory, according to representatives of the Southeastern Climbers Coalition (SCC).

Matthew Gant, a member of the SCC board, said the National Park Service was recently on the verge of shutting down climbing at Sunset.

“One month ago, the rangers had given up on climbers, and made plans for closing Sunset to climbing permanently,” Gant said this week. He said the park service cited numerous negative incidents involving climbers, including loudness (Sunset is in a residential area), blocking trails with ropes and gear, and unruly dogs.

Local climber groups were able to prevail on the park service not to go ahead with the climbing ban, Gant said. He said the rangers want to see more involvement in education, monitoring and self-policing of the crag by groups like the SCC.

Sunset Park is part of the Chickamauga National Battlefield Park, a major battle in the Civil War. As such, it is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Samantha Christen, the SCC’s area representative for Sunset, points out this is the only military park in the U.S. that allows climbing, and there is no particular obligation for the NPS to continue this practice.

“At any point in time, they (NPS) can come in and shut us down with absolutely no explanation,” she said.

The SCC has been a key organization in maintaining the sometimes uneasy relationship between the climbers, the park service and the residents of Lookout Mountain. Volunteers from the group have put in a tremendous number of person-hours on trail work, erosion control and installing bolted anchors to spare the trees at the top of the cliff. Christen says the park service appreciates this work, but only to a point.

“We are only, in their eyes, fixing what we broke,” she said. “In their eyes, we, at this point, really have done no preventative maintenance, just repair of damaged areas.”

The NPS maintains Sunset as a memorial to the Civil War battle, and recreation is a secondary concern. This is especially true in light of recent government cutbacks, which have left the park service short-handed. If climbers make the rangers’ job more difficult, they may consider it easiest just to get rid of the problem by banning climbing, Christen and Gant said.

“The park service does not hate us nor do they wish to see us go as a user group,” Christen said. “However, with the decrease in manpower due to federal cutbacks, they are prepared to take necessary measures to ensure that they are able to do their jobs.”

The SCC is currently working on a plan for educating Sunset climbers on the issues involved and on how to deal with people who violate the rules. Some possible steps include fliers to hand out or put on climbers’ cars; letters to climbing gyms, school clubs and outdoor organizations; and encouraging people to ask their fellow climbers to move their gear off the trail or keep their voices down.

In the end, though, it will come down to whether Sunset climbers care enough about this great destination to do the right thing. All it will take is a few uncaring individuals out of the thousands who climb at Sunset every year to put an end to almost 50 years of great southern climbing.

For the latest status of Sunset and what you can do to help, go to the SCC website:


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9 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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"...negative incidents involving... unruly dogs."

Ahhh, yes... those unruly dogs- the ones the owners will defend to the end, even if it costs everyone else a climbing area (can you say Red River Gorge?). But thank God my dog didn't lose the right to dramatically increase impact while lowering climber credibility with the NPS, NFS, and BLM.

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I am a dog lover too, but I have to admit, taking dogs to the crag seems to create more problems.

I remember climbing at Looking Glass a couple of years back. I was taking some new climbers up the Nose. At the end of the approach trail, where the toutes start, was a dog tied to a tree on a two meter leash. His owners were two pitches up on Sun Dial and the dog was Guarding the area like most dogs would.

With a two meter leash, no bypass on the trail, and no easy way to reach the base of the route, the dog was very upset at us.

One of my partners was bitten, and the other scratched. the owner were pissed at us fr getting their dog upset.

I love taking dogs for a walk or a run, but I do think people should keep the dog at home when climbing. Having a dog hang out at the base while you climb seems to defeat the purpose of getting them out.

Sunset is a great crag. How can climber help?

The access issue does seem to come up in the area every few years.

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This access issue seems to have little to do with dogs, they are just one more hit against the climbing community. There has been some great discussions on the SCC board.
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I made the 11 hr trip from MI down to Chattanooga over Thanksgiving last year and stopped by Sunset Park for one of my days of climbing. I had a great time and got in a couple of great trad routes that day before the snow started falling! Anyways, I really loved the area and the climbing and want to make a return trip sometime this year. I hope Sunset will be open when I get back.

P.S. There's a great one-liner on the message board at the Gendarme at Seneca Rocks that sums it all up- If you hate your dog, bring it to the crag!
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As long as climbers and others believe what they are told by government and climbing organization leaders, instead of learning how to ask effective questions of contradictions, on record, they will continue to make fools of themselves doing as they are told, and whimpering, in glaring contradiction to logic or reasoning.

Government in the US holds no prevailing law authority to deny anyone the RIGHT to walk (climb) on public land that is not chain link fenced for material security (or under a locked building), or charge a fee, or demand registration or a permit.

But for the same reason the Romans did not question the Emperors for 800 years, or the Germans question the Nazis for a decade, or the Russians question the Kremlin for 70 years, etceteras, the gullible American climbers do not question their government and its pocket Access Fund and American Alpine Club.

Identifiable, genuine damage to public property can be, and is, lawfully criminalized. The government holds no prevailing law authority to criminalize non-damaging use of public land. The rhetorical illusions and inferior law references by the National Park Service and its climbing organization minions fool only fools who do not learn how to ask effective questions.

Inadequate funding for as many cops as a cop agency wants to increase its police power is not, and cannot lawfully be a reason to deny the people their RIGHT to walk on THEIR public land, or the cops could close all highways if they did not get million dollar salaries for each cop.

But comments such as these which sometimes cause people to think (ask questions), are as denigrated in the government-fooled US climbing community as anti-Hitler comments were denigrated by "good Germans" in Hitler's time.

The Alaskan Alpine Club has offered, to the extent of available time and money, US climbers the process to promptly solve their various RIGHTS (access) problems created by government, for nearly three decades. But like all organizations and professions which derive money from perpetuating government-induced problems, rather than solving them, the Access Fund, American Alpine Club, lawyers and their ilk successfully warn fools and gullible climbers away from asking the type questions the Alaskan Alpine Club offers.

In the future, climbers will belatedly recognize how long their predecessors were fooled by their organization leaders who whimpered instead of learning how to ask effective questions, and be amused.

Distinguish yourself. Start asking questions, for the goal of learning how to ask effective questions to which government is categorically vulnerable.

And have fun doing that.

Doug Buchanan
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You must really dig the X Files, Doug.
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Thank you all for your comments. Each comment we receive potentially affords us the opportunity to grow as an organization.

Unfortunately, agree or not, this isn't your typical, run of the mill National Park; it is a National Military Battlefield and it has a completely different Congressional mandate. The specific mandate of this Park is the same as for Gettysburg, Vicksburg and other National Military Battlefields, and that is "to preserve and protect the cultural and natural resources of the park. A secondary objective is to provide high quality experiences for visitors, including climbers. All policy and actions will be based on these objectives."

The complete final climbing management plan for this area can be found at:

For the complete version of the climbing regulations (just so ya know I didn't make them up!) may be found here:

As to dogs at Sunset, I'm a dog owner myself but to maintain peace, I will be leaving her at home this season. There are too many other areas where I can take her that will not jeopardize mine or anyone else's access to good times (plus she'll be super psyched to see me when I walk through the door at the end of the day and that is always a special thrill all it's own!) It isn't always climbers' dogs who are the issue; unfortunately we are the most visible user group and it is up to us to be good ambassadors, not only of our sport, but of all user groups.

To address and email I received an email questioning the size of groups wanting to climb at Sunset: the NPS response to the question can be found within the climbing regulations at the above listed link. In short, however, the regulations state, as per the Supervisor of the Lookout Mountain unit of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park (the one under which jurisdiction for Sunset Park falls):
Any organization or group planning an outing to Sunset Park with numbers higher than 10 individuals MUST call the NPS to obtain a permit prior to their arrival at the park; this includes members from clubs and organizations who travel in different vehicles. Again, if the number of individuals representing the organization for the day totals more than 10, a permit is required, regardless of whether or not they travel in the same or different vehicles. This would include club days (i.e.: club trips planned by gyms and clubs]), college groups, groups who show up after church and local high school climbing teams seeking experience on real rock during after school practice sessions.

Additionally, part of the permitting process requires that you be insured and with general liability insurance (just like in any other national park).

While the climbing regulations ( clearly state 10 people is the limit, we frequently see more than that, especially around the headwall.

I realize that this can be a touchy subject, but when your organization does not comply with the above stated regulations, then all of us are unfairly placed in a precarious position.

Please be respectful of your fellow climbers and set a good example for other groups and individuals wishing to enjoy this sensitive and fragile area. We have a rare opportunity here to spread goodwill on many fronts, and we also have the unique situation where we already have an established, solid, positive relationship with the rangers for this area. Let's take advantage of this and put climbing and climbers in a positive light while helping to keep one of the crown jewels of southern climbing available to future climbers! It will take a lot of positive PR, and it will mean putting aside our personal feelings and not grousing about rules and regulations with which we do not fully agree; however, if we rise above all of that and look at the larger picture rather than focusing on feeling as if we "deserve" access to a particular area, then our task at hand will be made easier.

Again, thank you for all of your help, support, comments, and even gripes. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like to help with this effort.

Samantha Christen
Sunset Area Representative
Southeastern Climbers Coalition
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What Samantha said guys. Please work with her and Matthew on this. She has her thumb on the pulse of this issue and is the best source for what working to get it solved.

Paul Morley
Board Member
Southeastern Climbers Coalition
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Here are the definitive rules for bringing Fido to the crag as I see them. (We should get Royal Robbins and some other classic hardmen to declare them "Man Law":

Know your dog. If it barks at strangers, can't sit still, is an ankle biter, or is otherwise unruly, NEVER bring it to any crag.

If your dog is well behaved, know the crag. If it is purely a climbing area, AND is not that well used, bring FIDO along. He can play outside while you climb. If the area is mixed-recreation, realize that climbing access is always a tenuous issue, and even a well-behaved dog sets off some alarmist.

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