Jonah Stinson
ES 120
December 1, 2001

Twin Sisters Final Report

When I started this project, I had two main objectives I wanted to fulfill. My first goal was to thoroughly examine the reasons for the recent banning, including all the legal, political, and social factors involved. My second objective in doing this internship was to communicate with various members of the community so as to generate possible ways in which the area could be restored to its former use. Once ideas and solutions were generated, I hoped to share these with officials directly involved with the banning. In order to fulfill these objectives, much of my time was spent reading newspaper articles, state and county legal documents, websites and climbing management plans. In addition, I talked to climbers, citizens, attorneys, students, teachers, and government officials, all of whom were had differing opinions about the Twin Sisters area.

Although there is a good chance my work alone may not be enough to see the ban removed, my hope is that it causes officials to realize this issue of land usage is still a main concern in the community and that more time should be spent looking into it. I feel writing letters to local authorities is a productive enterprise, as long as they present articulate and reasonable proposals that include specific suggestions on how to better manage the area. Included below are two proposal I drafted, one to the Walla Walla County Commissioners office and the other to State Representatives Bill Grant and Dave Matson. Both letters contain some information I thought relevant, along with my assessment of the ban and recommendations for future management of the Twin Sisters area.

Jonah M. Stinson
715 Estrella Ave
Walla Walla, WA 99362

11/25/01

Subject: Land management proposal for Twin Sisters area.
cc: Jeff Warner, copy-editor of the Union Bulletin

Dear Commissioners,

I am writing you as a concerned member of this community. In the spring of 2001, your office made the decision to prohibit rock climbing at the Twin Sisters rock formation near Wallula Gap. This informal decision, as you know, has had a direct impact on many of the residents of Walla Walla. I have been in your office several times and, with the help of Rosalie, had the chance to personally see the many letters from concerned, passionate citizens regarding the recent ban. I feel your intentions and reasons for the ban were sound and seemingly justified, and, am not writing to express any anger or frustrations like some others have done before me. I am, however, curious (and concerned) with the established ban, and would like to see a resolution reached where all parties are content. I have therefore spent the past four months reading newspaper articles, state and county legal documents, websites and climbing management plans. In addition, I’ve talked to climbers, citizens, attorneys, students, teachers, and government officials, all of whom had differing opinions about the Twin Sisters area. After looking into this issue extensively, I am confident when I say that your concerns for public safety and public funds may be met while still allowing rock climbing to continue.

According to Connie Vinti, Clerk of the Board, the Twin Sisters area was originally deeded to Walla Walla County via quitclaim deed from the USA as a result of the government determining the property was surplus. Walla Walla County requested that it be deeded to the county rather than selling it, and the request was granted. In the county’s application for the acquisition of the land parcel, rock climbing was identified as one of the main recreational uses of the land in the “need justification” portion of the document.

For more than twenty years, the two Igneous rock formations have been a favorite spot for climbers from the surrounding areas to practice and learn. Organizations like Whitman College, Walla Walla College, and the Inter-Alpine Mountain Club of Tri-Cities often had group instruction there, while other individuals enjoy its relatively close proximity. As you know, the area was also historically significant to Native Americans who believed the large towers were connected to the spirits of their past ancestors.

While Walla Walla County Sheriff Mike Humphreys mentioned that “We’ve never had any major problems out there,” I know your office became concerned with reports of increasing graffiti, expansion bolts, and nighttime usage. It is my understanding though that the sole aim of the ban was to protect the county from being sued if an accident occurred on the property. Although I understand it is your job to protect public funds, there are several legalities that prove the ban unnecessary.

To begin with, there are several reasons why climbers cannot win damages against landowners for simply allowing climbing to occur. In the few cases that have gone to trial, the courts have applied the “assumption of risk” doctrine, ruling that climbers are engaged in a recreational activity with known safety standards and are responsible for their own safety.

At the federal level, land managers are protected from liability by the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1998, 28 U.S.C. sec 1346-2680. In addition, Washington has recreational use immunity statutes, such as RCW 4.24.200 and RCW 4.24.210, that shield both private and public landowners from liability for injuries incurred by persons recreating on their land. Andy Fitz, assistant State attorney general and the Access Fund’s regional coordinator for Washington, advised me that, “the whole point of the statute is to encourage landowners to open up their lands to recreation by removing the fear of liability. Despite more than sixty years of history and thousands of climbers in Washington, I’m not aware of any landowner, public or private, being sued over a climbing injury.”

While the statute doesn’t guarantee a landowner won’t ever get sued, it does provide grounds to get the case dismissed early on. As shown in the statute I have included, there are three specific instances where there exist exception to landowner liability protection. A landowner may be held legally responsible for injuries if they result from a dangerous condition on the property that is:

1) Latent (the danger is not readily obvious)

2) Artificial (a manmade, as opposed to a natural condition)

3) Known to the landowner, who then fails to warn users of the hidden dangers.

The most obvious “problematic” situation at the Twin Sisters is the use of bolts and fixed anchors. As long as the county takes no part in maintaining the fixed hardwear and disclaims any responsibility for the integrity of it, you can not be held legally responsible for occurring accidents.

From the discussions I’ve had with lawyers and climbers alike, it seems like the common consensus is that any liability concerns may be addressed with a warning or disclaimer sign, stating: county not responsible for injuries due to climbing and climb at your own risk (similar to the example included provided by the Access Fund). This would replace the existing sign of rock climbing prohibited that was put up by the county Engineer. If you are still worried about the artificial clauses of the statute, someone could potentially cut and remove the wire cable that currently acts as an anchor for top roping. Although these are inexpensive solutions to the liability issue, I feel a public hearing should occur at the very least, so that the public has an opportunity to share their concerns and advice regarding the use of this public land. I understand Phil Merrell’s comment that “public liability protection usually means that a few litigious parties control how the public uses public property.” However, I think it wise to at least hear from you’re your community before you make an uninformed decision, considering no opportunity for public input preceded your decision. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments; I would love to hear back from you. Thank you taking the time to hear my suggestions.

Sincerely,

Jonah M. Stinson
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Dear Representative Grant,

I recently moved cross country so I could enjoy the many wonderful aspects of this beautiful state. As a concerned resident now, I am writing to inform you of an important land management issue currently troubling the county of Walla Walla, WA. In March of 2001, a rock climbing ban was established for the Twin Sisters rock formation near Wallula Gap as a result of the county fearing liability. However, the county commissioners decided on this ban without taking any formal action or giving an opportunity for public input.

When the county applied to the Department of the Interior for the acquisition of this land parcel, rock climbing was identified as one of the main recreational uses of the land in the “need justification” portion of the document. For more than twenty years, the two Igneous rock formations have been a favorite spot for climbers from the surrounding areas to practice and learn. Organizations like Whitman College, Walla Walla College, and the Inter-Alpine Mountain Club of Tri-Cities often had group instruction there, while other individuals enjoyed its relatively close proximity. In addition, the area was historically significant to Native Americans who believed the large towers were connected to the spirits of their past ancestors.

Unfortunately, the main concern of the county was that they would be sued if an accident occurred on the property. This concern, coupled with pressure from neighboring landowner Curt Leslie, led the commissioners to decide upon the prohibition of rock climbing during one of their regular meetings. Although Commissioners Ray, Maiden, and Cary had only the best intentions of the county in mind when they created the ban, there are several legalities involved that prove the ban unnecessary.

At the federal level, land managers are protected from liability by the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1998, 28 U.S.C. sec 1346-2680. In addition, Washington has recreational use immunity statutes, such as RCW 4.24.200 and RCW 4.24.210, that shield both private and public landowners from liability for injuries incurred by persons recreating on their land. Andy Fitz, assistant State attorney general and the Access Fund’s regional coordinator for Washington, explains how “the whole point of the statute is to encourage landowners to open up their lands to recreation by removing the fear of liability. Despite more than sixty years of history and thousands of climbers in Washington, I’m not aware of any landowner, public or private, being sued over a climbing injury.”

Many citizens feel any liability problems may be addressed with a warning or disclaimer sign, stating: county not responsible for injuries due to climbing and climb at your own risk. Although there has never been any reported injuries or a justifiable fear of a lawsuit, the County Commissioners still will not consider any other options. I feel a public hearing should occur at the very least, so that the public has an opportunity to share their concerns and advice regarding the use of this public land. This is a surprisingly resonating issue in this part of the state, and I beseech you to help us reach the deaf ears of our local government officials. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Jonah M. Stinson
715 Estrella Ave
Walla Walla, WA 99362

I have discovered that through this internship, I gained valuable insights into the workings of local government and their dealing with environmental concerns and land use issues. I also think this project “trained” me in how to go about a heated, opinionated debate, by teaching me to collect evidence from both sides in an objective and unbiased manner in order to (hopefully) reach a common understanding between the multiple groups. I feel it has been beneficial for me to go through the many public documents, as I have gotten a better idea of the legalities involved, and they seemed to add concrete evidence to my argument. I found most of the local officials to be friendly, though it appears they are tired of dealing with the issue and are not always ecstatic to see a college student digging through their offices.

One of the biggest problems I had was trying to remain constructively objective. It was often hard for me to disregard my personal values and frustrations with the situation, but I felt I would be best heard if I remained respectful and open to their opinions. Seeing that the majority of the letters I read had a negative tone to them, (and didn’t seem to accomplish much) I wanted to remain as positive and helpful as possible. The only other problem I had was trying to figure out the direction I wanted to take for this project. Because it is primarily an independent investigation without any structure, I had the freedom to choose who I talked to, where I went, and what I thought was the best possible approach to a resolution. I enjoyed having this independence, though I admit it was sometimes difficult to structure my time wisely. My recommendation for any future student who wants to work on this project is to apply as much pressure as possible on local officials. If one is persistent in sharing their concerns and constructive criticisms, then chances are greater that change will occur. I think it would be helpful to gather as much public support as possible, and a future project may be organizing a town meeting to discuss the issue further. Overall, I enjoyed having the opportunity to talk with people about this interesting issue, and remain hopeful that the Twin Sisters area may soon be restored to its former use as a valuable resource to the community.

Works Cited

http://www.climbingsource.com/LocalBeta/Washington/twinsisters.html


The Access Fund. Climbing Management: A guide to Climbing Issues and the Production of a Climbing Plan. 2001

CONTACTS

County Commissioners
PO Box 1506
Walla Walla, WA 99362

Local rock climbers: Marc Berry, John Erickson, Kevin Pogue, Ashley Meganck, Kevin Pogue, local Abbie VanDonge, national competitor (YMCA).

Chris Coyle, Climbing Chairman of the Inter-Mountain Alpine Club of the Tri-Cities.

Brian Sheedy, Whitman Outing Program Manager, sheedybr@whitman.edu, 509-522- 4395

Toby Meierbachtol, Outing Program Intern, 509-527-5965

Walla Walla County Commissioner’s office: Pam Ray, Chuck Maiden. wwcommissioners@co.walla-walla.wa.us 527- 3200. (Secretary’s name is Rosalie)
Bruce Bushaw, concerned citizen 509-627-0580

Jeff Warner, climber and copy-editor at the Union-Bulletin, jwarner@ubnet.com

Dave Painter, concerned citizen, Dave_Painter@nfuel.com

Robert c. Rittenhouse, Ph.D, professor of Chemistry @ Walla Walla College, 509-527-2040. rittro@wwc.edu (knows Tom Penzel)

Andy Fitz, climber, lawyer, Assistant State Attorney General: fitlan@home.com; 253-761-7866