Olympic Peninsula tribe buys site of sacred rock

CHIMACUM — After decades of work, the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe on the Olympic Peninsula has purchased the site of a sacred, 150-foot tall rock in Chimacum, and there’s an immediate change planned: no more rock climbing.

The tribe bought the 62 acres around Tamanowas Rock, including the rock itself, for $600,000 last month, the Peninsula Daily News reported.

The big, egg-shaped rock was known by Salish people as a place of power and spiritual bonding, and tribes as far away as the Lummis, near Bellingham, throughout the area would visit it for religious ceremonies.

Letting people continue to climb it “is like allowing people to climb the Sistine Chapel,” said Leo Gaten, governmental policy liaison for the tribe.

The rock, also known as Chimacum Rock, was listed in the Washington Heritage Register in 1976. Until 2008 it was owned by a developer, who sold it to Washington State Parks, which transferred it to a land trust. The tribe bought it from the trust, and will now manage the property in cooperation with it.

The land is adjacent to 22 acres the tribe has owned since the 1990s, and together the properties will be known as the Tamanowas Rock Sanctuary.

The rock has been used as a recreation site for decades, and the tribe had concerns about hikers who left litter, vandalism and other damage, Gaten said.

Climbers who frequent the rock have argued that they do protect it — and Gaten agreed to some extent.

However, the rock itself — a 43 million-year-old volcanic rock formation — is not the type that holds up well to the chipping that is caused by rock-climbing equipment, Gaten said.

Gaten said parts of the rock where climbers make their ascent are flaking and chipping away.

A new management plan has been developed that will allow continued but controlled public access, he said.

Tribal plans include information kiosks to teach visitors of the history of the site.

Geologists believe Tamanowas Rock — an immense monolith with caves, crevices and cliffs — is a rare example of “slab window volcanism,” an unusual process that occurs when a sea floor spreading ridge enters a subduction zone.

Tribal oral histories regarding Tamanowas Rock include tales of it being used as an outlook for hunting mastodons, when the area around the rock was a savannah, approximately 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. Another story tells of it being used by people from a local village as an anchoring point during a flood — presumably, a tsunami. The geological record shows the most recent one occurred about 3,000 years ago.

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