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Forest Service, Park Service rock climbing proposals worry both climbers and wilderness advocates

New guidance from federal land managers seems to require an inventory and review of all existing bolts and fixed anchors in wilderness areas
Proposed climbing management policies by the Forest Service and National Park Service would require review of fixed anchors and bolts in wilderness areas. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Heavily anticipated plans to revamp rock climbing management in parks and wilderness areas contain what appears to be a call for a coast-to-coast inventory of every bolt and anchor in designated wilderness worries climbers. The draft proposals unveiled by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service on Thursday also contain a process that allows land managers to approve bolts as permanent installations, which troubles conservation groups.

Climbers have been rallying to protect fixed anchors in wildlands after federal land managers earlier this year began classifying fixed bolts and chains as permanent installations that are not allowed in wilderness areas. The Access Fund in March called the potential policy banning fixed anchors “a war on wilderness climbing.” Meanwhile, wilderness supporters have been decrying anchors as “the defacement and degradation of wilderness” and “the proverbial crack in the armor for wilderness.”

Colorado’s D.C. lawmakers – like Sen. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Joe Neguse – have joined the climbers with proposed legislation directing the Forest Service and the Interior Department to create a uniform policy for all wilderness areas that allows the placement of permanently fixed anchors for climbing.

That draft guidance landed Thursday and throws a new log on the fire fueling the climbing bolt war. The proposed policies by the Forest Service and Park Service note that climbing is “a legitimate use” of wilderness and the use of fixed anchors “can fulfill important wilderness recreational purposes and can help preserve wilderness character by providing opportunities for primitive and unconfined recreation.” But it also defines fixed anchors as “installations,” which are banned in designated wilderness by the 1964 Wilderness Act.

The guidance prohibits new bolts and anchors in wilderness unless they have been approved by local forest supervisors and park superintendents following an in-depth review called a “Minimum Requirements Analysis.” And most troubling for climbers is the new plan’s determination that existing bolts – including those placed prior to wilderness designation – are prohibited but may be allowed in the wilderness if land managers have the resources to conduct a review.

“Existing fixed anchors and fixed equipment in wilderness may be retained pending completion of a Minimum Requirements Analysis, as funding and resources allow, that determines they are the minimum necessary to facilitate primitive or unconfined recreation or otherwise preserve wilderness character,” the guidance reads.

So wilderness area bolts and anchors will go through “the same review as required for a road or even a landfill,” said Garrett Garner-Wells with the Access Fund. The fund estimates that about 90% of all climbing routes in national wilderness areas use fixed bolts and anchors, which allow climbers to reduce the risk of a potentially disastrous fall on routes where removable equipment is not possible.

“We are glad to see them say climbing is a legitimate use, but the classification of anchors as installations and requiring a full inventory of all wilderness fixed anchors across all wilderness, National Park and Forest Service land, that is definitely a thing we are disappointed to see,” Garner-Wells said.

George Nickas, the executive director of Montana-based Wilderness Watch, said the plan by the federal agencies is troubling because it allows a way for land managers to allow permanent installations in wilderness, which the Wilderness Act explicitly prohibits.

His group has spent more than 30 years fighting efforts by recreational groups seeking exceptions and adjustments to strict Wilderness Act rules. Mountain bikers want to pedal wilderness trails. Hunters want to use wheeled carts and places to land small aircraft. Anglers want motorboats. Outdoor filmmakers and trail runners want exemptions from the ban on commercial enterprise in the wilderness.

“The climbers are just one more recreational group trying to establish the first big chink in the armor of the Wilderness Act,” Nickas said. “This is an ongoing fight.”

Wilderness Watch was among more than 40 conservation groups in March who sent a letter to federal lawmakers urging them to oppose the “Protect America’s Rock Climbing Act,” saying “maintaining wilderness character requires that climbers accept a higher level of risk in wilderness and maintain some humility and respect for the peaks they scale.”

“If we can waive prohibitions on installations for climbing, then why can’t we waive the prohibition on motorized equipment and vehicles for recreation?” Nickas said. “The Wilderness Act is very clear. It says ‘there shall be no.’ But the agencies seem to be thinking ‘Well, there should be some.’”

The Forest Service and Park Service are collecting public comment on the proposed climbing management plan through Jan. 16.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.

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