Climbers are taking aim at a controversial policy that would impact the permanent bolts, slings, and other safety anchors that are located on climbing routes inside designated wilderness.
Earlier in November, the National Park Service and National Forest Service released draft directives for approving and managing these fixed anchors—but the plan calls for the climbing infrastructure to be reclassified as “installations.” This wording technically makes them illegal under the 1964 Wilderness Act, which protects huge swaths of backcountry. Under the proposed rules, local forest supervisors and park superintendents could then review and approve or deny each bolt after following a requirement analysis.
Opponents of the rule argue that these land managers are already under-resourced and short staffed, and the process for reviewing and then approving climbing anchors—many of which have been fixed to routes for decades—could take years. Below is an explainer for why some in the climbing community feel the proposed policy misses the mark.
How it Works
Both the NPS and NFS directives explicitly acknowledge that climbing is a legitimate use of wilderness. But both of them go on to propose that “fixed anchors”—a term which encompasses all forms of permanent or left-behind protection, including everything from bolts and rap rings to slung trees, stuck nuts, and snow pickets—should be categorized as “installations,” a term historically used to describe objects like paved roads, fire towers, buildings, bridges, and landfills. According to the 1964 Wilderness Act, installations are ipso facto prohibited in wilderness, but they can be permitted on a case-by-case basis through a process called a minimum requirement analysis (MRA).
With the use of “installations” to define anchors, the NPS and NFS essentially propose a guilty until proven innocent structure for them. Instead of assuming that anchors are permitted but subject to approval, the directives assume that every fixed safety anchor in wilderness—even those that pre-date the Wilderness Act—is illegal, and therefore subject to either removal or non-replacement, until the local land manager finds the time and budget to conduct an MRA and decide their final fate.
While climbing organizations like Access Fund agree that the placement of anchors (particularly bolts) in wilderness should be overseen by land managers, they oppose the idea that anchors ought to be considered illegal unless proven otherwise. “In the past, the way climbers have used anchors in wilderness has been allowable unless they’re causing [negative] impacts,” says Erik Murdock, Interim Executive Director of Access Fund. “But this is flipped on its head. If this proposal passes, all fixed anchors will be considered illegal until they are provided an exception. The wilderness administrator can provide that exception. But they may not if they don’t want to.”
Who Will Decide?
Both proposals note that climbing is a legitimate activity in wilderness, and that administrators ought to take this legitimacy into account when conducting their MRAs. This essentially means that officials would weigh climbing’s public value and historical relevance at any given crag against its perceived impacts on a climbing area’s “wilderness character.” This subjective process could lead to significant inconsistency from year to year and wilderness area to wilderness area. The Dawn Wall: yes. Sarchasm: no. Or vice versa.
Will El Capitan Close in Two Months?
No. The directive explicitly states that climbing will continue to be allowed on existing anchors until those anchors can be subjected to an MRA.
Clarity Still Needed
Given the fact that land managers are woefully understaffed and under-resourced, and given the fact that the process of proving a given anchor’s compatibility with wilderness will require significant time and resources from those land managers, it’s unclear how the NPS and NFS realistically expect to weigh in on the tens of thousands of routes that currently sit within the wilderness areas they administer. Will they wait until a climber or local climbing organization identifies an anchor that needs replacing, then conduct an MRA about the replacement and go from there? Or will they take a more active approach—as recommended by the NPS managers in Joshua Tree last year—and actively search out routes and anchors they randomly deem non-compliant and chop them?
Another implication is legal. Things defined as “installations” in a wilderness context are subject to lawsuits. Any user—or any anti-climbing wilderness organization—can point at an installation that has not undergone an MRA and sue for its removal. This same legal mechanism was used by Wilderness Watch in 2010 to condemn an 80-year-old fire tower in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington. Despite the fact that the tower both pre-dated the Wilderness Act and had been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1988, the tower was ultimately condemned by a federal judge and slated for removal—only to be saved by an act of federal legislation (introduced by one of Washington’s senators and signed into law by President Obama) that superseded the judge’s ruling. If the installation definition were to be applied to bolts, slings, pitons, rap anchors, and so on, groups like Wilderness Watch could use the same mechanism to gradually strip necessary anchors from Yosemite, the Black Canyon, the Tetons, Acadia, and thousands of other federally administered wilderness crags around the country.
Which brings us to another topic:
A Better Solution
The Protecting America’s Rock Climb Act (PARC), which is explicitly designed to ensure sustainable climbing access in designated wilderness, enjoys significant bipartisan support. If passed, it would force both the NFS and NPS to explicitly allow the regulated use, placement, and maintenance of fixed anchors in wilderness areas, and would prohibit all federal land management agencies from fundamentally disallowing standard climbing practices and protection in wilderness. Want to support wilderness climbing? Write to your congressional representatives here.
Who Wrote This?
The NFS’s proposal, which is admittedly less fluent than the proposal produced by the NPS, at one point notes that a “Forest Supervisor may authorize the placement or replacement of fixed anchors and fixed equipment in wilderness… in areas where impacts on the rock face are occurring due to the use of rock hammers to chip hand holds or foot holds into the rock.”
Italics mine because what in the nine circles of hell do they even mean?
Is the forest service really suggesting that the climbers—a largely self-policing and conservation-minded community whose constituents unanimously agree that chipping handholds and footholds is the opposite of what we want to see happening on our rock—just need to start chipping in order to justify our rappel anchors? Or was this document written and edited by someone whose knowledge of climbing history and climbing ethics is so mediocre that they conflated the chipping controversies of the late 1980s with the clean climbing revolution that began with Yvon Chouinard, Tom Frost, and Doug Robinson in the early 1970s and has largely guided our wider community’s relationship to rock ever since? Either way, it’s pretty shoddy work on the part of the Forest Service. And it’s pretty frightening to think that these people are in charge of climbing’s past and its future.
Steven Potter is the digital editor at Climbing.