In August of 2012, a local climber hand drilled a new two-bolt rappel anchor to improve the hazardous descent off Forbidden Peak in North Cascades National Park (NOCA) in Washington State. Six days later, NOCA staff removed the newly installed bolts, along with a long-established bolted rappel station, leaving the descent route a surprise for unsuspecting climbers.
Climbers have been enjoying incredible backcountry alpine experiences in the park since the early 1900s, using bolts sparingly since the 1960s, and complying with the established guidelines of the federally designated Wilderness area. The climber who placed the new anchor on the descent of Forbidden Peak was not aware that NOCA prohibited new bolts, because the internal policy was not documented. Therefore, NOCA’s decision to remove the anchors without notifying the public was both confusing and alarming.
However at that time, the National Park Service (NPS) had yet to issue any national guidance on the use of fixed anchors in designated Wilderness, leaving it up to individual parks to interpret the Wilderness Act and other federal regulations on their own. But in May 2013, the NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis signed Director’s Order #41 (DO#41), clarifying the agency’s policy for the placement of fixed anchors in designated Wilderness. Climbers around the country breathed a collective sigh of relief that the new NPS policy eliminated the threat of a national ban on anchors in Wilderness, stating that a fixed anchor “does not necessarily impair the future enjoyment of wilderness or violate the Wilderness Act,” and that fixed anchors “should be rare” and that “authorization will be required.” (See our earlier blog post outlining the implications of DO#41 for climbers.)
This new national guidance from the NPS made NOCA’s next decision even more alarming—three months after DO#41 was issued, NOCA staff placed a moratorium on bolts in designated Wilderness—with no public input or process. According to NOCA staff, the bolt moratorium institutionalized the longstanding, undocumented policy to ban bolts, despite bolts having been responsibly placed and used in NOCA wilderness for over 50 years. NOCA justifies the bolt moratorium through an unconventional interpretation of a federal regulation that prohibits damaging mineral resources. However, that interpretation contradicts DO#41 (which interprets that regulation to prohibit chipping, gluing, and gardening—not bolts), is not shared by other national parks, and has not stood up in court. But perhaps most disturbing to the climbing community and wilderness advocates is that these decisions have been made in a vacuum, without public input or well-substantiated analysis.
In January 2014, as part of a broad-based collaboration of 12 climbing and wilderness organizations, we asked NOCA to provide justification and notice to the public before future administrative actions regarding fixed anchors are taken. We also asked to collaborate on a strategy to establish a fixed anchor authorization process, as well as to assess the current state of the Forbidden Peak descent route. However, NOCA has indicated that they don’t plan to address fixed anchor management until they update their 1989 Wilderness Management Plan, which will take an estimated three to five years to finalize.
North Cascades National Park’s fixed anchor policy creates harmful precedent and identifies them as an anomaly within the National Park System. The Access Fund hopes that NOCA will become open to public input and work with the Access Fund and local climbers to establish a strategy to fairly manage fixed anchors in accordance with national-level policy standards. The Access Fund is actively working one this precedent-setting issue at various levels within the National Park Service and Congress.