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March 31, 2014

Conservation Team Reports from the Ozarks

~Mike & Amanda (aka The Conservation Team)
One week after leaving Oklahoma and making our way to Mount Magazine State Park near Paris, Arkansas we park the Jeep and find ourselves sitting in the middle of the Ozarks resting tired limbs and reflecting on yet another successful project working with volunteers from the local climbing community.
Arriving in Arkansas the week of the project, we set up camp at Brown Springs Campground/Picnic Area. The Arkansas Climbers Coalition, whom we would be working with on this project, had gone out of their way to get us set up with camping accommodations for the week, for which we were extremely grateful. Not only were we minutes away from the work site, but we were also extremely close to the fantastic Savanna Sandstone cliffs that play host to a wide variety of trad and sport climbs at the park. Warm and sunny weather greeted us daily, as we explored the park and began laying plans for the upcoming weekend’s project.
The completed project, which would entail building two stone staircases of significant size and establishing a short section of trail tread, would eliminate a wet and slippery climbing access point that utilized a creek bed. The crag at Mount Magazine faces south and is most frequently used during winter months, exacerbating issues in the creek since it is typically icy during those months. When we first surveyed the site, we realized very quickly that we were looking at a substantial project that would require a tremendous amount of physical effort, and a significant volunteer turnout to achieve the results the park was hoping for. To say that we were initially daunted would be an understatement, but as we explored the site and discussed our options, the pieces began to come together.
Magazine GymOn Wednesday we ventured down to Little Rock to visit the Little Rock Climbing Center. It was great to meet so many enthusiastic climbers interested in what we were up to. Many that we spoke with were excited about the upcoming project on Saturday and planned to make the two-hour drive to help out. We really appreciated the psych and welcome we received from everyone at the gym as well as the enthusiasm for stewardship work.
Magazine LNTThe next morning we awoke to the company of Dani and Roland, the Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer team that would be joining us at the Saturday event. Dani and Roland are employed vagabonds like ourselves, traveling the country educating people about responsible ways to enjoy the outdoors that reduce impacts to the land. Having these experts on hand for the weekend would add yet another voice for the importance of conserving the areas where we play; they are also avid climbers and we were excited to have some friends to hang with at the crag for a couple of days before the project.
The morning of the project we awoke to cool temperatures and partly sunny skies. The forecast earlier in the week had called for rain, but for the moment it appeared that any rain showers that had been predicted would hold off for the morning. We ate a brief breakfast and headed to the trailhead to begin our day. Volunteers arrived at 9 AM and once everyone was registered and had gone through the morning safety briefing we headed for the work site.
Magazine rock moveBuilding stone stairs is a task that requires a strong back and an eye suited for the game of Tetris. It’s also a task that can become cumbersome with too many people due to the fact that you can only work from the bottom up, and the terrain tends to be steep with loose footing. As we began working it became apparent that, with the enthusiastic turnout of volunteers, we had reached critical mass for our trail work site and could disperse to give attention to multiple projects. With this divide-and-conquer strategy, we were able to collect a large garbage bag full of trash, construct a short section of trail, begin work on a second set of stairs, and clear vegetation from the trail corridor along the base of the cliffs. When all was said and done we had established a much more enjoyable access point to the climbing at Mount Magazine, while also improving safety and the sustainability of the trail.
Following the trail building, volunteers were treated to buffet dinner and beverages courtesy of the Arkansas Climbers Coalition, and we gave a slideshow presentation alongside the Leave No Trace Traveling Trainers.
In total, our week in Arkansas was a huge success thanks to the dedication of the Arkansas Climber’s Coalition, volunteers, and staff at Mount Magazine State Park. Without the amazing turnout by volunteers and the cooperation between the park and local climbing community, access to the cliffs at Mount Magazine would still be a slippery ordeal. Thanks to everyone that contributed to this great event!

March 13, 2014

North Cascades National Park Skirts DO#41 Guidelines

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.

Forbidden Peak rappels2

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.)

2 Bolt Anchor

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

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.