NPS Wilderness Climbing Management: The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly
It has been over two years since the National Park Service (NPS) issued a national-level policy that provides guidelines to individual parks on managing climbing (and bolts specifically) in designated Wilderness areas. Director’s Order #41 removed the threat that the NPS would ban bolts in Wilderness, but also tightened the screws on how climbers can place these bolts. Two years ago, the Access Fund could only theorize on how individual parks would choose to interpret and implement the general guidelines outlined in DO #41.
Well, the wait is over, and we are now getting some answers to these questions. The Wilderness climbing policies that we’ve seen so far fall into the spectrum of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.
First, the good. As a result of DO #41 Joshua Tree issued its first Wilderness bolting permit in November of 2013—ending a longstanding moratorium on new bolts in Wilderness. Then Superintendent Butler issued a policy that allows the authorization of new bolts to prevent damage to vegetation. As a result, the first J-Tree bolt permit was issued so that the tree above the classis crack Room to Shroom could be saved.
Now, the bad. Lake Mead National Recreation Area recently issued a Wilderness Management Plan that calls for the removal of “bolt-intensive” routes in Wilderness and outlines a process for evaluating the removal of bolted routes due to impacts to Wilderness character, natural resources, and cultural sites. This process will include folks form the NPS, native American tribes, and the climbing community. You may be thinking…how is this not The Ugly? Consider that an earlier draft version of this plan proposed a wholesale removal of bolted climbing routes with no input from the climbing community. This nuance is substantial because it recognizes the need for the NPS to include climbers in decisions about fixed anchor management instead of making unilateral decisions.
One more bad. The recent Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks Wilderness Management Plan states that climbers can judiciously place non-permanent fixed anchors (e.g. slings and nuts) when necessary, without the need for permits. But climbers will need special-use permits to place and replace bolts in Wilderness. Again, how is this not The Ugly? The draft plan, which we strongly advocated against on the grounds that it was not realistic or safe, proposed that climbers apply for a special use permit ($20) and wait up to 3 months in order to acquire a permit for adding or replacing any fixed anchor—including webbing slings. We continue to work with the park to remind officials that bolt replacement is essential and the NPS should not obstruct climbers from replacing bolts due to safety and visitor experience concerns.
Finally, the ugly. North Cascades National Park has ignored the majority of the guidelines provided in DO #41 and issued an unsubstantiated Wilderness bolt moratorium. The park not only bans new bolts, but can also remove existing bolts without any public process or notice to the climbing community. DO #41 provides park superintendents with the authority to prohibit bolts after they have established that bolts result in unacceptable impacts and have conferred with NPS climbing specialists and the climbing community. The Access Fund invoked the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to investigate what type of analyses North Cascades actually conducted prior to issuing their bolt moratorium policy. The answer: none. The spirit of DO #41 was intended to result in balanced policy that considers natural resources, Wilderness character and recreation opportunities, but the North Cascades interpretation resulted in a policy based on philosophical conviction without any assessment, study, or public process. We continue to fight this ban.
The inconsistency in the implementation of the NPS Wilderness climbing management guidelines is a problem. Resolving this inconsistency is one of the Access Fund’s top policy and advocacy priorities. We are working this issue through three main strategies:
Developing an interest within NPS—both at the national and park level—to improve DO #41 implementation.
A documented Fixed Anchor Policy, which we created in collaboration with the American Alpine Club, to outline the fundamental principles associated with our position on fixed anchors and guide our work on DO #41 implementation with parks.
Convening a working group of both climbing and conservation organizations—including Access Fund, American Mountain Guide Association, American Alpine Club, Wilderness Society and National Parks Conservation Association—to develop and advance a strategy to improve NPS Wilderness climbing management policy.