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April 20, 2016

Inside Scoop: Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree_R Tyler Gross

If you’re like most climbers, you pore over guidebooks for weeks or even months when planning a climbing trip. You educate yourself on routes, descents, gear, and camping. But what about the local ethics, issues, and challenges at your destination crag? Part of being a responsible climber is knowing how to tread lightly—both socially and environmentally. In the Inside Scoop series, we connect you with local climbing access leaders at some of the country’s top climbing destinations for valuable insight into local ethics and issues.

Destination: JOSHUA TREE, CA

What challenges does the Joshua Tree climbing community face?
Our proximity to large urban climber populations can make it difficult to keep traditional ethics in a national park environment.

How would you characterize the local ethics at Joshua Tree?
Since the 1970s, a trad ethic has prevailed at Joshua Tree, and locals have a minimalist attitude toward bolting. For example, if you can walk or scramble off a formation, don’t install rap rings or chain anchors. This is true even on popular formations throughout the park and may catch some climbers by surprise. Visitors are encouraged to embrace the adventure of climbing at Joshua Tree and respect the ethic to leave no trace.

Are there any threats to climbing access or any major access issues?
Not currently. A few years ago, some rogue climbers grid bolted and “enhanced” a crag called Underground Chasm, which sits in a designated Wilderness area within the park. There also were damaged trees and stashed gear. All of this was in violation of the park’s Wilderness climbing policies. The park service led an investigation into the violations, and for a while it looked like we could lose access. The Friends of Joshua Tree have worked for decades to establish a positive relationship with the park, and egregious Wilderness violations by a few rogue climbers almost jeopardized access to Joshua Tree Wilderness for all of us.

How is the relationship between climbers and land managers now?
Cooperation between climbers and land managers at Joshua Tree National Park is at an all-time high. We have an official memorandum of agreement that establishes a partnership with the park. We also host a regular climbers coffee with park staff, have donated a search and rescue vehicle to the park, and host the annual Climb Smart event to mitigate climber impacts. However, there are still awareness and perception gaps around regulations for Wilderness bolting, particularly from new climbers to the area.

What are the regulations for Wilderness bolting?
Fixed anchors may be replaced, anchor for anchor, in Wilderness. A permit is required to place new fixed anchors in Wilderness. All anchors in Wilderness must be placed with a hand drill. You can request a permit application by calling 760-367-5545. The Friends of Joshua Tree are currently working with the park on a new simplified permit process that will shorten the length of time from application to approval.

What’s the best way to dispose of human waste at Joshua Tree?
Use the vault toilets or pack it out in a bag system like RESTOP. Pretty simple. Desert soil does not biodegrade human waste, so it’s not appropriate to dig a cat hole.

What’s the camping situation in Joshua Tree?
The park has great camping. If you arrive midweek, you’ll usually be able to get a site, even during the peak season (October through May). If you arrive on a weekend, you’ll want a plan B—the dry lake bed north of Highway 62, Section 6, or Joshua Tree Lakes Campground are good options.

Any final words of wisdom for folks visiting Joshua Tree for the first time?
The ratings are a bit sandbagged. Stay on designated trails so that you don’t tread on cryptobiotic soils—they anchor plant life throughout the ecosystem. Look for wildlife in the early dawn and dusk hours, and don’t forget your camera!

How can people support Friends of Joshua Tree?
Many ways! Donate time, money, or both. Engage with us on social media and share content about climbing at Joshua Tree. You can connect with us at www.friendsofjosh.org.

Photo courtesy of ©R. Tyler Gross

April 05, 2016

Get to Know Public Land Agencies

As the public land heist heats up in Congress, we encourage climbers to get to know federal land management agencies and how they approach climbing management. After all, almost 60% of the peaks, crags, and boulders in this country on America’s public, federally managed lands. Each agency has a unique mission and a slightly different approach to managing climbing. All three agencies—National Park Service (NPS), US Forest Service (USFS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—regard climbing as an appropriate activity on the condition that it does not substantially impact natural resources, cultural sites, traditional values, Wilderness character, and other users’ experiences. That said, none of these agencies have explicit, overarching, national-level guidelines for climbing management (with the exception of climbing in Wilderness). Each management area (e.g., Yosemite National Park) is responsible for developing regulations based on its staff’s interpretation of national policies, its agency’s mission, special designations, natural resource conditions, public input, and precedent.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 10.19.44 AMNATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Approximately 13% of climbing in America is on NPS land. The National Park Service’s mission is to preserve the parks for the enjoyment of future generations. The National Park Service is less centralized than the other federal land agencies. Each park unit acts relatively autonomously, with the park superintendent acting as the CEO. All national parks use the same planning handbook and management policy guidelines, but each park’s implementation style is unique. National parks typically celebrate climbing—visit the Grand Teton National Park visitor center to see a great climbing exhibit or attend a climber coffee at Yosemite, Joshua Tree, or Obed. However, climbing can also be heavily regulated to protect natural resources or Wilderness character. Try to hand-drill a much needed rappel bolt in North Cascades National Park Wilderness and you could end up with a hefty fine (we are working hard to change this policy).

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 10.21.23 AMUNITED STATES FOREST SERVICE

The USFS manages the most climbing, approximately 34%, of any land management agency. The USFS tries to balance the health, diversity, and productivity of its forests with recreation opportunities. The USFS acknowledges the economic and social benefits of outdoor recreation activities like climbing. While there are nearly 10,000 climbing sites on USFS land, only two national forests have standalone climbing management plans. This speaks to the agency’s relatively hands-off approach to climbing management. However, when necessary, the USFS can be quick to restrict climbing access and fixed anchors. For example, the USFS is the only agency to have banned fixed anchors in all its Wilderness areas—although, the ban only lasted a few months before pressure from climbers resulted in a reversal. There are many well-developed climbing areas in national forests that are not known to USFS district managers. Given the increasing popularity of climbing, Access Fund expects a marked increase in USFS climbing regulations and restrictions in the upcoming years as many national forests become aware of climbing areas and revise their forest management plans. Access Fund is involved in these revision processes to shape the future of USFS climbing management.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 10.21.11 AMBUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT

The Bureau of Land Management manages approximately 10% of America’s climbing. The BLM has a multiple-use mission and manages its 245 million acres for resource extraction, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting. The agency manages some of its vast expanses of remote land in the western U.S. for both developed and dispersed forms of recreation. For the most part, climbing is loosely regulated on BLM land, with the exception of designated Wilderness areas and Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). Oddly, fixed anchors are generally allowed in Wilderness areas (some require authorization) but essentially prohibited in Wilderness Study Areas, which are areas being considered for a Wilderness designation.

All three land agencies generally manage climbing in designated Wilderness areas with tighter regulations in order to adhere to the Wilderness Act mandates for solitude, primitive recreation, and non-motorized tools. While these guidelines differ across the agencies, motorized drills and bolt-intensive climbing are generally prohibited in federally designated Wilderness areas.