Some of the most iconic climbing in the world is located in federally designated Wilderness, including Yosemite, Black Canyon, Joshua Tree, Rocky Mountain, Red Rocks, Linville Gorge, Red River Gorge, and many others. Yet the presence of climbing bolts in Wilderness areas has been a sticky issue for nearly four decades. The fact is, there is no law that addresses bolts in Wilderness, only a few general policies that are left up to the interpretation of individual land managers across the country. Most land managers allow the conditional use, placement, and maintenance of bolts in Wilderness with hand drills (power drills are illegal in wilderness). However, some national parks and forests have banned new bolt placements, and a few land managers have even removed rappel anchors and proposed the wide-scale removal of existing climbs.
For decades, the lack of clear federal policies on fixed anchors has led to land management conflicts and unsubstantiated climbing restrictions all across the country. Access Fund was founded in 1991, in large part to address the threats to climbing access due to this issue.
For over 27 years, we have been working to resolve these conflicts at the administrative level, partnering with federal land managers at the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and US Forest Service (USFS) to develop climbing management strategies that balance fixed anchor use while maintaining the integrity of designated Wilderness. Working to develop administrative policies has been a slow and often unfruitful process. The NPS and BLM have issued general policies on fixed anchors in Wilderness, but their implementation is still inconsistent at climbing areas across the country. And the USFS has yet to issue any national position, despite over 20 years of consideration.
Now, in a precedent-setting move, Access Fund is attempting to legislate fixed anchors in Wilderness areas by writing it into federal law. The Emery County Public Land Management Act, introduced earlier this year, offered the first viable opportunity for this historic attempt. This bipartisan bill proposes well over 500,000 acres of Wilderness in the San Rafael Swell in Emery County, Utah—an area that includes more than 500 climbing routes, some with fixed anchors.
Before endorsing the bipartisan conservation bill, Access Fund pushed the bill’s sponsors, Congressman Curtis and Senator Hatch, for certainty that climbing activities would be allowed and that the existing climbing bolts would be considered legitimate and maintenance would be allowed into the future. Access Fund worked with the congressional offices to amend the bill to include a provision that would ‘grandfather’ climbing activities into the designated Wilderness area.
“If the law passes, it will set a legal precedent for allowing existing bolts in new Wilderness designations and provide additional clarity on the legitimacy of existing bolts in designated Wilderness,” says Erik Murdock, Access Fund Policy Director. “This would be a huge win for the climbing community, with positive implications for every Wilderness climbing area in the country.”
Now, the challenge lies in getting the bill passed. It has moved through both the Senate and House natural resource committees, and it may be included in a large package of lands bills that could be voted on before the current Congress adjourns this year.
Access Fund has organized a coalition of recreation and conservation groups—including Outdoor Alliance, The Conservation Alliance, Outdoor Industry Association, and American Whitewater—to endorse the bill. We are currently in Washington, DC advocating for more support from congressional offices in order to push the bill over the finish line. Stay tuned for more information and a potential action alert, if necessary, on this historic bill for the climbing community.
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This article originally appeared on accessfund.com.