Forest Service pulls anchor ban out of thin air

  • ANCHORED: Climbing on a high rock face in Colorado

    Jeff Achey photo
 

My skin still tingles when I recall our helplessness as the sound of thunder and flash of lightning struck our senses simultaneously. My rock-climbing partner and I had just reached the summit of a long, remote climb in California's High Sierras, when a fast-moving thunderstorm broke over us.

I yelled to my partner to start climbing down and gripped the rope that would hold her if she fell. A short way down the back side, the mountain became less steep, and we started to scramble toward the bottom, unroped and unanchored.

But we hadn't counted on the hail. In moments, our escape route was buried in slippery ball bearings. My metal climbing gear buzzed as I put a nylon loop around a rock jammed in a crack. We fed our rope through the sling, then rappelled, lowering ourselves to safety from the persistent lightning strikes.

That narrow escape was six years ago. Today, the experience would be considered a federal crime: Out of necessity, we had left the nylon sling around the chockstone, and now the U.S. Forest Service says we defiled the wilderness.

In June, the agency announced that rock climbers can no longer use "permanent, fixed anchors" in any national forest area designated as wilderness. Touted as environmental protection, the ban was actually more like an attack on the wilderness system. It hit the climbing community like a falling rock.

Specifically, the new rule prohibits bolts, pitons, small wedges of metal and nylon slings. Climbers use these tools to rope or "tie in" to the rock in case of a fall, or for emergency retreats like mine in the Sierra. The Forest Service says the ban will "stop the growing proliferation of artificial installations on climbing routes in wilderness."

This sounds reasonable, except that the rate of "proliferation" is glacial. In wilderness areas, climbers must do everything by hand, placing bolts with a hammer and hand-held drill bit. This is a very laborious process. Bolts are placed as seldom as possible in virtually all wilderness areas, and only if there is no place to use a retrievable anchor.

The anchor ban comes out of a novel re-interpretation of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which defines wilderness as an area where "the imprint of man's work (is) substantially unnoticeable," and which "has outstanding opportunities for ... a primitive and unconfined type of recreation."

Fixed anchors may be "imprints of man's work," but as any climber who has clambered around a rock face searching for one will tell you, they are certainly "substantially unnoticeable." And climbing is the archetypal example of "primitive and unconfined recreation."

So the agency based its new interpretation on the following sentence of the Act: "There shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such (wilderness) area."

The Forest Service says a fixed anchor is a "structure or installation." But is a 3/8-inch metal bolt or 1-inch nylon webbing really the equivalent of a road, a truck, a motorboat or an airplane?

The Forest Service claims that climbing anchors "cause cracks and other damage to the rock" and "can affect cliff-dwelling birds, moss and lichen, and other flora and fauna." An occasional rappel sling or bolt damages moss, lichen, birds, and rock itself? There is no evidence - scientific, visual, or even suggested - to support this assertion. In Arizona's Granite Mountain Wilderness, for instance, the agency found that bolts and slings had not harmed the wilderness character.

Ironically, the bolt ban itself could turn out to be the cause of environmental damage. Thirty years ago climbers voluntarily stopped driving pitons into and out of cracks because we learned that the practice damaged the rock. The agency's new decision now encourages a retreat to the repeated placement and removal of anchors.

What do the leading environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the National Parks and Conservation Association say about climbing anchors in wilderness? These organizations all say that climbing should be managed to the same high standards as other accepted uses of wilderness. They say the Wilderness Act does not prohibit climbing anchors.

This is exactly the position advocated by most climbers, but rejected by the Forest Service in favor of a legalistic ban as heavy as a meat ax.

Armando Menocal is a founder of the Access Fund, the largest national climbers' organization, which works to preserve climbing areas and keep them open. He lives in Wilson, Wyoming.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....