​Access Fund Makes Historic Move to Pass Law Legitimizing Climbing Bolts

In a precedent-setting move, Access Fund is working to create federal laws that legitimize climbing bolts in America’s Wilderness climbing areas.

Climbing in Linville Gorge Wilderness, NC | Photo courtesy of © Shannon Millsaps

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.

Climbing in San Rafael Swell, UT | Photo courtesy of © Keenan Harvey

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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Frequently Asked Questions

Are bolts illegal in Wilderness?
Bolts are not fundamentally illegal in Wilderness. There is nothing in the Wilderness Act that specifically prohibits hand-drilled fixed anchors, although motorized drills are illegal. Federal land agencies (depending on the climbing area) allow conditional use of fixed anchors. You can learn more in our fixed anchor position here.

Does Access Fund support Wilderness?
Yes. Access Fund supports the entire spectrum of climbing experiences, from roadside bouldering to Wilderness first ascents. We have supported Wilderness since our inception, including new Wilderness designations, as well as national and on-the-ground Wilderness climbing management, education and stewardship. The Emery County Public Land Management Act that we are supporting right now would create more than 700,000 acres of new Wilderness, the most of any one bill passed by Congress in over 2 decades. Access Fund has supported new Wilderness designations and recommendations in Utah, Colorado, North Carolina, Washington, California, Idaho, New Mexico, and other states.

Does this mean climbers could place bolts wherever they want?
No. The legislation (if passed) would not allow people to place bolts wherever they please. The fixed anchor provision in the Emery County Public Land Management Act simply states that the Wilderness designation will not prohibit the maintenance of existing bolts, the placement of new bolts, and other climbing activities, subject to BLM rules. Climbers still need to comply with site-specific, wilderness bolt authorization processes (if applicable). What it does mean is that low-impact Wilderness climbing activities can coexist with a new Wilderness designations. This provides climbers with the certainty they need to support Wilderness designations without fear of a climbing access closures.

Why do we need new laws—isn’t it better to let climbers self-regulate?
Federal land agencies are already regulating through national and local management policies, and they have a history of unsubstantiated climbing restrictions, especially in Wilderness areas. This legislation would provide certainty that Wilderness-compliant climbing activities are considered legitimate when Wilderness areas are designated. The climbing provision simply states that the Wilderness designation will not prohibit the maintenance of existing bolts, the placement of new bolts, and other climbing activities, subject to Department of Interior rules.

Does the Access Fund have a listing of federally managed lands where bolting (fixed anchors) is prohibited?
Although we can not provide an up-to-date list of fixed anchor prohibitions, we encourage climbers to reach out to the Access Fund with questions about site-specific issues and regulations. At the local level, federal land managers have wildly different approaches to managing Wilderness climbing activities, as well as different interpretations of the term “fixed anchor”. It's a moving target, too, because federal land agency policies change and are not consistent from one park/forest/area to the next. For example, in Red Rocks, Nevada and Sawtooths, Idaho, existing bolts are accepted, but new bolts are currently prohibited. This was also the case in the Superstition Wilderness in Arizona, but that policy changed recently to allow new fixed anchor placements. In other areas, such as North Cascades, Washington, existing and new bolts are prohibited, but pitons are legal. Bolts are not allowed to be placed at all in the Buffalo River Wilderness in Arkansas. The National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management have high-level, national policies on fixed anchors in Wilderness, but the implementation of those policies varies depending on the park unit or BLM district. The US Forest Service does not have a national-level policy on fixed anchors in Wilderness. This vast inconsistency leads to climbing access restrictions all across the country, like a game of whack-a-mole, and is the big reason we are attempting to legislate fixed anchors, setting legal precedent that legitimizes appropriate use of bolts in Wilderness.

We recommend reaching out local field offices before adding any new bolts in Wilderness so that you are clear on the specific regulations (or lack thereof) for a particular climbing area. Regulations also change periodically so it is important to not make assumptions.

Does this legislation impact/weaken the Wilderness Act?
No. The fixed anchor provision in the Emery County Public Land Management Act does not change the Wilderness Act. Access Fund crafted language to clarify Wilderness climbing management and to allow more climbers to support more Wilderness designations. The provision does not diminish the Wilderness Act or Wilderness protection:

(xx) RECREATIONAL CLIMBING.—Nothing in this Act prohibits recreational rock climbing activities in the wilderness areas designated by this Act, such as the placement, use and maintenance of fixed anchors, including those established before the date of the enactment of this Act —

(1) in accordance with the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1131 et seq.); and

(2) subject to any terms and conditions determined to be necessary by the Secretary.

Where can I learn more about Access Fund’s work as it relates to climbing and fixed anchors in Wilderness?
We recommend the following resources to learn more about our work in this area: