Climbers Mobilize for Sustainable Access in Black Canyon

Frequently bold, often difficult, and always thrilling, the Black Canyon is internationally known as one of America’s most adventurous and wild climbing destinations—the very definition of long, traditional, backcountry Wilderness climbing. The National Park Service (NPS) is in the midst of updating the Black Canyon’s Wilderness and Backcountry Management Plan. While the plan gets some things right, Access Fund is concerned about other elements that stand to set a dangerous precedent that could impact Yosemite National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and other Wilderness climbing areas across America.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Ancestral Ute lands. © Daniel Dunn.

To date, the climbing management in the Black Canyon represents a collaborative effort between climbers and park staff that maintains sustainable access and preserves the solitude and adventure of the canyon’s dramatic setting. The new management plan preserves some of that critical work and proven strategies, but in other areas it dramatically—and unnecessarily—changes course:

  • The NPS draft treats fixed anchors in Wilderness areas as fundamentally prohibited, which ignores established fixed anchor management policy, overlooks years of great work by Black Canyon rangers, and puts climber safety at risk by preventing the timely maintenance and replacement of aging and unsafe fixed anchors

  • The NPS draft sets an arbitrary limit on new routes and access gulleys, without any data to show why these limits on climbing are necessary.

  • The NPS draft ignores modern raptor protection strategies, which are based on a large body of scientific research, opting instead for antiquated blanket closure strategies that restrict access unnecessarily.

The most worrisome aspect of the plan is the requirement of a Minimum Requirements Analysis (MRA) for the placement, maintenance, and replacement of any kind of fixed anchor. The MRA process is reserved for prohibited activities in designated Wilderness—and sustainable Wilderness climbing, including the use of fixed anchors, is not illegal. Climber safety relies on the timely maintenance of aging anchors, especially in remote areas like the Black Canyon, where rescue is challenging and costly. Besides ignoring established NPS policy and grouping climbing with other activities that are illegal in Wilderness areas, the MRA requirement takes climber safety out of the hands of climbers and puts it through an expensive, slow, and unnecessary bureaucratic process.

Earlier this year, park officials presented the proposed management plan and requested public input. Access Fund called on climbers to speak up in order to preserve smart, effective climbing management in the Black Canyon. Climbers heard the call and activated across the country to submit comments to let the NPS know how they can better manage climbing in the Black Canyon. The public comment period is now closed, and park officials will use the public input to shape the final management plan.

Access Fund remains engaged with the issue and will keep the climbing community up to date on any new developments. Stay up to date on the Black Canyon and other access issues by signing up for Access Fund action alerts.

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