Climbing and Wilderness Advocates Come Together to Protect Wilderness Climbing

Climbers have long been among the nation’s leading conservationists, and our community has been a staunch supporter of wilderness in particular. These dual values of both recreation and environmentalism have led our community to cultivate strong and long-standing bonds with many of the nation’s foremost conservation organizations.

Climbing at Joshua Tree. Ancestral lands of the Serrano and Western Shoshone. Photo by Chris Burkard.

Reflecting this shared history, a remarkable coalition of climbers and mainstream wilderness advocacy groups has recently come together to oppose a misguided proposal that represents one of the most serious threats to wilderness climbing in decades. A new Climbing Management Plan (CMP) for Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP), currently in its drafting phase, proposes to classify fixed anchors as “prohibited installations” in Wilderness areas. Under the plan, fixed anchors would require specific administrative exceptions to be allowable. This proposal goes so far as to call for the removal of certain fixed anchors already in place in the JTNP backcountry, possibly resulting in the removal of hundreds of climbing routes.

Access Fund has joined forces with The Wilderness Society, California Wilderness Coalition, the National Parks Conservation Association, and Outdoor Alliance, along with the American Alpine Club, The Mountaineers, the American Mountain Guides Association, and Friends of Joshua Tree to go on record in opposition to JTNP’s proposal:

“We do not support a reinterpretation of the Wilderness Act that treats fixed anchors as installations,” our joint coalition letter states. “Instead, we support smart, effective climbing management strategies that address the entire climbing activity, from parking areas and access trails to staging areas and the summits of climbing routes, in a manner consistent with the Wilderness Act and accepted wilderness management principles.”

Fixed anchors are an essential part of the climbing tool kit, both within and outside Wilderness areas. Bolts and other forms of fixed gear have been used in the Wilderness for over 80 years, and despite occasional controversy, the careful, regulated, and limited use of fixed anchors to facilitate outstanding opportunities for backcountry recreation has never been prohibited more than temporarily.

Access Fund supports the regulation of fixed anchors in the Wilderness, including permitting systems where necessary and even removal in very specific cases where climbing facilitated by fixed anchors unacceptably damages cultural or natural resources. JTNP’s proposal, however, goes far beyond this. It changes the status quo around fixed anchors from something that is permissible, with restrictions where necessary, to something that is fundamentally prohibited. As a flagship climbing park with extensive Wilderness areas, the precedent JTNP will set should this CMP be enacted as proposed is a major threat to fixed anchor use, and Wilderness climbing, nationwide.

Such a precedent could also cause significant damage to long-standing partnerships between climbing/recreation organizations, federal land managers, and the conservation community. The Wilderness has traditionally been something climbers celebrate, but if JTNP’s treatment of fixed anchors is emulated by other land managers, new Wilderness designations could conflict with climbing access—something no one in either the recreation or conservation community wants to see happen.

This is not the first time the climbing community has partnered with Wilderness advocacy organizations either. Access Fund collaborated with The Wilderness Society, for example, on previous policy work concerning fixed anchors in Wilderness areas. Our two organizations jointly supported language, passed into federal law in conjunction with several new Wilderness designations from the 2019 Dingell Act, that enshrines the notion that the limited and regulated use of fixed anchors is appropriate in Wilderness areas. There is similar language in other pending legislation, such as the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act. Such partnerships speak to our long and robust relationship with the conservation community, as well as our own history of advocacy for the Wilderness.

Access Fund believes that there are better ways to manage fixed anchors in the Wilderness and protect the incredible JTNP backcountry that don’t require such an extreme step as prohibiting fixed anchors, a move that is out of line not only with the interests of climbers, but of everyday Wilderness advocates and environmentalists. We are immensely grateful for the support of our coalition partners in the Wilderness advocacy space and are committed to continuing to work with both them and JTNP to find management solutions that protect access and promote conservation and sustainability in the backcountry.

To get engaged with this ongoing campaign and to read our detailed comments and our coalition letter, please visit the following links: full comment letter, coalition sign-on letter.