Get Ready: More Permit and Reservation Systems are Likely Coming

Freedom is a concept that is fundamental to climbing. The notion of setting off into the unknown, self-reliant and independent, was and continues to be a driving force behind the development of climbing, and it’s a personal motivator for many individual climbers. It is not a coincidence that the most classic, foundational text for moving through the mountains is titled The Freedom of the Hills.

Drew Smith Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park recently implemented a pilot program for Wilderness climbing permits. Ancestral lands of Sierra Miwok. © Drew Smith

It is understandable, then, that our community is suspicious of any attempts—by the government or by fellow climbers—to limit our ability to get out and climb the mountains, big walls, routes, and boulder problems that inspire us. Access Fund itself was founded to ensure that climbers could sustainably enjoy access to the vertical environment.

So, what happens when the threat to this freedom comes from within our own community? Some states have reported a nearly 50% increase in public land use levels during 2021 and national parks are recording the highest use-levels ever. And many would argue that there are too many of us on the land, eroding not just the environment, but the social conditions that are so essential to the climbing experience, whether that means solitude and self-reliance or the ability to climb with a group of friends without having to worry about crowding out the crag.

As climbers, we can and have self-regulated by practicing Leave No Trace principles, building and maintaining sustainable crags, protecting cultural resources, and respecting raptor closures. Now, as the climbing population and the general outdoor recreation community continue to grow, what should we as a community do to protect the places we love in the face of ever-increasing use? Land managers are already starting to answer this question for us.

© Brittany Hamilton

A New Normal?

Within the last year, permit systems (both pilot and permanent) have been established in iconic destinations across the country, including Yosemite National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, with more on the way. While climbers may feel targeted by these new systems, most of them address a surge in overall visitation. Land managers often view climbers as one user group that is contributing to a larger problem of overcrowding that also includes hikers, picnickers, backpackers, mountain bikers, and many other types of people who have embraced outdoor recreation.

The sudden surge in new reservation and permit requirements can largely be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic: Faced with a sudden and urgent need to reduce capacity to protect visitors, public land managers across the country began implementing timed-entry reservation systems. But in reality, planning for many of these reservation and permit systems has been in the works for years, as visitor numbers have been increasing, and it was only a matter of time. It is reasonable to assume that these systems will continue into the future, and they are being emulated and replicated by other public land managers.

No one enjoys getting permits or the limitations they place on our ability to climb at will. They can also be improperly applied and administered, and they are not necessarily the most elegant solution to mitigating impact. At the same time, in an era of surging interest in outdoor recreation, they are also becoming a key tool for land managers to limit social and environmental degradation at the places we love.

What It Means for Climbers

So, what does this trend mean for the climbing community?

Reservation and permits can interfere with our ability to leave on a whim for a long weekend of climbing in the Valley or off the scenic loop at Red Rock. This change is particularly impactful on locals, who are blessed to have these places in their backyards. These changes also require climbers to have a computer and internet to gain access, since the administration of these permits is almost entirely online, with a few walk-up exceptions. And in some cases, permits and reservations mean extra, although small, fees. Developments like this can, and should, make our community uncomfortable.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area recently implemented a permanent permit system. Ancestral lands of Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone. © Irene Yee
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area recently implemented a permanent permit system. Ancestral lands of Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone. © Irene Yee

But these new systems can also improve the climbing experience. We may enjoy less crowding, fewer lines on routes, less sitting in loop road traffic jams, more opportunities to educate users, and less impact on the land—improvements all climbers can support. And in the long term—especially as climbing and outdoor recreation continue to grow with no end in sight—protecting the environment and the recreation experience is paramount.

Land Managers Must Conduct an Open Process

At Access Fund, we believe any new changes and systems must include robust public engagement and process to ensure climbers have a voice, especially the local communities that are heavily impacted. In some cases, timed-entry reservation systems may be a fair solution for the particular challenges a popular recreation destination faces. In others, they may not. These kinds of management strategies must be tailored for each location and put the least amount of burden on climbers, land managers, and other stakeholders.

Ensuring the needs of locals and visitors alike are met while ensuring that any management strategy is site-specific and minimalist often means a holistic NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis. However, none of the pilot permit systems implemented during COVID-19 have completed the NEPA process yet, and the Red Rock NCA permanent reservation system simply ignored the federal mandate for public process. Access Fund is closely monitoring the pilot programs in other locations.

Rocky Mountain National Park recently implemented a day use permit system to manage visitation. Ancestral lands of Cheyenne and Ute. © Jon Glassberg

Land managers must also be able to display measurable impacts to social, cultural, or natural environments before implementing these types of systems. And there are myriad less-restrictive approaches to addressing user impacts—including education, rerouting trails, wag bags, signage, erosion control measures, site hardening, and targeted closures, to name just a few. Access Fund has helped create and implement these strategies all across the country—from Indian Creek to Lover’s Leap to Cathedral Ledge and many in between—in partnership with local climbing organizations (LCOs) and agencies. These solutions should be fully explored before land managers implement a reservation or permit system. In areas where a permit system is a reasonable tool, Access Fund strongly advocates for the least restrictive system, with ample consideration given to the specific needs of local communities as well as the unique ways that climbers access and move through the lands we enjoy.

Change is Coming — And We Can Help Shape It

As climbers, we must acknowledge that we are entering a new era. The growth of our sport, and outdoor recreation as a whole, threatens the places and experiences we care so much about. Land managers will likely continue to respond with new limitations on at-will entry to some of the most popular climbing and outdoor recreation destinations.

Yosemite National Park recently implemented a pilot program for Wilderness climbing permits. Ancestral lands of Sierra Miwok. © Francois Lebeau.

We need to examine these limitations with a critical eye and speak up when they unintentionally harm the climbing experience. At the same time, we should not interpret them only as a burden. They are a trade-off. In exchange for added hurdles to entry, we might gain the experience so many of us crave on our public lands—open space, few lines, solitude. And these systems may help to ensure that recreational access is sustainable for years to come.

As climbers, we have to get involved to advocate for a vision that places a premium on both sustainable access and conservation. Access Fund is committed to working with the climbing community and with land managers to ensure that any new permit systems are necessary, include robust public process, are informed by the most current science and statistics, and are equitable. Though these changes are uncomfortable, they can, if implemented correctly, have the potential to help protect the lands we love and enhance our experience on them.

Finally, with all this growth in outdoor recreation, we all have to be more vigilant to reduce our own impacts, to improve conditions on the ground through volunteer stewardship, and to support and partner with land managers. The best way to preserve sustainable access is to lead by example in taking care of these incredible places.

Questions? Feedback? Please reach out to [email protected] with your thoughts.