Get to Know Public Land Agencies

As the public land heist heats up in Congress, we encourage climbers to get to know federal land management agencies and how they approach climbing management. After all, almost 60% of the peaks, crags, and boulders in this country on America’s public, federally managed lands. Each agency has a unique mission and a slightly different approach to managing climbing. All three agencies—National Park Service (NPS), US Forest Service (USFS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—regard climbing as an appropriate activity on the condition that it does not substantially impact natural resources, cultural sites, traditional values, Wilderness character, and other users’ experiences. That said, none of these agencies have explicit, overarching, national-level guidelines for climbing management (with the exception of climbing in Wilderness). Each management area (e.g., Yosemite National Park) is responsible for developing regulations based on its staff’s interpretation of national policies, its agency’s mission, special designations, natural resource conditions, public input, and precedent.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 10.19.44 AMNATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Approximately 13% of climbing in America is on National Park Service land. The National Park Service’s mission is to preserve the parks for the enjoyment of future generations. The National Park Service is less centralized than the other federal land agencies. Each park unit acts relatively autonomously, with the park superintendent acting as the CEO. All national parks use the same planning handbook and management policy guidelines, but each park’s implementation style is unique. The National Park Service typically celebrates climbing—visit the Grand Teton National Park visitor center to see a great climbing exhibit or attend a climber coffee at Yosemite, Joshua Tree, or Obed. However, climbing can also be heavily regulated to protect natural resources or Wilderness character. Try to hand-drill a much needed rappel bolt in North Cascades National Park Wilderness and you could end up with a hefty fine (we are working hard to change this policy).

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The USFS manages the most climbing, approximately 34%, of any land management agency. The USFS tries to balance the health, diversity, and productivity of its forests with recreation opportunities. The USFS acknowledges the economic and social benefits of outdoor recreation activities like climbing. While there are nearly 10,000 climbing sites on USFS land, only two national forests have standalone climbing management plans. This speaks to the agency’s relatively hands-off approach to climbing management. However, when necessary, the USFS can be quick to restrict climbing access and fixed anchors. For example, the USFS is the only agency to have banned fixed anchors in all its Wilderness areas—although, the ban only lasted a few months before pressure from climbers resulted in a reversal. There are many well-developed climbing areas in national forests that are not known to USFS district managers. Given the increasing popularity of climbing, Access Fund expects a marked increase in USFS climbing regulations and restrictions in the upcoming years as many national forests become aware of climbing areas and revise their forest management plans. Access Fund is involved in these revision processes to shape the future of United States Forest service climbing management.

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The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages approximately 10% of America’s climbing. The BLM has a multiple-use mission and manages its 245 million acres for resource extraction, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting. The agency manages some of its vast expanses of remote land in the western U.S. for both developed and dispersed forms of recreation. For the most part, climbing is loosely regulated on BLM land, with the exception of designated Wilderness areas and Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). Oddly, fixed anchors are generally allowed in Wilderness areas (some require authorization) but essentially prohibited in Wilderness Study Areas, which are areas being considered for a Wilderness designation. While BLM land remains loosely regulated for climbers, as the sport grows, restrictions to climbing on BLM land could expand.

All three land agencies generally manage climbing in designated Wilderness areas with tighter regulations in order to adhere to the Wilderness Act mandates for solitude, primitive recreation, and non-motorized tools. While these guidelines differ across the agencies, motorized drills and bolt-intensive climbing are generally prohibited in federally designated Wilderness areas.