The Fight to Legitimize Climbing in National Forests

In February, a new district ranger, who had arrived in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest just a few months before, banned climbing bolts and all new route development in the area. There was no public process; there was no opportunity to object.

Mill Creek Canyon in Montana | © Dane Scott

The Threat: National forests are home to about 30% of America’s climbing, yet the U.S. Forest Service has no national-level policy establishing climbing as legitimate and protecting fixed anchors as a critical safety tool. This leaves more than 150 national forests to interpret laws and make decisions on their own. If this sounds like a threatening game of whack-a-mole, that’s because it is.

What You Can Do Now: Sign up for action alerts—we'll be rallying the climbing community soon to push on U.S. Forest Service officials to work with Access Fund on national policy that establishes climbing as a legitimate activity in national forests.

Though you can find both multipitch alpine test pieces and single-pitch sport crags in the Bitterroots outside of Missoula, the routes are not well-known, perhaps because locals are notoriously tight-lipped. The fact that you’re not sure if you ever want to climb there, however, is precisely what made the sweeping order so dangerous.

National forests in the United States host about 30 percent of America’s climbing, from backyard crags, like Boulder Canyon, to some of the country’s most iconic climbing areas, like Seneca Rocks, Rumney, the Linville Gorge, Cochise Stronghold, Wild Iris, California’s Needles, and so many more. Yet despite the volume of climbing on U.S. Forest Service land, the agency has no national-level policy establishing climbing as a legitimate use, allowing sustainable management of staging areas and trails, and protecting fixed anchors as a critical safety tool for the sport. This leaves each national forest, of which there are more than 150—and sometimes each individual district within each national forest—to make their own decisions.

Restrictions on climbing at the district or forest level are often put into place to address local conflicts, but their impacts ripple out far beyond the immediate area, for many years to come. District rangers and forest supervisors move among forests frequently as they progress through their careers. When they are faced with tough decisions, they search for guidance on how to make them. Finding none at the national level, they look to their peers.

“If the Bitterroot National Forest can just ban new routes without any public input, why can’t Mount Hood National Forest do that next?” said Access Fund Executive Director Chris Winter. “Without national-level guidance, each individual decision is important to the entire climbing community. Each individual decision sets a precedent that affects climbing across the country.”

This is how a ban on bolting in a forest you don’t care about becomes a ban in a forest you do care about, and the possible ramifications of this lack of national policy is one of the greatest threats to climbing today.

Déjà Vu

Just a few decades ago, the climbing community faced a similar threat to climbing on U.S. Forest Service land. In September 1997, the supervisor of Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho banned fixed anchors in the forest’s Wilderness. The following summer, the ban in the Sawtooths became national policy, affecting all Wilderness areas.

Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho is located on the ancestral lands of the Shoshone-Bannock.

The ban set off alarm bells for climbers everywhere and galvanized the entire climbing community. With leadership from Access Fund, the ban was effectively ended with a legislative fix, but national-level guidance legitimizing climbing and fixed anchor use on Forest Service lands never emerged, despite nearly 25 years of effort.

While the 1997 ban on fixed anchors in Wilderness areas riled climbers, the scope of the restrictions was much narrower than what’s at stake today. The bolting bans now being proposed or implemented in individual forests, including the Bitteroots, affect the entire forest, not just Wilderness. This means popular frontcountry and roadside crags could also be caught in the cross fire.

15 of The Most Popular USFS Climbing Areas

There's a vast amount of climbing on USFS lands. Here are just a handful of the most popular.

  1. Mount Lemmon, Arizona
  2. Bishop, California
  3. Holcomb, California
  4. Boulder Canyon, Colorado
  5. The Fins, Idaho
  6. Jackson Falls, Illinois
  7. Red River Gorge, Kentucky
  8. Mt Charleston, Nevada
  9. Rumney, New Hampshire
  10. Linville Gorge, North Carolina
  11. Maple Canyon, Utah
  12. Icicle Canyon, Washington
  13. Seneca Rocks, West Virginia
  14. Tensleep, Wyoming
  15. Wild Iris, Wyoming

“It’s like the 1990s on steroids,” said Erik Murdock, Access Fund’s policy director. “This is a resurgence in the conflict over fixed anchors, but the big difference is that in the mid-’90s, no one was really concerned about climbing outside of the Wilderness.”

Plenty of people are concerned now, in large part because of the increase in climbers, as well as the increase in overall visits to public lands.

“We are in the era of user conflict,” Murdock said. “We have more climbers, but we also have way more people who mountain bike, backcountry ski, paddle, trail run, and recreate in other ways. We’re all vying for use of the same lands.”

Forest Supervisors Left Wondering if Fixed Anchors Constitute “Damage”

The fixed anchor ban of the 1990s was based on one forest supervisor’s interpretation that fixed anchors constituted “permanent improvements” and “installations” in violation of the Wilderness Act of 1964. The proposed bans on bolting and other fixed anchors today are not directly related to the Wilderness Act, but they still involve individual interpretations of the law, in this case, parts of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which prohibits “damaging any natural feature or other property of the United States” and “abandoning any personal property.” Land managers are left wondering: Do bolts or other anchors constitute damage or abandoned property?

When forest officials issued a forest-wide ban on new route development in Wyoming’s Bighorns, where the controversy over manufactured routes and subsequent bolt-chopping in Ten Sleep got ugly last summer, they justified the act in part by interpreting that bolts do in fact damage the natural features. Forest officials in the Bitterroots made similar interpretations as the foundation for their own ban.

The route development ban at Tensleep in Wyoming could impact climbing in other forests. Ancestral lands of Apsaalooké (Crow), Eastern Shoshone, and Cheyenne. | © Louis Arevalo

“Right now, each forest is taking a crack at interpreting the Code of Federal Regulations for themselves,” Murdock said. “At Ten Sleep, they made a CFR interpretation. At the Bitterroots, they made a CFR interpretation. They just don’t have any guidance.”

The recent CFR interpretations in the Bighorns and in the Bitterroots, where tensions between conservationists had simmered for years, were both levied to address immediate conflicts. But national forests across the country are also wrestling with how climbing generally fits into the long-term management of their lands, which will require a hard look at how climbing and CFRs intersect. This includes the use of fixed anchors but encompasses much more, including whether unofficial approach trails and staging areas at the base of climbs are legal, given that regulations prohibit “constructing, placing, or maintaining any kind of road, trail, structure ... significant surface disturbance, or other improvement ... without a special-use authorization.”

Fighting for Long-Term Climbing Access, One Forest at a Time

Management of national forests is guided by planning documents, which can take years to complete and which are infrequently updated. In fact, most national forests currently operate under plans that are decades old, and because they were written in a time before the popularity of climbing exploded, most do not mention climbing at all.

As these plans are being slowly updated, spurred along by a 2012 law that sets the guidelines for how modern plans are developed, forest officials must contend with how to address whole classes of use not addressed before, including climbing but also mountain biking and other recreation.

“These documents are filled with wonky, regulatory language that will impact climbing for 20 or 30 years,” said Katie Goodwin, Access Fund policy analyst and California regional director. “What we’ve seen in the draft language of many of these plans is that they tend to not address climbing really at all or there’s a blanket statement that bans fixed anchors altogether or provides vague language about a permitting process.”

Without any assurance from the national level that climbing is a legitimate use of national forests, Goodwin and other Access Fund staff have to spend vast amounts of time tracking the development of individual forest management plans, engaging and building new relationships with forest leaders who frequently turn over, drafting comments, and participating in the public process—all just to preserve the tenuous foothold that climbing should be allowed at all.

In the Southeast, for example, Access Fund has been working for years to make sure that the plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests in North Carolina—which include Looking Glass, the Linville Gorge, and Whitesides—appropriately addresses climbing. But the draft, released in February, concerns Zachary Lesch-Huie, who serves as Access Fund’s Southeast regional director.

Climbers are currently fighting for fair policies at Linville Gorge in Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest. Ancestral lands of ᎠᎳᎫᏪᏘᏱ Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East). | © Shannon Millsaps

“Right now the draft plan does not reflect all our work and the many specific recommendations that we made,” he said. “You collaborate for eight years, but you still don’t know: Will it result in good climbing management?”

Right now, at least in North Carolina, the answer appears to be no. The plan as proposed could shut down access to the vast majority of the area’s climbing, because of its inflexible approach to unofficial trails, and it also proposes an unrealistic permitting process for placing and maintaining fixed anchors in the forests’ Wilderness areas.

“Climbing was nearly invisible in their previous plan, so we had high hopes we could see some good additions. We spent years going to meetings with Forest Service officials and other interest groups, but the plan that came out was even more regressive than earlier plans,” Lesch-Huie said. “When that happens, you have to ask if they're really listening. This is one of the most heavily used recreational forests in the country. It desperately needs better management tools for the next 20 years.”

We Need A National Policy Now

While Access Fund will always work to build strong relationships with local land managers, moving past the question of whether to allow climbing and fixed anchors would allow the organization to work on a number of other important issues related to public lands, including sustainable trails, mitigating impacts at the base of climbing areas, raptor protection, and more.

“Each climbing area is distinct, and we’ll always have to negotiate the details of local climbing management plans,” Murdock said. “But we shouldn’t have to negotiate whether fixed anchors can be allowed or whether rock climbing is even a legitimate use.”

Murdock is optimistic that the needed national-level guidance is possible. Over the past decades, Access Fund has built a robust relationship with the national U.S. Forest Service office in D.C. The strength of this relationship is part of the reason that Access Fund was able to force a revision to the order that banned bolts and new route development in the Bitterroot National Forest—in just seven days.

“It really speaks to the power of the climbing community and the partnership between the Forest Service and Access Fund,” Murdock said. “It took years to develop those relationships, but it was important exactly for situations like this.”

As soon as Access Fund learned of the ban in the Bitterroots, the organization sent out an action alert calling on climbers everywhere to oppose the order because of the precedent it set and the lack of a public process leading up to its issuance. The result was thousands of letters from all over the country. Fixed anchors are now being allowed with prior authorization while Bitterroot National Forest works toward a climbing management plan.

In the past couple of months, Access Fund has also led an effort to form a U.S. Forest Service Climbing Management Coalition. The group—which includes American Alpine Club, American Mountain Guides Association, NativesOutdoors, and The Wilderness Society—is working to come up with recommended guidelines for the Forest Service that, if adopted, would clarify the legitimacy of climbing activities. If the group is successful in getting its recommendations adopted, more than climbers will benefit.

“In the end, national-level guidance will save taxpayers money and local Forest Service officials time,” Winter said. “And the consistency and stability it would create would bolster the outdoor recreation economy by allowing rural communities that surround these climbing areas to plan for the future.”

What You Can Do to Help

We're asking all climbers to sign up for Action Alerts. We'll be rallying the community in the coming months for a coordinated advocacy campaign to urge U.S. Forest Service officials to establish national level policy legitimizing climbing and fixed anchors.