03/10/2020

Why A Healthy Democracy Is Critical For Public Lands

Public lands in the United States are managed through the democratic process, ensuring that we all have a voice in how they are used. It also protects these lands from being used as political bargaining chips. Without a healthy democracy, our ability to conserve and access public lands is compromised—putting our outstanding climbing and recreation values at risk. 

Public Process & Transparency

There are two critically important laws that underpin a healthy and transparent democratic process for public lands, and they are essential to Access Fund’s work to protect America’s climbing. 

  • The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a federal law that requires our government officials to openly and thoroughly evaluate the environmental, social, and economic effects of their proposed actions for managing public lands. This process provides opportunities for the public—that’s you and Access Fund and others—to review and express support or objections. 
  • The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives Americans the right to request access to records from any federal agency, providing transparency into government decisions and keeping our government officials accountable.

There are often debates about how we can improve these bedrock democratic laws, and Access Fund has often supported careful and targeted adjustments. But the underlying values of transparency and public involvement are critical to the future of public lands.   

Checks & Balances

Our democratic process also includes checks and balances on the officials appointed to lead our federal land management agencies. 

  • The American public elects the office of the President
  • The President appoints leaders for land management agencies
  • The Senate confirms those appointed leaders to ensure America’s public lands are managed responsibly and not used for political gain. 

These laws and procedures can be cumbersome—and we do not always “win” when we participate in these public processes—but they are essential to a healthy democracy, and their integrity must be upheld. 

Why NEPA Matters for Climbing

The NEPA process has helped Access Fund protect and steward thousands of climbing areas across the country. Here are just two examples of the NEPA process at work for climbing areas.

  • Access Fund stops National Park Service (NPS) from pulling bolts at Christmas Tree Pass. In 2010, the NPS issued a proposal to pull climbing bolts within Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada, risking several quality desert climbs found at Christmas Tree Pass. This NPS proposal was based on faulty information about climber visitation and failed to identify any conflicts that climbing was causing, which would justify removing the bolts. Because the area is located on federal land, the NPS was required to vet this decision through the NEPA process, which includes opening it up for public comment. Through this public process, Access Fund was able to step in and inform NPS staff about climber visitation and climbing management strategies that allow fixed anchor use. We also launched an action alert to our members, rallying hundreds of climbers to write to the NPS and advocate for leaving the bolts alone. The NPS reversed their proposed action to remove the bolts—a victory for climbers and a good example of how NEPA helps us protect climbing.
  • Access Fund gains approval to address dire stewardship issues at California’s Lover’s Leap. Lover’s Leap near Lake Tahoe has been deteriorating for years under a dramatic increase in climber traffic. The area draws droves of climbers from throughout California and across the U.S. but has no formal trail system. Visiting climbers have created an unstable web of access trails, causing severe erosion and compromising the stability of belay areas. These issues threaten the ecosystem within Eldorado National Forest, and they also frustrate visiting climbers and have potential to hinder emergency response teams. Because Lover’s Leap is located on federal land, Access Fund and local climbers must get government approval before attempting to address these issues. In 2017, Access Fund and Climbing Resource Advocates for Greater Sacramento (CRAGS) drafted a trail-stabilization proposal for the U.S. Forest Service to help develop an environmental assessment for the much-needed trail work. The NEPA process was employed to evaluate this proposal, to ensure that our restoration plan is sound, based on the best available science, and thoroughly vetted to avoid conflicts with other values of the land. The U.S. Forest Service approved the restoration plan last fall, and Access Fund and CRAGS will begin work this summer.

These are just two examples among thousands. Nearly 60% of climbing in this country is located on federal public lands, and Access Fund has used the NEPA process to protect a critical mass of public climbing areas. (If you’re feeling really wonky, you can read hundreds of our NEPA advocacy statements here.)

Public Lands Unite Us

No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, no matter which candidates you support in the upcoming election, we hope you will champion the causes and values that protect public lands. Although our growing community of climbers and outdoor adventurers holds a broad spectrum of ideologies and viewpoints, our love of the outdoors unites us.
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