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Forest Service seeks feedback on Tensleep Canyon climbing management plan

Austin Beck-Doss

The Forest Service is once again working on a climbing management plan for Tensleep Canyon, which runs through the southwestern edge of the Bighorn Mountains. In recent years, the spot has grown more popular with climbers and other recreators across the state and the region.

In response to this increase in use, the agency hopes to create a plan that will balance getting people outside while also protecting the area’s natural resources. The agency originally started drafting a plan in 2019, then put it on pause two years later as it worked to replace its district ranger.

Now with a new district ranger, the agency is working on the plan again. It will include guidelines on where climbing routes can or can’t be developed in the future, which has been a source of controversy throughout the years and resulted in a route development ban that’s been in place since July of 2019. The area is currently home to more than a thousand sport climbing routes.

Kelsey Bean, the District Recreation Staff Officer for the Powder River Ranger District of the Bighorn National Forest, said the new plan will help manage the route development process on a more case-by-case basis.

“Are there areas where there have been a lot of routes developed and people are having to wait in line to rock climb in those areas? We’re looking at overcrowding as something that might close down an area to additional route development. And that's one of the things that we’re looking at – it can be adaptable and flexible as time goes on,” she said.

Bean said external factors like the presence of raptor nests, the proximity of calving elk, and unnecessary impact to the cliff ecosystems could all contribute to an area being closed to climbing route development. She said moving forward, the hope is that the public can help the agency have a better understanding of where development is occurring and could occur in the future.

“We would like to see a voluntary self-registration for if you're going to go do a route development on a crag or wall – we would like to have that information. If we're getting a lot of requests or applications coming through for that area, maybe it's time for us to go look at and see what's occurring there,” she said.

The most recent revision of the Bighorn National Forest Land and Resource Management plan was published in 2005 and specifically included a recommendation to develop a climbing plan for the area.

“The 2005 plan did say to develop a climbing management plan for Tensleep Canyon, so it has been on the back of our minds for almost 20 years now,” said Bean.

The tall limestone cliffs and abundant natural resources of Tensleep Canyon don’t just draw climbers to the area – hikers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, fly-fishers, and hunters all come to the canyon throughout the year. Bean said the agency has even started to receive inquiries about the possibility of mountain biking in the canyon.

In response to that wide range of uses, the new proposed plan will also identify new official trail systems and remove unofficial user-created trails to minimize ongoing erosion. The plan will also look at stabilizing so-called climbing “staging areas” at the base of cliffs.

“We're trying to avoid having a bunch of trails all over the area,” said Bean. “We did identify some trails that were user-created that are suitable to become system trails, with just a little bit of maintenance.”

Additionally, the plan proposes setting up permanent pit toilets and pet waste bag dispensers to reduce unmanaged human and pet waste. Plus it hopes to expand designated parking areas so people don’t have to park on the shoulders of the local highway.

Bean said the plan will help to better manage the Leigh Creek Research Natural Area, which is a canyon that spurs off of Tensleep Canyon. The area is still in its proposal stages, but the agency wants to treat it as if it were already a designated Natural Area – which means more protections and potentially less rock climbing, or at least no more new development.

“These Research Natural Areas that we have on National Forest Lands are an opportunity for us to have an area that doesn't have a lot of human impact, is free from invasive weeds and can be a place for wildlife. It's an opportunity for us to go in and look at these areas that are unaltered and unimpacted,” she said.

Bean said the Forest Service’s work on the plan has caught the attention of national and international groups who want to keep up with the fast-growing sport and are interested in developing their own climbing management plans for public lands.

“I even had someone who inquired about our process and how it's going for us from a Canadian National Park,” she said.

Bean said the agency really wants public input on the plan.

“We'd love to hear from the public on this. It’s been something we've been working on for a while and proud to see that we've gotten this far,” she said.

Comments on the plan can be submitted online through the end of November 24.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.

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