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Federal climbing proposals spark debate in wilderness areas

U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School
Flickr Creative Commons

News brief: 

The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service are proposing new guidelines to manage climbing in wilderness areas. Much of the focus is on fixed anchor installations, and that has sparked frustration in both climbing and conservation communities.

Fixed anchors are pieces of metal drilled into rocks – by hand in highly-protected federal wilderness. Climbers clip safety gear like ropes onto them, and they serve as important features in many iconic climbing areas such as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Joshua Tree National Park.

In their proposals, the federal agencies say fixed anchors will be allowed, but only on a “case-specific determination.” Officials say this balances the desires of climbers while maintaining a conservation ethic.

“Climbing is a popular way to enjoy the outdoors and recreate on public lands,” Forest Chief Randy Moore said in a statement. “The proposed directive would ensure the Forest Service supports world-class climbing opportunities while also protecting natural and cultural resources for future generations.”

But some in the climbing community say the proposed rules are too harsh, because they define fixed anchors as “installations” to be treated like a proposed road or fire tower.

“Implementing these policies could jeopardize the safety of climbers around the country by deeming standard climbing practices in Wilderness as fundamentally prohibited until granted specific exceptions at each of the thousands of Wilderness crags that climbers love,” Erik Murdock, interim executive director of the advocacy group Access Fund, said in a statement.

Many are asking Congress to pass the Protect America’s Rock Climbing (PARC) Act, which has been introduced in the U.S. House and has the support of several western lawmakers. It would specifically allow the placement of fixed anchors in wilderness areas.

Meanwhile, conservation groups say allowing more metal installations ruins highly protected nature areas. A member of the group Wilderness Watch told the Colorado Sun that welcoming fixed anchors could open the door for other recreators who want more lenient conservation laws.

“The important thing is that iconic climbs in Wilderness should be free of discarded climbing gear and permanent alterations. And most importantly, the Wilderness Act will remain intact and not eroded by the recreation rage de jour,” a number of groups said in a statement earlier this year.

Comments on both federal proposals can be submitted through mid-January 2024.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.

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