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No Climbing Allowed: Federal Proposal May Restrict Access Nationwide, Advocacy Groups Warn

A new policy proposed by federal park officials would allow park managers to remove the gear of climbing routes, worrying the sport's advocates.

rock climbing anchorClimbing anchors, like those seen above in the Cascade Mountains, could be removed under a new federal proposal; (photo/Shutterstock)
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Climbers have about two months to voice their opinion on a federal proposal that could reshape American rock climbing.

Last week, the U.S. National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service unveiled a policy that would designate climbing bolts and anchors as “permanent installations,” which are banned under the 1964 Wilderness Act. That caused immediate concern among climbing groups, who said the change could threaten climbing routes across the country, from El Capitan in Yosemite National Park to Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Under the proposal, any route with fixed anchors (usually bolts drilled into the rock) would have to undergo the same federal approval process as garbage dumps or fence lines, said Erik Murdock, interim executive director of the Access Fund. That equipment has been allowed for 60 years.

“It would be a paradigm shift,” Murdock told GearJunkie on Tuesday. “People would still be able to climb, but climbers would have to fight to protect the areas forever. It would mean that any future superintendent could remove all the climbing routes with the stroke of a pen.”

A climber on El Capitan, the epicenter of American rock climbing. Even these routes are in danger if federal officials approve a new policy, climbing groups said; (photo/Shutterstock)

Many outdoor recreation groups issued statements opposing the federal proposal, including the American Alpine Club, the American Mountain Guides Association, the Outdoor Industry Association, USA Climbing, Outdoor Alliance, and others.

UPDATE: In a statement shared with GearJunkie, a National Park Service spokesperson said that the proposed changes would “help park managers create consistency in managing climbing activities in wilderness areas consistent with the Wilderness Act, and give climbers a clear and more predictable process for installing new or replacing existing fixed anchors in wilderness.”

“I also want to note that under the proposed guidance, existing fixed anchors may continue to be used,” the spokesperson said.

Rule Could Impact More Than Just Climbers

It’s not all bad news.

The federal proposal does acknowledge that climbing is permitted as “an appropriate use” of national lands. However, the policy also says that park officials can subject all fixed anchors to a federal review. That will determine if the gear is “the minimum necessary to facilitate primitive or unconfined recreation or otherwise preserve wilderness character.”

“They’re going to do a federal review for every fixed anchor in the wilderness now? That’s a big deal,” said Bryon Harvison, the director of policy and government affairs for the American Alpine Club. “It’s a massive undertaking, and these agencies are already saying that they’re underfunded and undermanned.”

Search-and-rescue teams, like the one above, also need climbing anchors for rescues of hikers and climbers, the president of the American Alpine Institute said; (photo/Shutterstock)

But it’s also worth pointing out that the fixed anchors in many climbing areas aren’t just for climbers, said Jason D. Martin, the executive director of the American Alpine Institute. They’re also used by search-and-rescue groups during rescue operations or by canyoneers.

“It’s a definite concern that we have,” Martin said. “They’re upset about this stuff when it’s a very limited impact. It has very little impact on animal life or vegetation. A trail is a much bigger impact than a bolt.”

This new fight over climbing access comes just before rock climbing groups are advocating in Congress for the Protecting America’s Rock Climbing Act and the America’s Outdoor Recreation Act. In June, the first bill received unanimous approval from a House committee.

“Even Congress voted in support of protecting America’s rock climbing,” Murdock said. “This federal policy goes against the last 60 years of climbing management in the wilderness.”

A 60-day comment period for the federal proposal began on Friday. Visit the U.S. Forest Service website to leave a comment.

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