Fixed Anchors in the Wilderness

An exclusive update on the upcoming policies that will affect all climbers

Flashback: It’s the summer of 1998, and you’re 500 feet up the Sun Ribbon Arête on Temple Crag, one of the High Sierra’s finest alpine rock peaks. The scattered morning clouds have quickly turned into ominous thunderheads, coming your way. With nothing ahead but even more exposed climbing for 1,500 feet to the summit, you belay up your partner, have a short discussion, equalize a nut and a sling around a horn, and begin to rap. Two hundred feet lower you pull your rope, leaving the anchor in place—thus committing a federal crime.

That was the situation for a few months in 1998—and possibly again soon. In June of that year, the U.S. Forest Service banned all fixed climbing anchors within the designated Wilderness areas under its jurisdiction. Bolts were not singled out, then or now, in any national-level definition of fixed climbing anchors, so pitons, nuts, and slings could also be banned.

The ruling affected thousands of routes in a host of popular climbing venues, including the California Sierra (the John Muir Wilderness’ Temple Crag being just one of many); the Wind River Range of Wyoming; Linville Gorge, North Carolina; Granite Mountain, Arizona; and the Needles and Sangre de Cristo ranges in Colorado. The rule applied only to designated Wilderness areas, not all Forest Service lands, but it still hit like a taser blast.

The public outcry was loud and immediate. Climbing advocacy groups such as the Access Fund, American Alpine Club, and American Mountain Guides Association went ballistic, and even mainstream outdoor groups such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society came out against the ban. Editorials appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times.

The Forest Service claimed, controversially, that it was not creating new policy, but merely clarifying existing provisions in the 1964 Wilderness Act, citing a prohibition against “permanent installations.” Climbing advocates appealed the decision and lost, but then convinced Congress to include a rider on an appropriations bill that prohibited the use of federal funds to enforce the rule—effectively ending the ban. The Secretary of Agriculture then convened a formal Negotiated Rulemaking process on fixed anchors in Wilderness, appointing a committee of 23 representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish & Wildlife, as well as user groups and the Access Fund. Though the group met four times in 2000, and agreed on some principles (quite similar to those already proposed by a 1990 task force—see below), and the USFS circulated some provisionary documents in 2004, the rulemaking process failed to lead to a crisp conclusion. Sound kind of like the fiscal cliff debacle in January? Welcome to D.C.

A brief history of Wilderness bolting bans: the first major incident occurred in 1988, when a hiker complained about bolts and chalk in a climbing area called Zonerland in the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix. (Note to radsters who think they are all alone out there at their new project crag: It was actually a blaring boom box that first caught the hiker’s attention.) In response, Tonto National Forest rangers banned bolts, citing rules against “abandonment of personal property” and “defacing a natural feature.” This didn’t fly for long. The conflict escalated, the newly formed Access Fund got involved, and Tonto National Forest soon appealed to the USFS national office for guidance.

The USFS convened a national task force to study the issue. Among the assembled group were hardcore wilderness advocates, mainstream outdoorspeople, land managers, and climbers, and the team worked together for months to iron out proposals that, while not exactly a unanimous consensus, provided a good set of guidelines for approaching the issue. Key among these were guidelines for monitoring density and visibility of fixed anchors, and a “Limits of Acceptable Change” procedure for curtailing the proliferation of fixed anchors in an area. Roger Deaver, the Forest Service southwest region’s Director of Recreation, who headed the task force, called this process, “the highest form of public service cooperation that we can hope to achieve.”

Unfortunately, all this good work was wasted, as the task-force recommendations were buried in Forest Service files. Throughout the 1990s, individual forest supervisors came out with numerous restrictive rulings, including several bans that are still in effect at places like Granite Mountain, Arizona. None ever used the density and visibility monitoring guidelines or the Limits of Acceptable Change procedures outlined by the 1990 task force.

Among these 1990s climber-unfriendly rulings was a provision that wormed its way into a 1997 wilderness management plan produced for the Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho, which includes a world-class crag, the Elephant’s Perch. The Sawtooths plan originally was intended to address the more pressing concerns of fire-control policy, stocking of non-native fish, and installation of backcountry pit toilets; ironically, the anchor ban came at the suggestion of the sole climber in the study group, Steve Wolper, a 51-year-old Ketchum resident who had become disillusioned with the (admittedly over-the-top) sport climbing impacts he was seeing at the nearby climbing area of City of Rocks.

Lacking national guidance, acting on the advice of a climber, and basically lacking any good reason not to, the National Forest banned fixed anchors within the Sawtooths Wilderness. The Access Fund got involved and—assuming that the 1990 recommendations would finally be dusted off and used—demanded that the Forest Service’s D.C. office establish a national policy. The USFS, however, simply backed the Sawtooths ban and expanded it nationally, resulting in the shocking June 1998 nationwide Wilderness fixed-anchor ban mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Slow-forward a few years: The first agency to issue anything resembling a national fixed-anchor policy was the BLM, which in 2007 issued “Instruction Memorandum No. 2007-084.” The BLM also claimed that this memorandum “clarified existing policy,” rather than represented new regulations, eliminating the public-comment requirements of a formal rule change. Unlike the Forest Service, the BLM did not interpret the Wilderness Act as prohibiting fixed anchors. The key passages of 2007-084 claimed that fixed anchors were acceptable in Wilderness, but by permit only. Not a perfect rule for climbers, but much better than a ban. This decision (which has now expired) made only small news since it was a pretty much a one-crag regulation: The only major climbing area affected was Red Rock, Nevada.

The National Park Service’s fixed-anchor policy, however, will be a much bigger deal: The NPS manages the “crown-jewel” front-country Wilderness climbing areas in Yosemite, Zion, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Rocky Mountain national parks. Indications from those in the know are that the NPS ruling is imminent.

The draft of “Director’s Order #41” was released in January 2011, and its public-comment period ended two months later. Most likely, the final document will be released sometime this summer. When it is, this will set fixed-anchor protocol for all NPS Wilderness, and will very likely influence the shape of policy in Forest Service Wilderness as well. Jason Keith, Senior Policy Adviser for the Access Fund, who has been intimately involved in fixed-anchor policy for 13 years, calls Director’s Order #41 “the most sweeping climbing regulation ever proposed in the United States.”

Judging from the content and spirit of the pre-comment draft, the good news is that an outright permanent ban on fixed anchors in NPS Wilderness is highly unlikely. There are, however, some very serious concerns.

First, the provisional documents do not contain a definition of fixed climbing anchors. Will the rules apply only to drilled bolts, or are fixed pitons also included? Fixed nuts and slings on horns? What about a stuck cam—would leaving one be technically illegal? Leaving the language flexible will allow individual parks to fine-tune the definitions, which could work either for or against climbing freedoms.

Second, it’s likely that new fixed anchors will be allowed by permit only. Such a ruling could change the spirit in which most climbers use bolts and pitons in Wilderness. Currently, we set out with the intention not to use fixed anchors, and only bust them out when a situation arises that absolutely requires them. With a permit rule, the equation might change. Planning for the unknown, climbers might wisely try to get a fixed-anchor permit every time they go newrouting— and then might be more likely to place a few bolts once they had secured the special permit to do so. Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act explicitly states that there shall be no use of motorized equipment such as power drills in Wilderness, thus eliminating the possibility of an all-out bolting frenzy, but that being said, permits might still actually increase the use of bolts in Wilderness.

There are other concerns as well. Once the NPS finalizes its Wilderness fixed anchor rules, the Forest Service will very likely use these as a model for its own policy. Most of the climbing opportunities in NPS Wilderness are already well developed. Not so those on national forest lands: extensive unexplored climbing terrain exists across much of the Sierra, Cascades, Wind Rivers, and elsewhere. “The vast majority of our undeveloped backcountry crags are on Forest Service lands,” says Keith, “and they represent the largest area of potential new climbing regulation in terms of both terrain and policy.”

Perhaps the most perilous possibility, however, is that that the ruling may call for an interim fixed-anchor ban while each park works out its own climbing management plan. This would be disastrous. Such plans can take many years to develop—possibly decades in crunched-budget times like the present. This very real possibility would result in a nationwide defacto fixed-anchor ban that extends well into the foreseeable future.

Timeline

  • 1964: Congress passes the Wilderness Act, which currently protects nearly 110 million acres of wilderness areas across the nation.
  • 1988: Rangers in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest briefly ban bolts, citing Wilderness Act tenets.
  • 1990: The U.S. Forest Service convenes a national task force to study the issue.
  • 1997: The Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho bans fixed anchors.
  • 1998: The Forest Service expands the fixed anchor ban. 1999: Ban enforcement blocked by an appropriations bill.
  • 2000: A committee created by the Secretary of Agriculture meets to negotiate rules. After four meetings, there is no final conclusion. 2007: The Bureau of Land Management declares that fixed anchors are acceptable in wilderness areas by permit only.
  • 2011 : “Director’s Order #41” is released by the National Park Service. This draft suggests a permanent ban in fixed anchors is unlikely but does not outline an official definition of fixed anchors.
  • 2013: Formal fixed anchor rules are expected by summer. They will be “the most sweeping climbing regulation ever proposed in the United States.”

How Impending Regulations Could Affect Four Key Areas

Yosemite National Park, CA
Land Manager: Park Service
Nearly 95 percent of Yosemite National Park is designated Wilderness. Did you know that the boundary begins 400 feet up El Capitan? That’s right, Nose speed climbers, bolted 5.14 face variations, hundreds of belay/rappel/bivy anchors—all this will be subject to fixed-anchors-in-Wilderness rules. Fortunately, the local Park Service rangers and supervisors are extremely knowledgeable about climbing issues and have internal guidelines that allow intelligent management of Yosemite’s incredible rock resources. The risk is that a national-level policy might disturb the current status quo.

Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Land Manager: Park Service
A very interesting and nuanced situation. Josh definitely has some sport climbing, including routes within Wilderness boundaries, but it also represents the very definition of bold, ground-up, minimally bolted traditional face climbing, the kind of stuff that most climbers feel is compatible with Wilderness values. Can or should the park regulations distinguish between these two types of climbing? Currently, for Wilderness areas in the park such as the Wonderland, climbers can hand-drill protection bolts—if they get a permit.

Linville Gorge, Pisgah National Forest, NC
Land Manager: Forest Service
The Linville Gorge Wilderness contains several excellent crags, including Shortoff Mountain and the North Carolina Wall, with classics such as The Mummy (5.5), Bumblebee Buttress (5.8), Dopey Duck (5.9), and Turkey Beard (5.12a). The crags are popular, accessible by modest approach hikes, and the climbs are typical North Carolina trad, relying on occasional fixed pitons and bolts for protection and anchors. Much undeveloped rock remains in Linville. Will new Forest Service rules crimp the style of the “First in Flight” state?

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area , NV
Land Manager: BLM
Red Rock arguably has the best sandstone adventure climbing in the country, especially in the moderate grades. Classics include Solar Slab (5.6, 9 pitches), Frogland (5.8, 6 pitches), Dream of Wild Turkeys (5.10a, 7 pitches), and Rainbow Wall (5.12, 14 pitches). Instruction Memorandum No. 2007-084 addresses fixed anchors in BLM Wilderness, recommending that they be allowed, but by permit only. This policy, however, is not officially in effect and will eventually be replaced by more sweeping national regulations. The Red Rock Wilderness has lots of potential for new routes.

Senior contributing editor Jeff Achey first reported on fixed anchor policy in Climbing 180 (November 1998).


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