COLORADO COMPROMISE - Developers sacrifice 25 routes to save 20

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Steve Smith on Tree Hugger (5.11), Thompson Creek, Colorado. Photo by BJ Sbarra / SplitterChoss.com

Steve Smith on Tree Hugger (5.11), Thompson Creek, Colorado. Photo by BJ Sbarra / SplitterChoss.com

FOR A TOWN OF 6,000 PEOPLE, Carbondale, Colorado, nestled at the foot of Mount Sopris and hard by the confl uence of the Crystal and Roaring Fork rivers, has a high concentration of climbers. Its proximity to Rifle Mountain Park (50 minutes) and a goodly bit of alpine and ice climbing, as well as its onetime status as home to two major climbing publications, has drawn a disproportionate number of rock jocks. And where there are climbers, there will be route development. Enter the “after-work” crag of Thompson Creek, a scrappy, 40- to 80- foot sandstone fi n some 14 miles south-southwest of downtown. Here, in spring 2006, a few locals began bolting, putting up 45 sport routes from 5.9 to 5.13-, with the majority in the 5.10-to-5.11 range.

Carbondale climbers frequented the new crag through October that year, until Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rangers on a walk-through stumbled on a school group using the cliff. The rangers, troubled by the bolts, quickly sought the developers, whom they found via SplitterChoss.com, where one of Thompson’s original developers had posted topos. The BLM took issue with the hardware, citing Thompson Creek’s designation as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). Catching wind of the BLM’s stance, local climbers approached offi cials, to resolve the situation. As the climbers saw it, no signs were posted at the trailhead, at the cliff, or anywhere between, nor was the special designation clearly explained (or accessible) on the BLM website (blm.gov).

The Thompson developers approached Jason Keith, policy director for the Access Fund, who recommended they form a local climbing organization (LCO). Thus was born the Roaring Fork Climbers Coalition (RFCC; roaringforkclimbers.com). Over the following months, Michael Kennedy, RFCC president, along with other board members, met intensively with BLM offi cials. As the Glenwood Springs BLM moved toward developing a new, still-pending (target date: 2009) resource-management plan (RMP) for the region — one that will ultimately decide whether to allow climbing at Thompson — all parties negotiated a temporary solution. It’s a unique compromise that works well enough, say locals.

In February 2007, the BLM and RFCC settled on a cap of 20 routes at Thompson, to prevent feared overcrowding, meaning local climbers would have to “disable” (i.e., remove the first few hangers) of 25 or so lines — or the BLM would have the entire cliff debolted. “It was grim, deciding which routes would stay and which would go,” says one first ascentionist. “But we figured it was better to have 20 routes than none at all.” In addition to the route reduction, a nine-climber-per-day cap was set; a sign-in sheet at the trailhead now indicates when the crag is maxed out, with climbers urged to go voluntarily elsewhere for the day.

Analysis Thompson Creek hangs in the balance: if the RMP falls in climbers’ favor, the disabled routes will likely be reactivated, with even a possible green light for new-route development. However, if the plan swings in the direction of pure preservation, a ban could descend, with the remaining routes removed, one way or another.

As with any new RMP, a scoping period, public-comment period, and various phases of plan revision predate any fi nal decision. What’s less clear, however, is the larger impact of the stopgap compromise — will climbers’ willingness to disable their own routes set a precedent for future climber/BLM interactions? The danger here, according to Keith, is that having climbers decommission routes could be seen by the BLM as “a best management practice” for other situations. However, Keith continues, this scenario is less than likely, as “[landmanagement] agencies almost as a rule are inconsistent in their policies.” It would ultimately seem the RFCC made the best decision they could under the circumstances, and the 20 remaining routes do see travel. And, given Carbondale’s status as an emerging hot spot for new routing, it’s also fortuitous climbers came together to form the RFCC.

The Thompson RMP should open for public comment in early 2009 (sign up for notifi cation at blm.gov/rmp/co/kfo-gsfo/index.htm). Also, visit roaringforkclimbers.com or accessfund.org for more info.

Access Bulletin

More Gunky?: In early July, Minnewaska State Park Preserve, New York, home to numerous crags along the Shawangunk Ridge (including Peterskill, the only Minnewaska area currently open to climbing), held an open house to solicit input on a revised Master Plan. The plan was also open to public comment through August 11, as is the next phase, a Draft Revised Plan. If all goes well, the park might open to climbers more of the 50-foot crags along the quartzite ridge. Visit gunksclimbers.org for more information.