Proposed Bolt Policy Affects Climbers, Major Parks

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1/28/11 - The National Park Service has proposed a new policy for bolting in wilderness areas that could have significant impacts on climbers establishing new routes or replacing fixed anchors. The public has until March 10 to comment on the proposal.

Fixed anchors in wilderness areas have been a hot issue since the early 1990s, when the first bolting bans were issued, the first being in the Superstition Mountains in Arizona (still in effect today). After several years of debate in which it appeared that bolts might be banned in many or all federal wilderness areas, a session of “negotiated rule making” took place in the late ’90s among the Access Fund, AAC, wilderness advocates, and the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Manangement. Two main principles were agreed: There would be no use of power drills in wilderness areas (carried over from the 1964 Wilderness Act, which prohibits the use of motorized devices), but climbers might be able to hand-drill with prior authorization.

However, until recently, the federal agencies had not created policies to implement these ideas. “Around 2000, agencies agreed to go forward with these principles, but they never got it done,” says Jason Keith, Policy Director of the Access Fund. That is, until 2007, when the BLM issued an instruction memorandum regarding the use of fixed anchors. This policy recognized climbing as an appropriate use of wilderness; said that climbers might need prior authorization from land managers; and allowed “placing a few permanent fixed anchors to improve climbers’ safety on sections of routes where the use of removable hardware is not feasible.”

Now, the National Park Service has issued its own a draft policy with regard to fixed anchors, and it has major implications for climbers. Like the BLM policy, Director’s Orders 41, which governs wilderness stewardship, also acknowledges climbing as an appropriate use of wilderness, but requires climbers to obtain prior authorization for bolting. The process for acquiring the permit would be defined in the climbing management plan of major parks like Yosemite, Zion, and Rocky Mountain. However, many parks don’t have a climbing management plan, which could effectively result in a “moratorium” on permits.

“The significant aspect here is what do you do when the Director’s Orders are final, but the local parks don’t have a process together for authorizing permits?” says Keith. “If a park doesn’t put together a climbing plan, there’s an interim period between the Director’s Orders and the park, which is a de facto ban on bolts.”

A 60-day review period for this proposal has begun (it ends March 10), and the Access Fund and other climbing advocacy groups will solicit climbers’ opinions and comments. “Hopefully, we’ll get a lot of thoughtful response, and then we’ll try to merge all those climbing interests to come up with a collective statement to go to the National Park Service,” Keith says. “We’ll also use that in talking to Congress.”

Keith is optimistic about the impact climbers’ feedback can have. “We’ll come up with reasonable suggestions, and I think it’s likely that we’ll get modifications,” he says. “It won’t be perfect for everyone, but we don’t think the sky is falling.”