Congress Passes Bill Protecting Climbing Access, The First in US History

Congress passed the Natural Resources Management Act by a landslide vote on February 26, 2019. The bill is the first-ever piece of federal legislation to include climbing-specific language and protection, and sets an invaluable precedent for the years to come.
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Climbing in the Linville Gorge Wilderness. The Natural Resources Management Act sets a positive precedent for protecting Wilderness climbing across the country.

Climbing in the Linville Gorge Wilderness. The Natural Resources Management Act sets a positive precedent for protecting Wilderness climbing across the country.

Update: The Natural Resources Management Act was renamed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, and was signed into law by the president on March 12, 2019.

On February 26, 2019, Congress passed the Natural Resources Management Act, the first piece of federal legislation to explicitly protect rock climbing on designated wilderness land. In fact, it was the first federal bill ever to include protection for climbing. The Natural Resources Management Act won a landslide vote in the House of Representatives of 363-62, two weeks after its 92-8 vote in the Senate. The bill now awaits the signature of the President, who has indicated that it will pass.

The bill is wide reaching, posing to protect over two million acres of public land. What is pertinent to climbing, however, is the designation of the San Rafael Swell in Emery County, Utah as National Wilderness. The San Rafael Swell is home to hundreds of routes in a wild backcountry setting and has been enjoyed by climbers for decades. Its designation as National Wilderness permanently protects it from residential or commercial development and extraction of resources. What’s more: In the legislation regarding the San Rafael Swell is a clause that explicitly protects rock climbing and the use of fixed anchors.

The clause reads: “RECREATIONAL CLIMBING—Nothing in this part prohibits recreational rock climbing activities in the wilderness areas, such as the placement, use, and maintenance of fixed anchors, including any fixed anchor established before the date of the enactment of this Act—”

Wilderness Climbing Language

The Access Fund has worked for years in conjunction with Utah congressional representatives to ensure that the protection of rock climbing and climbing access is specifically addressed within the bill. “From day one, Access Fund has been an important partner in advancing the Emery County Public Land Management Act,” said Utah Congressman John Curtis in an Access Fund press release. “Their staff approached us wanting to solve problems facing our public lands and ensure climbers had a voice in that process. They advocated to clarify the treatment of climbing activities in designated areas, and as a result of their hard work, climbers will be able to enjoy the world class recreation in Emery County, Utah, for years to come.”

The Access Fund worked to avoid unintended negative effects of designating the San Rafael Swell as a wilderness area. If it had not been explicitly stated and left to ambiguity, it is possible that lawmakers and land managers could deem the use of fixed anchors outside of wilderness protection, creating potential access issues for climbers, as has been the standard throughout the entirety of climbing history in the United States.

“Before this bill it has been kind of a gray area,” said Access Fund executive director Chris Winter. “Different land managers in different parts of the country have come up with different approaches to this question. Some land managers thought that fixed anchors really weren’t consistent with wilderness.”

The Access Fund has worked tirelessly for years—mostly successfully, with some exceptions in Idaho, the Pacific Northwest, and other areas—to facilitate healthy communication and understanding between land managers and the climbing community. But now climbers will have legal standing to support the continued enjoyment of their pastime. 

“For the first time a wilderness bill has clarified that climbers can continue to use and enjoy these really special places and can continue to use and maintain fixed anchors, protecting the wilderness climbing experience for the first time in federal law.” Winter said. “Fixed anchors in wilderness shouldn’t be viewed any differently than trail construction, the construction of bathrooms, tent platforms, and all the other infrastructure we find in wilderness areas ... Fundamentally, human-powered, non-mechanized recreation is one of the reasons for designating these areas as wilderness.”

The overwhelming congressional support for the Natural Resources Management Act may seem a bit surprising considering the regression seen in public land protection over the past two years, particularly the 85% reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah. According to Winter, the respect and reverence of public lands and wilderness runs deep in the values of the American people and, “the last two years has activated people to stand up and fight for those deeply held values around public lands and outdoor recreation.” A testpiece example of this: Nearly 10,000 letters were submitted to congress by Access Fund members showing their support for the public lands package.

“We’re seeing the political power of the outdoor recreation community and the message around protecting public lands come together,” said Winter. “That is incredibly powerful because outdoor rec is good for local businesses, it’s good for our communities, and it’s good for the planet. Our elected leaders are now starting to listen to that message, and we’re turning that into real tangible political power.”

Though this bill relates only to rock climbing within the National Wilderness of the San Rafeal Swell, it sets an invaluable precedent for climbing areas across the nation. The federal government recognizing that rock climbing is a viable recreational activity in this one particular wilderness area provides a frame of reference that land managers and rock climbers in wilderness areas across the country can turn to. It also lays important groundwork for further legislation to be written protecting climbing access. 

The Access Fund intends to keep the positive momentum rolling and now turns their attention to the CORE Act, a proposal to designate 400,000 acres new wilderness area in Colorado, with hopes to further protect climbing rights and access. “There will be more victories to come,” said Winter.