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Speak Up Now to Shape the Future of Joshua Tree Climbing: Bolted Routes, Funding For Trails, and Cultural Resources Are At Stake

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Top out on any of Joshua Tree National Park’s granite formations and you’ll see spider-webbed social trails winding to the bases of most climbing routes. Every year about 600,000 climbers visit Joshua Tree, representing 20 percent of park visitors. Bouldering in the park has doubled since 2010 according to a visitor use survey completed in 2019. Like any well-loved destination, the area is being impacted and social trails are just one example.

Responding to Joshua Tree’s heavy use, park management is creating a new Climbing Management Plan (CMP)—the first public comment period closes June 13 so there isn’t a moment to lose for giving your input.

What does climbing management look like?

During the first public plan meeting on April 20, park Superintendent David Smith described a “classic battle” between preserving park resources and allowing visitors to enjoy them. As it relates to climbing, he believes the park is failing at both goals.

Responding to Joshua Tree’s heavy use, park management is creating a new Climbing Management Plan (CMP)—the first public comment period closes June 13 so there isn’t a moment to lose for giving your input.

Historically, climbing in Joshua Tree has been a “user-created” activity. Climbers put up the routes and installed bolts, created trails to rock formations, and wrote guidebooks. Much of this development happened independent of the park service, with no formal process.

As climbing activity increased, the first climbing management plan was completed in 1993, and climbing was also included in the 2000 Backcountry and Wilderness Management Plan (BWM). These documents contained rules for bolting, social trails, and archaeological sites, and dealt with other issues.

According to park managers, the existing plans fall short for managing the scale of today’s climbing activity, and didn’t have provisions for managing bouldering, highlining, or slacklining, activities that are now being considered.

Social network trails created by climbers and hikers are one of the impacts the new plain aims to mitigate.

THE ISSUES

There are four key issues the park is seeking feedback on through its comment page, but park planner Steve Ortega says that, “In no way do we want people to limit their comments just to these topic questions.”

Social trails and climbing base areas

Friends of Joshua Tree (FOJT) Executive Director John Lauretig says that “the spider-web network of trails is unbelievable.” Better management of social trails is among the top priorities for FOJT, a local non-profit dedicated to protecting traditional climbing in Joshua Tree. This problem has grown as climbers or hikers split off from established trails and create new paths through the desert.

When informal trails are created, the park can’t ensure protection of fragile resources: A climber could inadvertently take a path next to an endangered tortoise’s burrow or near an uncatalogued piece of rock art. Very few of the climbing approach trails are part of the official trail inventory. If the park can formalize some of these, they can receive funding for maintenance. Social trails could then be rehabilitated to deter use.

As climbers drag crash-pads and backpacks beneath climbs, they destroy the microclimates that are created from water draining off of the rocks.

Another related issue is the impact to the areas around the bases of formations and boulders. During the public meeting, Superintendent Smith said that almost every boulder in the northwest corner of the park is now used for climbing. As climbers drag crash-pads and backpacks beneath climbs, they destroy the microclimates that are created from water draining off of the rocks.

Climbing and fixed anchors in wilderness

In the 2000 plan, JTNP established a policy that allowed climbers to put up new routes in part of the designated wilderness. The policy dictated that route developers needed a permit to bolt in wilderness, and only allowed hand drills. Since 2000, however, park managers know that many bolts have been placed in wilderness without a permit, because these climbs are published on Mountain Project or in guidebooks.

For decades there hasn’t been any was no official guidance from the National Park Service (NPS) on whether fixed bolts were allowed in wilderness. It was up to individual parks to decide. Finally, in 2013 the NPS issued “Director’s Order #41;” stating that climbing is a legitimate use of wilderness, acknowledging that bolts may sometimes be necessary. It does say, however, that “bolt-intensive face climbs,” or sport climbs, are incompatible with wilderness, and bolts should be “rare.”

“We have thousands and thousands of bolts inside wilderness that are not in compliance with policy.”

During the public meeting, Superintendent Smith said that, “We have thousands and thousands of bolts inside wilderness that are not in compliance with policy.” JTNP’s wilderness area has many bolted face climbs and routes that were established without permits. One goal is to create a review process to determine which existing climbs are appropriate in wilderness.

There has been some disagreement as to whether bolts are defined as prohibited in wilderness, according to policy. During the public meeting, Mark Husbands, from the NPS Environmental Quality Division (EQD), defined fixed anchors as “installations,” which are prohibited according to the Wilderness Act. The Access Fund released a statement shortly after pushing back on that, citing Director’s Order #41. According to Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock, the word “installation” is not used in that document.

““If the National Park Service believed that fixed anchors were fundamentally prohibited in wilderness and fundamentally considered installations, don’t you think they would mention it in the highest level policy on climbing?” said Erik Murdock in an interview.

This doesn’t mean that the park is planning on chopping all bolts in the wilderness. If bolts are considered “installations,” some may still be deemed necessary under a minimum requirements analysis (MRA). This allows use of prohibited tools if they are needed to manage the wilderness area. Since climbing is considered an appropriate use of wilderness, some bolts could be considered necessary tools.

Park managers are also taking a nuanced approach to defining climbing styles; old school face climbs with more spaced out bolts are defined as “traditional bolted” climbs rather than sport climbs. They acknowledge that this is a unique style to Joshua Tree, with historical importance and international influence. Climbs like Figures on a Landscape or Walk on the Wild Side could be considered more compatible with wilderness than modern sport climbs.

Bolt replacement

According to the 2000 plan, bolts are allowed to be replaced in wilderness, but power drills are prohibited. For the iteration of the plan, the park first needs to create a review process to figure out which climbs are appropriate, since many of the bolts in wilderness exist in what Husbands calls a “legal limbo.” Bolts currently can be replaced in non-wilderness using a power drill, as long as a permit is acquired.

The park service generally does not maintain bolts; it’s up to volunteers to do the work. Lauretig of FOJT argues that replacing bolts with a power drill, a process that often takes less than a minute, could be much less impactful to wilderness users than the loud echoing of someone pounding on a hand drill for hours.

“It’s like a building that’s on fire, all of these aging bolts and aging hardware, and the park service wants us to put it out with a thimble,” says Lauretig of the prohibition of power drills in wilderness.

FOJT is advocating for a practical system for bolt replacement that allows volunteers to use modern equipment. Sabra Purdy, local climbing guide and co-owner of Cliffhanger Guides, doesn’t advocate for more bolts in the wilderness, saying there are plenty of climbs already, and focus should be on updating potentially dangerous equipment once the park service decides how to handle bolts in wilderness.

Superintendent Smith did acknowledge that power drills may be less impactful in wilderness and could be considered using a minimum requirements analysis. This decision would still have to go through a wilderness committee.

Photo: Katie Griffith

Native American cultural sites and interests

Joshua Tree National Park sits at the confluence of the traditional territories of the Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, and Serrano people, which are distributed into 15 federally recognized tribes. The area is also significant to the Mojave people. According to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the park is legally obligated to consult the tribes when planning any land-management action.

Though the tribes were given copies of the 2000 plan, there was insufficient engagement on an individual level, according to park managers. JTNP Cultural Resource Manager Jay Theur noted that there’s a need to better understand the significance of ancestral places to indigenous communities. Just because an activity may not cause physical damage, there may still be places in the park that are inappropriate for recreation.

Sarah Bliss is the Cultural Resource Manager for the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, whose members are a Chemehuevi people and whose traditional use area covers the entire park. Her office has consulted with the park about the CMP, recently engaging in monthly meetings. Some of the engagement involves field visits with park staff to specific sites to determine protection measures or mitigation.

Climbers and other users can be active stewards of the area by leaving it cleaner than when they arrived and avoiding disturbance of any cultural materials.

According to Bliss, the Twenty-Nine Palms Band wants to see more awareness of its cultural heritage and modern connection with Joshua Tree in this management plan. “Many documents previously note the tribe’s presence in Joshua Tree,” she said in an interview, “but there’s little showing that there’s still a thriving tribal community to this day that has deep cultural and spiritual connections.” She also echoed concerns described above about the impacts of crash-pads on desert ecosystems.

Bliss noted that the tribe is grateful for the collaborative relationship it has with the park, saying the current administration actively reaches out for input. The tribe is also working with the park on solutions to address growing visitorship. One project in the works is an RV and general store facility on the reservation near the park entrance in Twentynine Palms, where you can purchase climbing and hiking gear and be exposed to best recreation practices from a tribal perspective.

Respecting ancestral lands goes beyond land acknowledgement, according to Bliss, though these are important. Climbers and other users can be active stewards of the area by leaving it cleaner than when they arrived and avoiding disturbance of any cultural materials.

“We need everyone’s help in protecting cultural heritage,” says Bliss.

WHAT DOES THE PLANNING PROCESS LOOK LIKE?

For the last few years resource managers have collected data on existing routes, vegetation impacts, and visitor use patterns. The park has inventoried over 7,000 trad climbs, sport climbs, and boulder problems, though the actual number is estimated to be closer to 10,000.

The park has also spent time considering how existing laws, like the Endangered Species Act, Wilderness Act, National Historic Preservation Act, or updated wilderness policy may apply to a new climbing plan.

JTNP is currently in the “civic engagement” phase, which kicked off with a public meeting on April 20th. The park is seeking feedback during this period, and public comment is open until June 13. Once the planners sift through comments, data, tribal input, and legal constraints, they will start to develop proposals and start the NEPA process.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires an environmental assessment process for any major federal “action,” including new management plans. This process starts with a public scoping period, which the park expects to take place in September or October this year. At that point the park will release a range of management options to address the different issues, and there will be a minimum of 30 days for comment.

Climbers need to understand that the mantra on engaging on a climbing plan needs to be early and often.

The next phase of NEPA is the Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) Public Review, during which the park will release a full draft plan and offer another public comment period. The draft may include some different options or alternatives. After public comment, there will be a Final EA, and the park will release a final decision. At this point there still could be opportunity to appeal if needed. The full NEPA process should take a year or less, once public scoping starts.

The plan will continue to be refined at every step, and those who decide to comment will shape the outcome. Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock says that, “climbers need to understand that the mantra on engaging on a climbing plan needs to be early and often.”

HOW YOU CAN GET INVOLVED

Climbers all over the country can participate by signing up for park updates and giving their input during comment periods.

After a final draft is complete, the park plans to start implementation at a smaller scale, choosing a few different climbing areas to figure out what works well. Management strategies will then be scaled up to the entire 100,000 acres of the park in which climbing is allowed.

During this stage, folks can continue to provide feedback to the park by sending an email or making a phone call. Lauretig of FOJT also wants to see climbers volunteering to help with trail maintenance as the plan is implemented. Purdy of Cliffhanger Guides echoes this sentiment, and she hopes the park utilizes public-private partnerships with local climbers and guide services to get the work done.

Climbing has historically been passed down through mentorship, and climbers can help one another reduce their impacts.

Outreach to newer climbers is another way that folks with a longer history in the sport can get involved. Climbing has historically been passed down through mentorship, and climbers can help one another reduce their impacts.

Boulderer Geneva Day thinks there is a happy medium to be struck there, saying “growing up in San Diego, I didn’t think about wilderness ethics. I think people want to do the right thing, they just a lot of times probably don’t know. If people get shamed or ridiculed at the crag then they’ll be even more discouraged.”

Lauretig of FOJT describes this plan as a touchstone for other parks as they write their own climbing management plans, so the result could have implications for climbers and crags all over the country. Several local climbers have described a positive relationship with the current park service administration, and the park repeatedly expressed their desire for participation from climbers and other users.

“I need your participation,” said Superintendent David Smith during the public meeting. “It doesn’t work without you.”