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No place for anchors in the wilderness

Jun 20, 2023Jun 20, 2023

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A recent newspaper headline “Protecting America’s Rock Climbing Act Heads to U.S. Congress” leads me to believe that rock climbing was in trouble and that congressional action was required to save the sport. A few minutes of research revealed a different story. Within the last couple years, indoor climbing grew by 6% to 7% while outdoor climbing increased by 2% to 3%. And between 2006 and 2021, the climbing community grew nearly 64%. Seems positive to me.

Sponsored by Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) the bill’s inflammatory title gives the misleading impression that rock climbing needs protecting. For the sport to survive, this legislation proposes more access and fewer regulations are in order. The measure’s single purpose is to legalize the installation of permanent, fixed anchors and bolts on climbing routes, specifically within designated wilderness areas, where doing so is generally prohibited. This may not seem like a significant action, but in effect, it amends the Wilderness Act. A reminder: the Wilderness Act of 1964 is considered to be the standard for wildlands protection and currently safeguards 5% of Wyoming and less than 4% of the lower 48 states.

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The legislation requires that no later than 18 months after its passage, the U.S. Forest Service, Park Service, BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service “issue guidance on climbing management in designated wilderness areas,” and that “the placement, use, and maintenance of fixed anchors” be allowed. If it becomes the law of the land, it opens the door for future impactful Wilderness Act amendments. For example, legislation is already written permitting mountain bikes in wilderness. Will e-bikes follow? Will the water sports community ask that motorboats be allowed on more wilderness lakes, or will hunters win the use of wheeled game carriers in wilderness? Will small plane pilots succeed in their push to develop more wilderness air strips? An open door is an open invitation.

And all for what?

Those calling for fixed, permanent anchors claim that it’s a matter of safety and that it would bring more folks to the great outdoors. But isn’t rock climbing, particularly in wilderness, supposed to be challenging and perhaps just a bit inconvenient and dangerous? Should we then install handholds on exposed traverses? Should we construct bridges across streams considered by some to be unsafe and inconvenient to cross? Should we eliminate grizzly bears in the wilderness to make it safer for humans? As the late Montana author, A.B. Guthrie rhetorically proclaimed during an interview concerning grizzlies: “what is wilderness if not without danger?” Perhaps if something truly feels unsafe, we shouldn’t participate, and certainly within a wilderness, we shouldn’t demand that the situation be tamed by installing permanent conveniences. To do so goes against the very spirit and ethic of wilderness.

Fixed anchors — set in holes often bored with battery-operated drills — will delineate routes for years and attract more folks because they feel safe and secure clinging to convenient installations along clearly marked routes. How does beckoning climbers to fixed routes mesh with experiencing “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation,” which the 1964 Wilderness Act exhorts?

In 1990, the Forest Service’s Office of General Counsel issued an opinion that fixed bolts are “structures” and “installations,” features clearly prohibited by the 1964 law. It also opined that power drills frequently used to install the anchors “come within the ambit of devices prohibited” under the Wilderness Act. Hence the unfounded need and ill-advised attempt to amend the law.

It should be mentioned that not all traditional climbers favor fixed anchors. Many prefer the challenge of finding their own way, and when faced with insurmountable obstacles, acknowledging that some faces, some pitches, some mountains are simply too wild to climb — and wild they should remain.

Another argument is “why not allow permanent anchors, very few will ever see them?” That’s like reconciling leaving litter in the backcountry because few will ever see it. What happened to “pack it in, pack it out” and “leave no trace?” Remove the anchors and use them another day. Leave the wild untrammeled so another person can experience the thrill of personal discovery and accomplishment.

There are countless climbing opportunities outside wilderness areas where climbers can challenge their abilities and use permanent anchors. For example, identifies 6,415 identified climbing routes in Wyoming. A quick “back of a napkin” calculation estimates far fewer than half are within wilderness areas. This doesn’t take into account the countless routes individuals use that are personal favorites outside wilderness and not included in official counts.

Why must we surrender the integrity of the Wilderness Act and the lands it protects to a small and very select segment of the population? Has Manifest Destiny now imposed itself upon the very wildest peaks of Wyoming and beyond?

Wilderness needs protection, and traditional rock climbing is not under threat. Rock climbing is permissible within wilderness, just not the installation of permanent climbing hardware.

H.R. 1380 is unnecessary and sets a disastrous precedent. Passed, it would lessen the wilderness experience and open the door to other interests expecting similar outcomes.

Why must we surrender the integrity of the Wilderness Act and the lands it protects to a small and very select segment of the population? Has Manifest Destiny now imposed itself upon the very wildest peaks of Wyoming and beyond? Must we dominate and mar every last vestige of the wild? Have we lost all humility and self restraint?

Please oppose H.R. 1380 and keep wilderness wild. The Forest Service and Department of Interior agree, both have testified against the pending legislation.

Franz Camenzind is a retired wildlife biologist, winning cinematographer and former executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. He is a 55-year resident of Wyoming. More by Franz Camenzind

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