by Gary Milner, Corvallis
I read the letter from climbers in the Star. It was well written but I think misleading. Rock climbers can climb anywhere on the forest at any time. The letter suggest climbers are being singled out. I think it’s just the opposite. I’d like them to follow some of the same procedures and “restrictions” that I and others who recreate on the forest follow. The letter stated that rules are going to lead to restrictions on other user groups; that’s a scare tactic.
The Bitterroots provide important habitats and refuges for many plants and animals. Many of us, myself included, also recreate on these public lands. Hunters, people who fish, mountain bikers, outfitters, boaters, fire wood gatherers, OHVer’s, stock users, birders, and folks who recreate by driving Forest Service roads all use the forest. None of those user groups can go on public land and do anything they want to the landscape. To get firewood, we get a permit. To hunt, we get a license and go to hunter education. To fish we get a fishing license and abide by laws. Backpackers can’t just build structures wherever they want. To float the Salmon or Selway, we get a permit. Outfitters follow regulations with clients. Mountain bikers and OHVer’s can’t just build jumps and trails. It’s responsible recreation. Of course, there are always a few bad actors within these groups who spoil it for everyone, but for the most part, members of these groups accept their responsibilities.
These permits and rules serve several purposes. They help protect habitat, they make our experiences better, and they help guide these activities in a sustainable thoughtful manner. The new mountain bike trails at Como are a good example of an opportunity created by the Forest Service. Botanists, biologists, archeologists, and others from the Forest Service looked at the area as to how to mitigate impacts and designed a sustainable trail system. It’s a thoughtful process that protects habitat, mitigates user conflicts, and protects Native American cultural sites. I’ve never felt burdened by getting a firewood permit, a hunting license, or a permit to boat.
Climbing has occurred in the Bitterroots for decades with very little impact or user conflicts (my hat goes off to those climbers who conducted themselves that way). That changed about 10 years ago when a group of mainly Missoula climbers installed hundreds of bolts and approximately 80 routes in a canyon here and began to advertise it. Some of the routes are very close to a Golden Eagle nest. Locals who live near the trailhead became concerned regarding increased traffic. The trailhead suffered from overuse. Impacts were documented on the ground. It became a controversy on a national level. It did not have to be that way.
All over the country whether National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, State, or local municipalities, where climbing happens, one finds rules and policies. It’s the norm. Some places you need a permit to climb, in some places you cannot install fixed anchor bolts, in most all places you need authorization before you can drill, install and leave permanent fixed hardware in a rock face. A permit helps educate climbers about possible impacts to natural and cultural sites, and direct the sport in a sustainable direction. Climbers all over the country follow these procedures. Again, it’s the norm, not a burden.
The letter was correct that relatively few National Forests have official Climbing Management Plans. That is changing fast, however, as all across the country the Forest Service is catching up with other land management agencies in managing sport climbing. It’s happening on the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky, on the Big Horn National Forest in Wyoming, here on the Bitterroot, as well as Forests across the U.S. The Access Fund is the leading climbing advocacy group in the United States. Here is a direct quote from their Vertical Times Magazine from Spring of 2016 – “. . . Given the increasing popularity of climbing, Access Fund expects a marked increase in USFS climbing regulations and restrictions in the upcoming years as many national forests become aware of the climbing areas and revise their forest management plans.” Here is another quote from the Spring 2013 issue – “The golden age of bolting totally under the radar is coming to an end.” The Bitterroot National Forest is merely catching up with all the other climbing areas that have rules and procedures to manage the impacts of sport climbing. It’s important to note that during the process of developing a Climbing Management Plan, climbers have been free to climb the entire time.
If you’ve lived in the valley long you know it’s changing fast as more people arrive. I’ll leave it to each individual to decide if that is good or bad, but there is no mistaking there are more cars on the roads, more traffic, more vehicles at trailheads, more folks recreating. To me it’s common sense to manage sport climbing as the sport grows.
No one I know is against climbing. It’s the unmanaged free-for-all bolting that concerns people. Myself and others have wanted climbing managed on the Bitterroot National Forest like it is across the country with accepted procedures and norms. We would like the Forest Service to conduct an inventory of climbing routes (the Access Fund supports inventories in many of their letters), a seasonal precautionary buffer zone around raptor nests of 800 meters as is standard across the country, and an authorization system in place where trained folks can evaluate an area before it’s developed to protect habitat, mitigate user conflict, and protect Native American cultural sites. Those don’t seem like unreasonable burdens; they seem like responsible ethics that protect sport climbing in the long-term. Again, those are standards across the country. Our recreations are a privilege and with that privilege comes responsibility. It’s been disheartening to see the resistance from some climbers to these standard procedures.