I was reading Sharon’s post about good and bad businesses and realized the same polarization is now occurring with recreation., and it seems the Bitterroot National Forest is ground zero for this new conflict. The BNF was the only Region One forest to ban bikes in both Recommended Wilderness and now it is instituting a forest-wide moratorium on sport climbing route development.
“With the sport of rock climbing growing dramatically across the West, the challenge on how best to manage all those new enthusiasts to protect the resource is an issue other national forests are beginning to ponder.
The controversy over the increase in rock climbing on the Bitterroot Forest has been a decade or more in the making.
It mostly centered on a popular climbing area in the Mill Creek area where climbers used rock drills to put in hundreds of permanent anchors to create popular sport climbing routes on what climbers called the Tick Wall.
With the sport of rock climbing growing dramatically across the West, the challenge on how best to manage all those new enthusiasts to protect the resource is an issue other national forests are beginning to ponder.
From the Wilderness Watch:
“Protect the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and WSAs from unlawful and unauthorized bolted climbing routes!
Recently, officials at the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) took steps to protect the national forest, including the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and two congressionally designated Wilderness Study Areas, from a massive influx of climbing use that is damaging resources and elevating social conflicts.
The BNF issued a news release reminding climbers that it is unlawful for visitors to develop new climbing routes or trails or install “permanent hardware or apparatus such as bolts, glue, manufactured hand holds; or modifying routes through chipping, cleaning, hammering, or drilling new or existing holds,” on climbing routes while work proceeds on a forest-wide Climbing Management Plan (CMP). It’s a common-sense “time-out” approach that allows climbing to continue while minimizing further damage until a comprehensive climbing plan can be developed with public input and environmental review.
Sadly, a local climbing organization and the national Access Fund have launched a campaign urging the Forest Service to remove the protections, arguing that—get this— the agency shouldn’t take any action to stop the escalating damage until after the environmental review process has been done!”
From the Access Fund:
“The ban was issued as an official order by Forest Supervisor Matt Anderson, and it declares all new route development (first ascents) after the date of the order illegal. The order does not include any allowances for emergencies, fixed anchors that protect natural resources, bolt replacement, first ascents with no fixed hardware, hand-drilled fixed anchors on new routes in Wilderness, or slings for descent. Of further concern, the Supervisor’s Order “reminds” climbers that new fixed anchors are banned—incorrectly implying that fixed anchors were illegal in the past. This implication is at odds with well- established U.S. Forest Service plans across the country, which acknowledge fixed anchors as critical tools for climbing.
“We haven’t seen a U.S. Forest Service decision as egregious and far-reaching as this in 25 years,” says Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock. “This Supervisor’s Order overrides a successful, existing agreement between the climbing community and the forest, ignores any public process, and sets a dangerous precedent for all national forests.”
Access Fund is working with Western Montana Climbers Coalition (WMTCC) to push back on this unsubstantiated ban and remind Bitterroot National Forest that fixed anchors are legal in national forests. Perhaps more importantly, we’ll be reminding the supervisor that a significant management decision like this, on our public lands, deserves public process and science-based decision-making. Learn more about this issue and past work with Bitterroot National Forest.”
The reference to science-based decision-making made me think of an opinion piece in the Missoulian here on the evils of collaboration,
“Collaboration is not about right and wrong or about intrinsic values. It’s a cop-out on the part of environmental groups that sully their reason for existence in order to be politically correct.
Ultimately, it’s a process that gives validity to those whose activities are either illegal, incompatible or so damaging to public resources that they have been or are being restricted for that very reason. Within normal data- and science-driven decision-making processes of land management agencies — the goal thereof, anyway — these peoples’ views lack substance and shouldn’t be incorporated into management…
Thus comes “collaboration” to justify misuse of the landscape. Best management practices, using science and best available data, don’t allow high-impact users the unlimited access they desire to meet self-centered, short-term recreation desires…
A Montana example of how wrong this now-popular approach to addressing land management via collaboration is exemplified by the Gallatin Forest Partnership. The Gallatin Range, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, is a keystone of the Yellowstone ecosystem, the last essentially intact temperate ecosystem on our earth. There is nothing more short-sighted than to undermine environmental protections on an integral part of one of the original dozen World Heritage Sites to please users who have no appreciable respect for the global importance of this ecosystem or the future of what little remains of our natural heritage”.
At this point let me start winding my way back to the issue of good and bad recreation. The Gallatin Forest Partnership that so raised the hackles on the above writer was a collaborative agreement between non-motorized recreation groups and conservation organizations for management of the Gallatin National Forest in and around the Hyalite- Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Areas. The issue the writer most likely has issue with, but only obliquely referenced,”high-impact users the unlimited access they desire to meet self-centered, short-term recreation desires“ was continued mountain bike use in areas where it is already established and recommending the remainder for wilderness designation rather that recommending the entire area for wilderness designation.
Although the writer says this is about science and not about values, he sure makes a lot of value judgments about the recreational users he opposes. They are self-centered.
Their views lack substance. Their use is incompatible with public resources. Furthermore they, presumably mountain bikers, have no “appreciable respect for the global importance of this ecosystem.” As far as the science, I’m not sure there is any evidence the wilderness designation is superior to Inventoried Roadless Areas, Recreational Areas, or Wildlife Management Areas. Most of what I have read references the need for roadless areas. As far as wildlife, there is some evidence that mountain bikes may cause more stress on elk than hikers in certain situations. It does not necessarily indicate that bikes are more impactful than supposedly low-impact and approved uses such as hunting or outfitters. What about economic impacts? Should the economic benefits of outdoor recreation be ignored? What about the mental and physical health benefits of getting outside in nature and having fun? The evidence is clear that it is beneficial for the individuals. Should this science be ignored? If these area are closed to recreation, will be people drive somewhere else, increasing their carbon footprint, or will they change activities and still be out in the forest still causing an impact? I think most studies have shown people will drive somewhere else to engage in their preferred activity.
Before I finally get back to the Bitterroot, one more quote from Wilderness Watch in opposition to the imposition of fees in Oregon Wilderness Areas,
““There is something amiss when an American citizen has to pay a fee to hike on their lands, which are really our birthright, not a commodity to be ‘sold,’” said George Nickus, executive director of Wilderness Watch.”
So this brings us back to the Bitterroot and good and bad recreation. First, a little information on the Bitterroot National Forest. Currently half of Ravalli County is National Forest and half of the BNF is designated Wilderness, mostly the Selway/Bitterroot, but also portions of Welcome Creek and the Anaconda/Pintlers. To the best of my knowledge, there no demand for bolting or the development of sport climbing routes in either the Blue Joint or Sapphire WSAs. I confirmed this with climbers coalition. Blue Joint is over 50 miles away from the area of contention in Mill Creek and the Sapphires are in a separate mountain range. The main climbing area is one mile for the trailhead, and despite the hysteria, it will not be confused with the lines in Eldorado Canyon waiting to climb the Bastile.
It seems everyone wants decisions to be science-based, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that science will not give us the answers. There is also not much room for compromise when one side is accusing the other of unlawful and unauthorized behavior. What baffles me somewhat is why the Bitterroot? Any day of the week the trails and lands around Bozeman, Missoula, Whitefish, Jackson are far more packed with people. Last year I saw more people on one backcountry ski tour outside Big Sky than I have seen in a year of biking and backcountry skiing here. Maybe it is because it still relatively quiet. Maybe it is because Stewart Brandborg who lived here in the valley espoused a no compromise ethos later in his life. Is the demographics: young vs. old, or newcomers vs. old timers? Is it because the valley is still rural and mostly conservative? My theory is, it’s the political non-viability of major wilderness designations. Occasionally you can get a wilderness for no-brainer areas like the Rocky Mountain Front, but the odds of ever getting a wilderness designation for the WSA or any significant portion of the recommend wilderness makes these designations life or death decisions for many people in the wilderness community. No one has attempted to get the WSAs in the Bitterroot congressionally designated wilderness since around 1990. (Tester did proposed some additional wilderness in the Beaverhead portion of the Sapphire WSA, but that bill died.) Same thing for any the recommended wilderness along the Bitterroot Front. As the possibilities for congressional support have dimmed, the desire, or depending on one’s point of view, the necessity, of getting the Forest Service to do what Congress won’t has become non-negotiable and any potential threats to the creation of de facto wilderness needs to be fought with all possible means.
Lance Bysher is a skier, biker, boater, hiker, rusty climber, all around lover of outdoor recreation and current president of the Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists.