Additional Context: Bitterroot National Forest Climbing Controversy

The following was written by Gary Milner and posted as a comment to a previous blog post titled “Good” and “Bad” Recreation: The Bitterroot National Forest. Gary’s comment provides so much additional context and information that it warrants its own post. – mk

I’ve been involved with the climbing controversy on the Bitterroot National Forest from early on. For me it would not matter if the damage I’ve seen is coming from climbers, backpackers, birders, or mt. bikers. It’s the damage on the ground that matters. Early on when Dan Ritter was the ranger on the Stevensville District the idea of coming together to develop a Leave No Trace (LNT) climbing brochure was hatched. It seemed like an easy way forward for all parties. Unfortunately, the Missoula based climbers would not participate, even after repeated attempts to get them at the table by Julie King, then BNF supervisor. Locals and BNF employees met many times developing that brochure. Most of the verbiage in that brochure comes straight from Access Fund literature. Before its final version, Julie King, ran it by the Access Fund and they approved. Why Missoula area climbers would not support developing a LNT brochure is still a mystery to me. I encourage folks to go to the BNF website, click on recreation, click on climbing and click on “Bitterroot National Forest Rock Climbing Brochure”.

Climbing is a legitimate, appropriate sport on public lands. However, what has happened in Mill Creek is not a good example of how an area should be developed. It seems there was no knowledge that the canyon contains golden eagle nests, is home to peregrines, is an important range for mountain goats, or that it is MA6 – recommended Wilderness. I don’t believe those considerations occurred to them at the time nor was any of the public involved in the process. There appears to be a bolted route within 25 feet of a golden eagle nest. If those developing the area would have consulted with FS biologists, and other specialists to determine what was appropriate, a well thought out climbing area could have been developed that provided access to climbers and protected plants and animals who need these areas just to survive. Following the Access Fund’s own guidelines and LNT principals, in my opinion, could have prevented what has become a very contentious issue.

What has saddened me the most is what appears to be the attitude from some climbers. Resisting rules or regulations seems to be the fall back, even though some rules and guidelines could protect wildlife, avoid user conflicts, and promote sustainable, ethical climbing on the forest. Self-policing simply was not working. The photos that Matthew Koehler posted are just some of the photos taken over the years, there are many more. Regarding the comment of planting dead birds and planting trash, if evidence of that can be presented, I would appreciate seeing it. I was with the party that found the dead golden eagle and I’ve seen enough trash there to fill several backpacks. I know none of the folks I’ve worked with over the years have planted trash or dead birds. Cole Lawrence, if you could let me know what evidence you have that these were planted, I would appreciate it. I’ve heard that bolts have been damaged, but not seen that personally. Although I believe the area is too densely bolted (on average one route about every 13 ft.), I disapprove of any action that could damage a bolt; that’s simply not the way to move forward and cannot be condoned.

Federal, State, and local agencies all over the country have rules and management plans for climbing; it’s very common and the accepted norm. The BNF should not be different. It’s not about banning climbing, demonizing the sport, or excluding user groups as some are saying here. It’s about impacts and developing an enforceable plan that protects wildlife/habitat and promotes long-term ethical climbing on the Bitterroot.

Vertical Times, the AF’s magazine in the Spring of 2013 issue stated; “The “Golden Era’ of bolting totally under the radar is coming to an end”. That issue has some good information. I hope in the next few months all interested parties can come together to identify issues and find enforceable solutions. Wildlands are getting smaller and recreation is growing. All of us, including myself should be working to find ways to lessen and eliminate our impacts. If it means finding alternative locations we should. The plants and animals who need theses areas don’t have that luxury.

– Gary Milner

3 thoughts on “Additional Context: Bitterroot National Forest Climbing Controversy”

  1. There are always “bad apples” – not just some climbers, but also mountain bikers, ATV riders, target shooters, 4-wheelers, dirt bikers, etc. It’s unfortunate because it only takes a few people to sully the reputation of that type of activity. Yet there seems to be a tendency to focus on the bad apples and their activities – why not focus on the types of people who do these types of activities responsibly? I know one National Forest where target shooting was out of control, and a bunch of responsible target shooters worked together with the Forest to develop a hands-on program to interact with target shooters and find good ways to encourage responsible practices. It is and was very effective. While the irresponsible people need to be held accountable for their actions, the responsible folks also need to be appreciated for the example that they set.

    • A. I’d only add that even hikers can be “bad apples”.. leaving trash and waste around, letting their dogs run and harass wildlife and other recreationists, playing music loudly and so on.

      Let the group with no bad apples cast the first stone…but stone-casting and feeling morally superior was a bug in the human program long before recreation/environmental conflicts.

      • Just to be clear, it was the U.S. Forest Service that made the decision to suspend “unauthorized fixed anchor route development” and it was the U.S. Forest Service that made the decision to undertake “the development of a comprehensive climbing management plan, with the purpose of promoting sustainable climbing activists into the future.”


        Do you support these steps taken by the U.S. Forest Service, Sharon?


Leave a Comment