Udall: We Need to Keep Climbers in Wilderness So They Can Advocate for Wilderness

Image from https://www.boulderclimbers.org/news/fixedanchorsinwilderness-bolts


Op-ed linked here.

Here are some excerpts:

As a United States senator, I sponsored and helped to pass new Wilderness protections for Colorado’s James Peak Wilderness, Indian Peaks Wilderness, and Rocky Mountain National Park. These bills became law thanks to a united coalition of advocates for conservation and recreation. In my experience, the two cannot be separated. The time we spend outside is what defines every conservationist I know.

Protecting Wilderness requires careful management that allows primitive recreation activities that are compatible with preserving Wilderness characteristics. Over the last decades, the management of fixed anchors in Wilderness areas has been ad hoc. It’s varied from area to area, often causing confusion and conflict. The Protecting America’s Rock Climbing Act (PARC Act) would clarify for the land agencies, the public, and climbers where fixed anchors are appropriate, when they can be replaced, and where they are banned.

By resolving the ongoing debate over fixed anchors, our public land managers can devote their priceless time to the serious, existential, and quickly progressing impacts to America’s Wilderness Preservation System. For example, air pollution and climate change don’t respect boundaries on a map. In fact, 96 percent of national parks “are plagued with significant air pollution problems.”

If we’re going to take a proactive approach to protecting America’s last pockets of Wilderness, we need a new generation of advocates to lead the way. Supporting sustainable climbing access to America’s Wilderness areas will help ensure that climbers—long-standing wilderness champions—are part of that coalition.

Here’s what I think: saying advocates for conservation and recreation “cannot be separated” is one of those generalized expressions that glosses over the fact that certain forms of recreation on the Pyramid of Pristinity are often kicked out or never allowed in Wilderness.  Also, that even those activities allowed can have serious environmental impacts. But maybe that’s still conservation? By definition?

The fact is that our “public land managers” “priceless time” will probably not be spent on cleaning up air pollution nor reducing “climate change.”  I heard one of my colleagues say “perhaps the best things federal lands could do for climate change is to not allow recreation of any kind because of the transportation and fuel impacts” and I’m not sure it was tongue-in-cheek.

His last argument is fairly pragmatic.. although I’m not sure what a “proactive approach to protecting” means… more Wilderness, or fewer things allowed, or protecting via reducing pollution and decarbonizing? What do they need climbers for, and why stop with them?

26 thoughts on “Udall: We Need to Keep Climbers in Wilderness So They Can Advocate for Wilderness”

  1. Every time I hear “anchors” used to promote expansion bolts I roll my eyes. Anchor means rap anchor or belay anchor. Like with 150 feet between them, the rap route off the Diamond on Longs Peak. But of course that’s not what’s being talked about, they mean bolted protection, which changes the commitment to mere sport climbing.

    I’d have to disagree about any sort of fixed anchor being necessary to climb the Diamond. I’ve done a few routes on the face and on none did we need any sort of fixed protection or anchors, there are many very solid cracks all over the routes.

    Indeed from an aesthetic perspective lack of fixe anchors add to the wilderness ambiance.

    As long as we’re talking climate National Parks would certainly have a footprint, especially if one were coming from Europe or Asia. I’d like to see a fee based on distance from park. And what of all other forms of recreation? Why value one over another?

  2. While I sympathize with rock climbers getting kicked out of Wilderness Areas, there’s also a bit of sweet justice in this since rock climbers have historically been some of the biggest advocates of expanding wilderness and kicking other recreation users out of public lands. The fact that they are finally being negatively affected only shows the true colors of the wilderness movement – that it is and always has been fundamentally opposed to all forms of recreation. Anyone who enjoys outdoor recreation but advocates in favor of wilderness expansion is advocating against their own self interest.

    What Udall and other wilderness advocates are afraid of is that more types of recreationists will start to realize this and actually begin advocating in a way that is aligned with their interests. If that happens, the wilderness movement will collapse because the number of people who value wilderness for its own sake to the exclusion of all forms of recreation is relatively small and rapidly aging.

    Recreation is already the de facto predominant use of public lands even though it has no organic statute protecting it or providing any substantive rights to access public lands. Recreation is therefore on a collision course with wilderness as the current dominant land management philosophy, and has the potential to supplant it if recreation users ever get organized and begin exercising political power in proportion to their actual numbers. So far they haven’t done this because attacks on recreation haven’t yet hit the tipping point necessary to galvanize mass action.

    In banning rock climbing in wilderness, along with accelerating mass road closures locking recreationists out of popular destinations like Moab, the wilderness movement is finally beginning to overplay its hand in ways that risk galvanizing recreationists to start fighting back in meaningful ways. This has the more rational wilderness advocates like Udall running scared and trying to roll things back a bit to delay the inevitable break between recreation users and wilderness advocates. It remains to be seen whether they’ll succeed in reigning in the more radical ideologues before the entire wilderness movement immolates itself by going too far in attacking recreation.

    • Patrick, You state, “The fact that they are finally being negatively affected only shows the true colors of the wilderness movement – that it is and always has been fundamentally opposed to all forms of recreation. Anyone who enjoys outdoor recreation but advocates in favor of wilderness expansion is advocating against their own self interest.”

      Backpacking, hiking, equestrian, camping, fishing, backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, hunting, photography, wildlife viewing, rock climbing, mountaineering are all forms of recreation allowed in designated wilderness areas. Rock climbing is not banned, just the use of permanent anchors.

      REI makes a lot of money selling outdoor clothing and accessories to a whole lot of people who recreate in wilderness areas – and outside wilderness areas too, of course.

      • Hi, Mike,

        In theory, yes. In practice, Wilderness trails have disappeared or become so damaged from lack of maintenance that those people you mention have to navigate cross-country. Climbing over mile after mile of deadfalls isn’t most people’s cup of tea. The romantic dream of Wilderness purists to keep all humans out of their sacred cathedrals is being realized. This has nothing to do with conservation; it’s a religious movement.

        Patrick is right. When the Wilderness Act was enacted, in 1964, we had dial phones and tailfins and Jim Crow laws ruled the South. Things have changed a bit. But not the Wilderness Act, which is frozen in time, clogged with contradictions and land-management absurdities. It promotes environmental damage with its preference for cattle grazing, serviced by trucks, and packstock trains for luxury outfitting.

        It’s not just environmentally benign mountain biking that Wilderness purports to ban (though that’s only because of mistaken agency rules, not the Act itself). It’s also baby strollers and hunters’ game carts. In another misapplication of the Act, the Forest Service refuses to maintain Wilderness trails with wheelbarrows and chainsaws, even though the Act doesn’t forbid them and the National Park Service does use these modern tools in its Wilderness acreage. That is why trails are increasingly nonexistent except on a map.

        If you like this situation, more power to you. Over time, it will cause the constituency for roadless, motorless areas (which is what Wilderness is supposed to be, not a baby-stroller-free land designation) to fade away. In will come the roads and the motors. Wilderness purists are Wilderness’s worst enemy. They just don’t know it.

        • Hi Lourenco,

          I can speak best about the bubble I live in next to the Rio Grande NF which manages parts of four wilderness areas. The only trails that have been closed in our local wilderness area were those deemed to be redundant or rarely used. The main issue with maintaining the trails up to standard has been lack of funding, not a desire to keep people out. Dead trees having been falling across trails at an increasing rate now that we are 10 -15 years past the spruce beetle epidemic. The RGNF has a decent volunteer program that helps with maintaining some of these trails, but it falls short. By the way, the above holds true for our non-motorized, non-wilderness trails. There isn’t enough money to keep them maintained. Same with our road system. Luckily, there are some well-organized local OHV groups that keep the most popular motorized trails open.

          Your point about not being allowed to use chainsaws is valid and has been much discussed. On the RGNF, the Region 2 office nixed the idea of using chainsaws to clear the deadfall over the trails.

          If you are suggesting that mountain bikes should be allowed in designated wilderness areas, I disagree. Wilderness provides an opportunity to get away from fast moving recreation. Combining fast moving, quiet recreation with slow moving quiet recreation is a recipe for serious injury and even death, especially on trails not designed for simultaneous use of these forms of recreation. Think fast moving mountain biker coming down a hill and rounding a corner only to see a person on horseback in the trail. This very thing happened to a friend of mine. She was thrown from her horse and injured.

          Grazing within designated wilderness is a function of a comprise made in order to pass the Wilderness Act. It is what wilderness managers call a non-conforming use, but one that is allowed through the Act.

          I think a thorough reading of the discussions that led up to the Wilderness Act would help to explain why it is not “keeping up with the times.” That’s the idea.

          I understand, although don’t necessarily agree, with many of the arguments made by those who are not fond of designated wilderness. That said, I think there is ample room for discussion about how much wilderness is enough or if we have already passed that threshold.

          Lastly, I think Mark Udall has a valid argument about the use of fixed anchors, but maybe it’s one of those things that should be considered on a case by case basis. Maybe there’s a compromise to be made here.

          • Thanks for replying, Mike. Here are my thoughts, for whatever they may be worth.

            I’m glad we agree on chainsaws. You mention the lack of money for trail maintenance. I suspect one reason excessive money is needed for it is that the USFS refuses to use efficient tools and must rely on volunteers, whose supervision can’t be cost-free. Their Paul Bunyan saws may be, I don’t know, 1% as efficient as chainsaws? The Wilderness Act does not forbid the USFS from using chainsaws and wheelbarrows.

            As for fast-moving mountain bikes, I see this as a dispute between the 6 mph user group and the 3 mph user group. Moreover, except for being more likely to be in disrepair, what’s the difference between a Wilderness trail and a non-Wilderness trail on which bikes are allowed? People always invoke the risk of collisions, but evidence of them seems scant, though I don’t doubt the incident you describe.

            I would be terrified to be on a horse on any trail, bikes or not. I’ve seen a horse go berserk at the sight of a plastic bag blowing in the wind. One time, while mountain biking in Utah, I approached a horse from hundreds of feet away. The horse became hysterical and started bolting and jumping up and down even though I wasn’t anywhere near it. I have no desire to risk quadriplegia. I hope your friend recovered fully.

          • Jon Haber — Yes, I noticed that when I read it. The key is that Democratic Party lawmakers dare do nothing that modernizes or removes contradictions in the Wilderness Act of 1964, lest part of their ideological base rise up against them.

            In a country as closely divided as ours is, every interest group counts, even the relatively few people passionate about Wilderness-as-religion. So, this proposed statute marches up the hill of allowing fixed anchors, and then marches right back down it if the anchors would be placed in Wilderness. It is, thus, a nullity. The agencies will continue to do whatever they prefer to do. And that is fine with the bill’s backers.

            Similar pieces of legislation, like the Biking on Long-Distance Trails (BOLT) Act that has the usual entities (Outdoor Alliance, REI, People for Bikes) enthused but will have little practical effect, are designed alike: build some trails but do not mess with Wilderness. It amazes me that people believe these proposed laws will make any meaningful difference for backcountry recreation.

            Here’s a way to tell if backcountry outdoor-recreation legislation will make a practical difference. If it is co-sponsored by both parties, it won’t do much of anything either way. If it’s sponsored only by Democrats, it will impose further restrictions on public access to public lands. If it’s sponsored only by Republicans, it will pare back regulatory mistakes and allow things like mountain biking and walking with baby strollers to occur. (I’m talking only about outdoor recreation on trails, not other public-lands issues on which the Republicans, rightly or wrongly, are routinely either praised or condemned.)

            For example, the BOLT Act’s Congressional Budget Office analysis says that BOLT would require agencies to locate places where 10 multiuse trails at least 80 miles long could be created. That sounds great in theory, but where would you put them? Not in Wilderness: HR 1319 provides that “The Secretary … shall ensure that each long-distance bike trail or area … (1) does not conflict with … (D) any area managed under the Wilderness Act.” Meaning also any areas, to invoke agency vernacular, “managed for Wilderness characteristics.” Which is most of the roadless backcountry, I believe. So, where would these trails be created? Alongside Forest Service roads? In remote parts of Alaska? And the process could and probably will take decades.

            There is the exceedingly rare exception that proves the rule: the Bonneville Shoreline Trail legislation, which actually achieved something over the objections of Wilderness Watch and was supported by a sufficient number of lawmakers in both parties. It was a miracle. Miracles, by definition, seldom happen.

      • All of those forms of recreation are being heavily restricted too. More and more, land managers are implementing complex permit systems so you have to win a lottery just to go hiking in a wilderness area. At the same time they are closing most roads anywhere near wilderness areas, eliminating access points and pushing hiking trailheads back miles from the boundaries so that it requires a multi-day backpacking trip to reach areas that used to be easily accessible as day hikes. Eventually people will have enough.

        • Hi Patrick,

          “All those forms of recreation are being heavily restricted too.” I think the use of the word “heavily” is a matter of opinion. Yes, some popular areas are limiting the number of people able to visit them at one time as the heavy use conflicts with wilderness management direction. Within my circle of friends, these case by case situations are applauded. I would think – but haven’t seen any data to prove it -most people who use wilderness areas support such measures. To me, it is land managers doing their jobs.

          I’m not familiar with access roads and trailheads being closed, but I’m sure it has happened in some areas. Is it an epidemic? I would like to see those numbers.

          • Thousands of miles of roads have been closed on USFS and BLM land in just the last 20 years since both agencies really got serious about travel management. The vast majority of these closures are done for reasons us motorized advocates like to call “wilderness-laundering”, and occur in areas that are either near existing wilderness areas or are in areas that somebody has decided have “wilderness characteristics” and therefore are considered aspirational wilderness. In every resource management planning process, agencies are creating new de facto wilderness areas (called “Recommended Wilderness” by the Forest Service and “Lands Managed for Wilderness Characteristics” by the BLM). These are almost always created at the expense of closing existing roads.

            Even where areas are not expressly managed for wilderness characteristics but have merely been inventoried to supposedly have them, those then become the first areas targeted for mass road closures in travel management. For example, the BLM Moab Field Office just closed over 300 miles of roads that were mostly within lands inventoried for wilderness characteristics even though their RMP expressly decided not to manage those areas for wilderness characteristics.

            And even when Congress designates a wilderness area and cherry-stems a road out of the wilderness with the intent that it should continue to provide access to a trailhead deeper into the wilderness, those cherry-stemmed roads are then immediately targeted for closure in future travel planning, pushing the trailhead further back and requiring a much longer hike to get into the wilderness area. I’ve seen this happen countless times and you can see it all over the place in National Forests by comparing the MVUM to nearby wilderness boundaries. It’s pretty obvious where a former cherry-stem road was when you have a big corridor drilled into a wilderness area with no MVUM roads in it.

            Existing designated wildernesses are also often expanded by the designation of de facto wilderness areas adjacent to their borders, creating the exact types of buffer zones that the authorizing legislation for the wilderness areas typically prohibits. Thus when wilderness is designated no one can trust that its boundaries will be respected, but instead roads in adjacent areas are immediately threatened by political pressure to expand the wilderness.

            This is the big reason why new wilderness designations have such heated opposition these days. If it would only affect areas that are already managed for non-motorized use only, most people would be fine with it. But anyone with experience in this area knows that the designation of a wilderness area is only the beginning of the fight, not the end of it, as there will then be endless attempts to expand it in the future and close off everything near it.

            • I attended countless meetings concerning the Rio Grande NF’s road system at both forest leadership team meetings and county commissioner meetings. The primary purpose for reducing the road inventory was due to funding. There simply weren’t enough funds to maintain roads to standard. The direction to pursue this direction along with the guidelines on how to determine which roads to close came from above. I responded to many, many complaints from the public, county governments and inquiries from members of Congress about the condition of our road system. The latter was the most intriguing as they were the ones responsible for funding road infrastructure.

              • Interesting that you mention the RGNF. While they haven’t conducted travel planning recently, I’ve studied their travel analysis report in detail, and noticed it rated nearly all roads providing access to the Sangre De Cristo Wilderness as “likely not needed”, including their half of Hayden Pass which is the only road that crosses the northern part of the Sangres and was excluded from the wilderness area by Congress. They also rated it as having low recreational value which is absurd. The other half of Hayden Pass was rated “likely needed” with high recreational value by the Pike San Isabel NF and was kept open in their recent travel plan. Given the TAP report’s systematic recommendation to close almost every road near the Sangre D Cristo Wilderness, it’s one of the clearest examples of wilderness laundering I’ve ever seen, regardless if maintenance cost was the excuse used. If the recommendations in that TAP report are ever implemented in travel planning, that’s a guaranteed lawsuit right there.

                  • No they definitely did not. It’s rather shocking how differently the two forests evaluated their different halves of the exact same road. They also used completely different approaches for evaluating recreational benefit. The PSI (at least in theory though not really in practice) considered the recreational experience of roads themselves, while the RGNF considered only the destination of the road. That method completely misses the recreational value of most 4×4 roads since for those the road itself usually is the attraction rather than a specific destination the road provides access to. Evaluating recreational benefit solely on the road’s destination is completely inappropriate for ML2 roads, and only really works for ML3 and above.

                    Luckily the RGNF hasn’t attempted to actually implement its TAP recommendations in travel planning, though the PSI pretty much directly carried over theirs as the proposed action in the recent travel plan. That’s one of the central issues in our lawsuit challenging that travel plan, since we believe the forest illegally tiered off a non-NEPA document and ignored all public comments disputing the recommendations of the TAP report. If our lawsuit goes to trial, it has the potential to set a precedent completely overturning how the Forest Service uses travel analysis reports in travel management.

                    • Aargh.. I’m not a fan of centralization and making decisions at larger scales than necessary, but it seems like some consistency and coordination is valuable, and I would like to think it usually happens. Of course, by now there are probably different years of different analyses across forests and so on that would make that difficult.

                    • Actually I think all the travel analysis reports for forests in Colorado were done in 2015. So in theory they could have coordinated between different forests but for some reason didn’t. And as we approach ten years from when these TAPs were done, they are increasingly out of date and fail to capture current recreation usage, which has dramatically changed post-2020. I’m hoping that if the RGNF does do summer travel planning at some point (I haven’t heard any current plans for that since right now they are focused on winter travel planning), they will be smart enough not to rely on a ten year old TAP report.

                • You won’t catch me defending the Rio Grande’s TAP process.

                  A little history on travel management on the Rio Grande. I’m going to put a date here, but may be off a year. In 2006, at a public meeting on Motor Vehicle Use Maps in Monte Vista, the forest supervisor stated the forest would begin a new travel management plan within two years. Two years later, I reminded the forest supervisor of this promise and the recreation program lead (former forest timber program manager) convinced the forest sup we didn’t have the time or money to work on a new travel management plan because we had to take on the surging spruce beetle issue. I continued to bring up the need for the forest to update the travel plan over the years and eventually the Regional Office volunteered the Rio Grande National Forest to develop a new Forest Land Management Plan (that is a simplification of what happened). The Forest wanted to include travel planning into the LMP but the RO talked the forest sup out of it. Now, the LMP is being litigated and there is no travel management planning in site, except for winter travel planning.

                  • Interesting. Given travel management is probably one of the most contentious things Forest Service employees have to do, I’m not surprised if they try to avoid it as long as possible. And the longer they put it off is fine by me, as motorized users always lose the instant a travel planning process starts. Seems like it’s a thoroughly demoralizing process for everyone involved except for lawyers working for billion dollar ENGOs.

                    • Hi Patrick: I am in full agreement. We even know the history of how this came to be: On the same day in DC, December 1969, the US Congress made NEPA law and across town a few dozen lawyers created the Environmental Law industry. Add ENGO tax-breaks, opportunistic lawyers, EAJA, ESA, and a few more acronyms and you have rich lawyers, agency lifers, academic tenure, rural poverty, burning forests, dead wildlife, and global air pollution. Anyway, that’s my opinion, based on experience, observation, and documentation.

            • “If it would only affect areas that are already managed for non-motorized use only, most people would be fine with it.” I’m giving this a quizzical look. How did those areas get that way?

              Also, making access harder seems like about the only way to create a more wilderness experience (or alternatively a more pristine wilderness) by reducing users farther from access, if that is what is desired. Is that considered a goal?

              • I guess perhaps the problem would be whether that is articulated during… forest planning. Our desired condition, for example, is to have fewer recreationists with the underlying goal of pristinity. So perhaps if that is the intention, the FS should be more upfront about it.

              • Good point, because nearly all areas managed exclusively for non-motorized recreation were created by closing roads. But if that happened long enough ago, the roads are long gone and we realize we’re never getting them back. The problem is those areas are never enough, and wilderness activists are constantly wanting to close more motorized areas to turn them into wilderness too.

                As for your second question, that certainly seems to be the goal of wilderness activists, and seems to be implicitly adopted as a goal by most forest planners even though there’s no legal mandate requiring it. As I’ve said, the current dominant land management philosophy is that all public lands are to be managed as aspirational wilderness, with wilderness being seen as the highest and best usage. Lands that don’t yet qualify for formal “recommended wilderness” status have to have other uses gradually phased out until they do.

                But as Sharon said, land managers are never upfront about that. Instead they pay lip service to the idea of multiple use while in practice managing all federal lands as if they are just at different steps along a one-way pipeline toward wilderness status.

  3. I’m not seeing much there here (but maybe I missed it).

    First, all it says to the agencies is do something that “recognizes the appropriateness of” these climbing activities. Then it limits their ability to do that to climbing activities “undertaken in accordance with—(A) the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1131 et seq.);”

    I think it just asks the agencies to adopt a policy on these climbing activities, which would promote consistency. Any policy that would allow violation of traditional concepts of wilderness would no doubt be challenged.

  4. Looking at the text of the bill…

    the placement, use, and maintenance of fixed anchors; and the use of other equipment necessary for recreational climbing

    Nothing in there about not using a battery powered drill that takes a couple of minutes vs hand drill that takes at least an hour, maybe more as the style these days is half inch. I think electric motors aren’t real Wildernessy, not that I care.

    Lorenco I can assure you that lack of trails does not mean deadfall. I spend almost my entire time in Forests or Wilderness off trail, and I seem to get around easily. Often enough if there is a destination people have wanted to go to there is an old horse or footpath somewhere (that avoids obstacles rather than cutting through them). I have a speedometer on my bike and many go much faster than 15. Bike and foot and horse trails are all different, though horse trails are easiest to do double duty for hiking.

    I’d like to see signage disappear in Wilderness, most of the world doesn’t have signs out in the middle of the woods, we don’t need them either, keep the riff raff out. Seems unwildernessy.

    Just one more example of one user group advocating for themselves. I’m betting they voted for wolves on the ballot issue, so like Patrick says, let them go rustle.


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