The Bureau of Land Management last week published a final rule that recognizes rock climbing as a legitimate use of BLM-managed wilderness areas. The rule applies to 5.5 million acres of wilderness areas in the continental United States.
The final rule appears to be a victory of sorts for climbers, who have been denied access to their favorite crags and cliffs in the past due to conflicts with wildlife, native American rights, or lack of public easements across private property.
Under the rule, rock climbers do not need a permit to climb. Climbers may not, however, use power drills to install permanent fixed anchors. The final rule does not address the issue of installing new, permanent fixed anchors for rock climbing in BLM wilderness areas. The BLM has decided to “reserve” for the future (i.e. postpone) any regulatory action on the installation of such anchors.
For climbing neophytes, anchors are the building blocks of a protection system that allows rock jocks to safely ascend. “Fixed” anchors are large metal bolts with a ring on one end that allow climbers to place gear to protect a pitch. The bolts are placed with a pneumatic drill.
The use of anchors has exploded in the past decade with the growth in “sport” climbing, a style of ascending rock that relies heavily on the use of bolts and fixed anchors. Some more traditional climbers and staunch advocates of wilderness preservation have sharply criticized the climbing community for condoning the proliferation of fixed anchors and bolts.
Steve Porcella of Hamilton, a Montana representative for Access Fund, a national organization that advocates for climbers’ access on public land, sees the decision as a sound one, though he’s anxious to see a decision on permanent anchors emerge.
“It’s a decision that’s consistent with what the Forest Service and National Parks are saying,” said Porcella. “It means climbers don’t need a special permit to climb, there’s no issue with what’s already there, and that they’re not addressing the installation of new bolts at this time.”
As far as the question “to bolt or not to bolt,” Porcella maintains that many climbers prefer not to unless it’s a question of personal safety. “I haven’t placed a bolt for any reason other than safety in many years. I think Access Fund is concerned like other wilderness users about maintaining the integrity of these places,” Porcella said.