Thursday, June 19, 2014

Rocky road

Posted on Thu, Jun 19, 2014 at 4:00 AM

My wife and I moved to the Bitterroot because of its vast and beautiful public lands. Each and every day we’re thankful and humbled.

All’s not perfect though. There are challenges and threats to the integrity of Bitterroot National Forest lands. Some are obvious, like noxious weeds. Others, like recreation, are more nuanced and contentious.

Recreational opportunities should exist across user groups, provided laws are followed and natural resources and wildlife aren’t jeopardized. This applies whether you’re fishing, hiking, hunting, ATVing, snowmobiling, whatever. Or if you’re rock climbing.

Right now the integrity of natural resources, wildlife and recreational parity is at risk in the Bitterroot’s Mill Creek Canyon due to uncontrolled, unsustainable sport rock climbing (see “On belay,” June 5). And laws are being broken.

I am absolutely not against rock climbing. I’ve climbed in awe-inspiring places like Joshua Tree and the Dolomites. But with any activity on National Forest lands, laws and ethics should be reasonably followed, and recreational desires shouldn’t trump resources or wildlife, nor ruin other folks’ experiences. Sadly that’s what’s happening in the Mill Canyon area.

My wife and I live near Mill, recreate there constantly, and have seen the dramatic changes firsthand: establishment of illegal, user-created climbers’ trails with frequent “maintenance;” erosion, trash, illegal gear caching, displacement of peregrines up-canyon, fewer mountain goats, suffocating parking issues, denuding of plant life and the innumerable climbing bolts, slings, ropes, etc. Mill’s become a trashed outdoor climbing gym in just a few years.

Folks have climbed in Mill Canyon for decades. This past climbing has generally been respectful, sustainable and ethical. But starting about 5 years ago, a handful of dedicated sport climbers have made it their mission to bolt-out Mill’s rock faces.

Things reached a head last summer after an article profiled the adventurous Mill climbing exploits of two climbers. In the article there were many incriminating admissions made—direct evidence of violations of the Code of Federal Regulations. Enough was enough, so we went as private citizens, unaffiliated with any organization, to BNF authorities. Others had complained too, including local climbers.

We met with District Ranger Dan Ritter. After investigating the matter, Ritter sent the climbers a letter outlining resource concerns (erosion, impacts on plants and wildlife) and CFR violations, including damaging natural features and constructing/maintaining a trail without authorization. The letter was essentially a “cease and desist” request. It demanded immediate cessation of permanent bolting, deemed illegal by BNF legal counsel.

In fairness, the legality of bolting on National Forest lands outside Wilderness is ambiguous. There seems to be no forest-wide policy. Citations have been issued for fixed anchor placement on other forests. It seems up to the individual forest’s discretion, based on their interpretation of the CFR—provided there are no significant adverse impacts related to the activity.

What’s clear in Mill is that resources are being damaged, violations of law are occurring, and wildlife is being displaced. Local homeowners are affected from the high-volume traffic, other recreationalists are impacted, and liability issues loom.

The sport climbers continue to be on a PR blitz and want the rest of us to overlook the negative impacts of unfettered, unsustainable climbing in a popular, wildlife-sensitive canyon. To this day, laws and ethics continue to be broken and marred; natural resources degraded. Where’s the accountability?

The BNF needs to get out in front on this burgeoning issue, take a leadership role and hold the responsible climbers accountable. Rock climbing in the Bitterroot can be ethical, fun, sustainable and legal. Is that too much to ask for?

Van Keele


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