Rocky relations 

Lost Horse Canyon conflict continues

Last September, roughly 80 climbers and spectators crowded into Lost Horse Canyon for the inaugural Lost Horse Climbing Festival and Boulder Bash. Rock-jocks competed in a series of events, sponsors like Pipestone Mountaineering offered raffle prizes, and the event netted the fledgling Bitterroot Climbers' Coalition (BCC) $500 for cleanup and improvements in Lost Horse Canyon.

Small potatoes, perhaps, but BCC's Corey Piersol says the group didn't count success in dollars. The festival factors into a greater Lost Horse issue-—raising awareness about the area to help keep it as is for local recreationists, and to influence the U.S. Forest Service and Ravalli County Road Department to lay off a nearby quarry that may ruin the natural resource.

"The event's kind of necessary in order to show the Forest Service that there are a lot of climbers in the area," says Piersol, "and there's a lot of recreational use for the area and the quarry isn't quite necessary in that location."

click to enlarge Lost Horse Canyon is a prime Bitterroot location for rock climbing, but continued use of a nearby Forest Service-owned quarry has climbers on-edge about the future of the resource. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Lost Horse Canyon is a prime Bitterroot location for rock climbing, but continued use of a nearby Forest Service-owned quarry has climbers on-edge about the future of the resource.

But any success from last year appears short-lived. As the festival gears up for a return this September, it's expected to coincide with another event: The Forest Service recently announced official dates for a six-week project in the nearby quarry.

The juxtaposition stirs up bad memories for climbers who first fought for Lost Horse Canyon after a 2007 request by Ravalli County for access to the Forest Service-owned Lost Horse Quarry. That proposal called for a large-scale hard-rock harvesting project at the site, a potential cost-saving boon for county road projects. Road Supervisor David Ohnstad says his department had hoped to secure a considerable supply of gravel from the area's only viable, non-commercial quarry.

"It's a viable resource," Ohnstad says. "Through our cooperative partnership with the Forest Service, we have had access to that resource in the past and would likely consider that a viable resource in the future."

Recreationists immediately condemned the proposal, claiming it endangered neighboring climbing routes in Lost Horse Canyon. The county agreed to scale back its original proposal to a one-year harvest of 1,000 cubic yards of rock, which still saved the county more than $23,500.

The fight still bothers Ohnstad. He contends most of the arguments for nixing regular rock harvesting at Lost Horse were bogus–he cites threats to wolverines and Peregrine falcons specifically. More importantly, he says, the county's work in no way threatened the popular routes that the BCC fought so hard to protect.

"I think the bottom line is that nothing we proposed to do last year and nothing proposed this year by the Forest Service is going to change that," Ohnstad says. "It's not gong to devalue that resource. If anything, it'll improve access and might lead to additional recreational opportunities in the future."

The tug-of-war over Lost Horse Quarry drove a cam between the county and the climbing community, and the Forest Service didn't escape blame. The agency's decision to allow the county even brief access to the quarry prompted climbers to file a federal lawsuit in August 2008. BCC's Steve Porcella says the suit was thrown out almost immediately.

As if to open the wound again, the Forest Service announced its latest plans to cull material from the quarry this summer. The materials will be used for campsite and road improvements up Lost Horse Canyon and Darby District Ranger Chuck Oliver estimates the project, which will begin in August, will take six weeks. The Lost Horse Climbing Festival is set for Sept. 12–13.

Jimmy Pinjuv, who heads the BCC, says this particular project isn't a major concern for climbers. Quarry work will only take place on weekdays, and at most will impact parking for the festival. But considering the tender history surrounding the quarry, it's not exactly reassuring.

"Personally, we never want to see the quarry reopened, ever," Piersol says. "The whole purpose of the festival is to continue support, to let them know 'Hey, we're still using it.' We don't want to see them constantly reopening the quarry and taking more and more until it gets out of control."

The material the Forest Service plans to pull from the quarry will be used at Schumaker Campground near Lost Horse Pass. Since climbers frequently use campgrounds in Lost Horse Canyon, the BCC gave the project its stamp of approval last year. Nevertheless, Oliver understands their concern.

"From the climbers' standpoint, I'm sure it's just the fact that we're working in there at all," Oliver says. "They don't like that."

Piersol says the Lost Horse Climbing Festival has helped to mend the relationship between the BCC and the Forest Service. The two parties continue to raise funds together for conservation improvements like trashcans and no-shooting signs. Pinjuv says the BCC hopes to someday convince the Forest Service to retire Lost Horse Quarry permanently. In the meantime, his main concern is protecting Lost Horse from any rock harvesting that hampers recreation and doesn't directly benefit the canyon itself.

"The main concern is if they started cutting down trees or started getting into the rock itself," Piersol says. "Then it's really going to start affecting the climbing...It's a beautiful canyon. We don't want anything to change whatsoever, that's the bottom line."

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