In November 2023, the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) released draft recreation management directives and opened a public comment period. The proposed directives classify fixed anchors—the bolts, pitons, and slings that technical climbers have used to safely ascend and descend technical faces since well before Congress passed the Wilderness Act—as prohibited “installations” in Wilderness areas. While we appreciate and recognize the agencies’ authority to implement such regulations, rock climbing is a longstanding and appropriate use of Wilderness, and Washington Wild does not want to see that responsible access denied.
In response to the proposed regulations, 13 Wilderness advocates and climbing organizations, including The Wilderness Society, Washington Wild, CalWild, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, The Access Fund, The Mountaineers, and The Outdoor Alliance, submitted a joint comment letter on this important issue.
“We have come together in submitting this joint comment to emphasize our collective agreement that the proposed guidance is highly problematic. We believe the implementation of this guidance would create profound problems for the climbing community and a strong backlash against Wilderness conservation.”
As recommended by the letter, agencies should modify the guidance implementation process. To assist in developing and implementing any new guidance pertaining to climbing anchors in Wilderness areas, the Departments of Interior and Agriculture should form a Federal Advisory Committee comprised of stakeholders from both the climbing and Wilderness advocacy communities.
Rock climbing has been a longstanding and appropriate use of Wilderness; climbers have been adventuring in Wilderness areas since before the Wilderness Act was enacted in 1964. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that even after the Wilderness Act became law, fixed climbing anchors have generally been allowed. As recently as 2013, the NPS itself issued a policy statement that made no mention of installations and said that a limited number of anchors could be allowed without adversely affecting Wilderness character.
If approved, the directives would apply to both new and existing anchors. According to Outdoor Alliance GIS Lab, this would impact approximately 65,000 climbs across 1,000 climbing areas in 28 states, including Washington. Climbing advocates such as The Access Fund argue that if implemented, the guidance would create significant safety issues, threaten world-class climbing routes, and burden land managers and climbers with unnecessary red tape. Climbers consider fixed anchors as essential for safety and argue that without them, many of the wildest and most inspiring places in America would become inaccessible to the public.
The climbing community has long been a valuable partner in our efforts to preserve the natural beauty of wild places for future generations. In fact, Washington Climbers Coalition, The Access Fund, American Alpine Club, The Mountaineers, and other climbing advocates have endorsed past and current Wilderness proposals including the Wild Sky Wilderness (2008), the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions (2014), and the Wild Olympics (currently pending in Congress). Ultimately, we hope NPS and USFS can find a solution that maintains Wilderness character while also keeping Wilderness accessible for appropriate climbing activities.