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Home » Features » What the New NPS Wilderness Climbing Policy Means for Climbers and Bolting

What the New NPS Wilderness Climbing Policy Means for Climbers and Bolting

For decades, the future legality of fixed anchor use in Wilderness areas remained uncertain. Some national parks and forests banned new bolt placements, and a few land managers even removed commonly used rappel anchors and proposed the wide-scale removal of existing climbs. The threat of a national ban on bolts in Wilderness areas has always lingered, with the potential for significant climbing restrictions at places like Yosemite, Black Canyon, Canyonlands and Red Rock. Would parks decide to ban all new bolts? Do they have the authority to remove anchors they consider an unacceptable impact to Wilderness character? And what about the thousands of existing anchors out there that need maintenance? Because land management agencies had no national guidance to assist local planners and managers, each local park and national forest was left to interpret the Wilderness Act–as it pertains to fixed anchors–on its own, and with wildly varying results.

In 2007, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued its policy, which answered many of these questions and reflected the longstanding management framework agreed to long ago by most members of a national stakeholders group that included land managers, Wilderness advocates and climbing groups such as the Access Fund. But the 2007 BLM policy only addressed Red Rock outside of Las Vegas (where 95% of the BLM’s Wilderness climbing is located), and everywhere else remained in play–until last month when the National Park Service issued Director’s Order #41. The order clarified the agency’s policy for the management of Wilderness climbing, including the placement (and replacement/removal) of fixed anchors.

New Rules Require Prior Authorization

The good news: gone is the longstanding threat that NPS officials could ban all bolts and fixed pitons as illegal “installations” under the Wilderness Act. However, it is important to understand that climbers must now have prior authorization to install new bolts in NPS managed Wilderness (the use of existing bolts is not affected), and it is your responsibility to know whether you are in a Wilderness area.

Parks may grant prior authorization on a case-by-case basis or “programmatically” approve (for example, by zone) fixed anchor placements through a park plan. Always check with your park first to be certain of the rules in place. Parks that currently have plans with fixed anchor rules include Zion, Rocky Mountain and Joshua Tree. If a park does not have a plan that includes fixed anchor authorizations, DO #41 directs that climbers may approach park officials for case-by-case “interim” authorizations via permit or other specific approval.

The bottom line is that if you hope to place a new anchor in a national park Wilderness area, you should contact the park and ask whether it has a plan in place that allows for new fixed anchor placements. Also ask whether the new DO #41 policy includes any changes that climbers should be aware of (that is, whether the park’s existing plan is in compliance with the new policy).

If your park has no existing plan controlling the placement of fixed anchors in Wilderness (as is the case with most parks), ask the park about its intent to develop a plan that includes a process for providing new fixed anchor authorizations. If you want to place a new fixed anchor in the “interim” period (before the park completes such a plan, which could take several years), ask the park how to request an interim authorization (a permit) for your specific new fixed anchor proposal–again, this only applies to new placements in Wilderness, not replacements.

Nailing Routes and Leave No Trace Ethics

Direct aid “nailing” routes, such as on El Capitan, that require removable pitons are not governed by this policy, which defines “fixed anchor” as a bolt or permanent piton. However, DO #41 addresses all Wilderness climbing impacts, not just fixed anchors. And if frequent removable piton use results in cumulative impacts that are considered “unacceptable” (an impact standard that applies to all Wilderness users, not only climbers), parks may restrict or otherwise manage the use of removable pitons. Thus, clean climbing should be the norm in Wilderness, and climbers should use Leave No Trace ethics.

Bolt Replacements

The new DO #41 policy states that the replacement of fixed anchors in NPS Wilderness “may” require prior authorization, so climbers currently do not need an authorization to replace anchors requiring maintenance (unless existing local rules apply; check with your park). If authorization is required to replace fixed anchors, the onus is on the NPS to publicize the requirement through a park plan or by issuing notification of a site-specific restriction.

Wilderness Climbing and Conservation

The NPS policy states that bolt-intensive “sport climbs” are incompatible with Wilderness and in every case using power drills is prohibited. The new NPS policy also states that maintaining Wilderness character requires that climbers accept a higher level of risk in Wilderness areas and exhibit a respect for the resource and a “willingness to accept self-restraint in demanding access to it.” This means that bolting for convenience or to develop bolt-intensive face climbs is not an acceptable Wilderness activity. Climbers can look to the standards in existing NPS Wilderness plans for examples of when it may be appropriate to place a new anchor, such as the following Backcountry and Wilderness Plan from Rocky Mountain National Park:

The use of removable and fixed anchors, as well as other climbing equipment, is appropriate in Wilderness. However, fixed anchors must be placed judiciously and closely managed in order to prevent the degradation of Wilderness resources and character. Where anchor points are necessary for climber safety, the use of removable equipment is desired and highly recommended. Fixed anchors should not be placed merely for convenience or to make an otherwise “unclimbable” route climbable.

The placement of new fixed anchors may be allowed when necessary to enable a safe rappel when no other means of descent is possible, to enable emergency retreat, during self-rescue situations. The infrequent placement of new fixed anchors is allowed when ascending a route to connect terrain that is otherwise protected by removable anchors (e.g., one crack system or other natural feature to another) or when there are no features which will accommodate removable equipment but the occasional placement of a fixed anchor may provide a modicum of safety during the ascent (e.g., traditional face climbing). New, bolt-intensive climbing routes (e.g., sport climbs, bolt ladders) are not appropriate in Wilderness and should not be created.

What It All Means

This new policy ensures that climbers will not face a nationwide ban on fixed anchors in NPS managed Wilderness. This is good news for climbers! The vast majority of climbers are not likely to experience a significant change under this policy because it will not lead to the rampant removal of existing routes and anchors or a proliferation of bolted climbs in Wilderness, as some have suggested. Most climbers are not in the habit of placing fixed anchors at all, and this segment of the community can rest assured that they will have plenty of Wilderness climbing routes to enjoy for many years to come.

For those who place new fixed anchors, DO #41 does dictate a new management approach in that the placement of new fixed anchors in NPS Wilderness requires prior authorization in all cases. In some parks, authorization may require less red tape than in others–especially if parks have Wilderness climbing policies outlined in a plan already. But other parks may need to develop management plans that provide for new fixed anchor authorizations. Either way, if you need to place new rappel anchors or a few bolts to connect naturally protected terrain on a new route, contact your local park first to ask how this new Director’s Order affects the local management policies and procedures.

Remember, this policy applies only to new fixed anchor placements in National Park Service Wilderness areas. You can use existing bolts everywhere that climbing is allowed. The Access Fund will continue working with the NPS and the land management agencies to ensure that this new policy is workable for both climbers and land managers.

The Gist

–The new NPS policy ensures that climbers will not face a nationwide ban on fixed anchors in NPS managed Wilderness.

–Prior authorization for the placement of new fixed anchors is now required in all cases. If authorization is not provided in a park plan, climbers must request permission on a case-by-case basis.

–Authorization is not required to replace anchors in need of maintenance (unless existing local rules apply; check with your park).

–The vast majority of climbers are not likely to experience a significant change under this policy.

–The policy does not allow for the removal of existing routes and anchors without public input through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.

–The policy will not lead to a proliferation of bolted climbs in Wilderness.

For more information, read the entire Director’s Order #41 and its associated Reference Manual #41.

[This article was originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of the Access Fund’s Vertical Times–Ed.].