Climbers cry foul over Citizens Bitterroot climbing plan

(Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

As the Bitterroot National Forest prepares to release its draft climbing management plan, certain stakeholders are still diametrically opposed on a few issues.

Upon learning that more than a dozen wildlife and wildland advocates had proposed their own version of a climbing management plan for the Bitterroot National Forest, local climbers with the Western Montana Climbers Coalition said they’d already sent in their own version of a plan in early August. That was several months before Stevensville District Ranger Steve Brown finished holding monthly public discussions of what the U.S. Forest Service needed to consider in developing its plan. Brown held the last meeting in December and is expected to release the draft plan around March 23.

In late February, groups including Bitterroot Audubon and Wilderness Watch, submitted their “Citizens Plan” that primarily tries to preserve natural conditions and create protections for nesting raptors and wilderness. But climbers say it goes too far.

“Why are activists, who are non-climbers with little understanding of climbing, proposing a climbing management plan?” said Coalition co-chair Dane Scott in an email. “These activists’ views on climbing management are often extreme and not well informed; they are not informed by the (Forest Service) commitment to sustainable recreation or the current state of climbing on National Forests.”

The main bone of contention is the size of buffer zones that would prohibit climbing around raptor nests. Peregrine falcons – locally extinct prior to the 1970s due to DDT – are now observed in 17 canyons of the Bitterroot Mountains, and bird watchers are concerned that populations could be affected if climbers get too close and startle parents off the nest.

The Citizens Plan says a half-mile buffer should be in place around all active nests, mimicking restrictions in other climbing plans. The buffer could be lifted if the Forest Service determines a nest isn’t being used during a season.

The Climbers Coalition says such a buffer is excessive. Instead, they propose a “view shed” approach where climbers can get closer to nests as long as rock formations block the birds’ view of nearby climbers. Climbers have been working with retired BNF biologist Dave Lockman to use the view-shed approach for the past six years with nesting golden eagles in the Mill Creek drainage, Scott said.

“It just shuts down a small portion. And it’s worked – they’ve fledged every year,” Scott said.

If the plan adopts a half-mile buffer, the buffer should have to apply across the board, Scott said, even though raptors react mainly to people above and beside their nests, not below.

“Any activity within the half-mile buffer zone would have to be restricted. This would likely mean, if consistently applied, that restrictions on all the trails in the Bitterroot canyons would need to be put in play every February and possibly be extended through September,” Scott said. 

In June, the two factions debated the buffer at the first public meeting Brown held, and it appears neither side has budged since. But the disagreement doesn’t stop with buffer zones.

The Citizens Plan would require climbers who want to install permanent anchors to get authorization from the National Forest. Permanent anchors can deface the cliff and cause climbers to congregate on certain routes. The Bitterroot National Forest currently requires climbers to get authorization prior to installing fixed anchors.

Scott said such measures aren’t needed in the Bitterroot, and they would severely limit people putting up routes. Only one place on national forests – in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge – requires authorization, because it’s an archeological site and it’s so heavily used, Scott said.

“It’s probably the way the national forest will eventually go,” Scott said. “But there isn’t a precedent for it – for non-wilderness permitting. So we’re in uncharted water. Climbing isn’t that big here, and it’s asking the Forest Service to do a lot.”

Scott acknowledges that more people are moving into the area and that the amount of climbing could increase. But he said the National Forest should use adaptive management and cross the bridge of authorization when they come to it.

The Bitterroot Forest currently requires authorization, and it might have a harder time imposing an authorization process later when there are more climbers to oppose it. Scott said climbers know it’s coming eventually.

“You don’t want to go from a permissive process to a real rigid one,” Scott said.

The final disagreement is over whether fixed anchors should be allowed in wilderness. The Wilderness Act doesn’t allow the installation of manmade devices in wilderness in order to preserve areas that are “untrammeled” or not actively disturbed by man to allow people to disconnect from an increasingly trammeled world. That’s why Wilderness Watch got involved in the climbing plan.

The controversy started in September 1996, when the Sawtooth National Forest supervisor reviewed the policy on the use of bolts and decided no additional fixed anchors would be permitted in Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness. The Access Fund, a climbing advocacy group, challenged that decision and has continued to push for the ability to install fixed anchors in wilderness.

Most recently, the Access Fund has pushed a Congressional bill that would override the Wilderness Act and okay permanent bolts in the San Rafael Swell Wilderness in Emery County, Utah.

Still, in 2015, Colorado’s South Platte climbing plan ruled that “bolt-intensive climbing routes are not appropriate in wilderness and should not be developed.” And a growing controversy revolving around Pike’s Peak shows that not all climbers support using permanent anchors in wild country.

Scott doesn’t see a problem with anchors in wilderness, and he said any decision by the Bitterroot National Forest would be “premature,” because he said the Forest Service is in the process of coming up with national guidelines.

“So we don’t want to get ahead of the national guidelines that will finally deal with this issue,” Scott said. “We want to see what the national office comes up with.”

The Missoula Current could not verify that the Forest Service was taking such action.

But the Forest Service needs to address more than just one issue – it needs to create nationwide climbing guidance.

The Bitterroot National Forest is getting national attention because it’s representative of emergent climbing plans that are popping up everywhere, pitting those defending the land and wildlife vs. those who want more access and fewer limits. The problem stems from the fact that Forest Service regulation of climbing overall is inconsistent, disjointed, and has failed to keep pace with the sport’s expansion.

Unlike other resource uses, the Forest Service has no formal framework to guide climbing resource management decisions. So recent forest efforts to hastily devise climbing plans to cope with increasing pressure and contention have resulted in a patchwork approach that can be picked apart by user groups and potentially threaten a quickly overwhelmed resource.

As it is, the eventual Bitterroot National Forest climbing plan faces a tough struggle that will likely result in litigation.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.