Park Service Grants New Access to Climbers

New park rules to allow limited use of fixed anchors in “wilderness”

In a major victory for the climbing advocacy group Access Fund, the National Park Service issued new guidelines allowing the sparing use of fixed bolts in officially designated wilderness.

For years, the official view of the NPS and other agencies that oversee federal lands was that fixing permanent anchors to rock faces is inconsistent with the idea of wilderness, defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964 as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”

Of the 106 million acres of congressionally designated wilderness, 44 million are in the national park system, making up 53 percent of NPS land, according to the agency.

The new rules, signed by director Jonathan B. Jarvis this week, officially recognize that “the use of removable anchors may reduce, but [do] not in every case completely eliminate, the need for fixed anchors.” The order continues, “The occasional placement of a fixed anchor for belay, rappel, or protection purposes does not necessarily impair the future enjoyment of wilderness or violate the Wilderness Act.”

Placement of anchors must be “rare” and authorized at the individual park level through a permit system, or at the discretion of the park superintendent.

Access Fund expressed guarded pleasure with the decision in a news brief on its website, stating, “This policy… affects many of the country's most important climbing areas such as Yosemite, Grand Teton, Zion, Joshua Tree, and Canyonlands National Parks. The NPS included many of the specific provisions Access Fund advocated for during our 20+ years of work on this issue.”

The rule change—or rather, the establishment of rules—is expected to influence the Forest Service, which banned climbing in its wilderness areas in 1998, according to Climbing Magazine.

Not everybody is pleased with the new guidelines. George Nickas of the wilderness advocacy group Wilderness Watch told Outside Magazine that he believes the new orders are the wrong approach to wilderness stewardship, stating, “If you can't climb a mountain without fixed anchors, then you shouldn't climb that mountain.”

Because the new guidelines don’t spell out a uniform policy for implementation, expect more on this issue in coming months.

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