A view of the Black Hills from Black Elk Peak trail. The peak is in the federally designated Black Elk Wilderness. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan bill that would establish standards for recreational rock climbing on federal lands is one step closer to becoming law.
The Protecting America’s Rock Climbing Act was approved by the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources in late June, giving a boost to the millions of climbing advocates working to safeguard the thriving sport and the access to some of the country’s most impressive crags.
The bill, if passed by Congress, would require the U.S. secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to set standards for recreational rock climbing activities in federally designated wilderness lands.
“Allowable activities” outlined in the bill include the placement, use and maintenance of fixed anchors and other equipment that climbers use to affix the ropes that tie into their harnesses.
The committee approved the bill in a 21-15 vote. Reps. John Curtis, a Utah Republican, and Joe Neguse, a Colorado Democrat, introduced the proposal in March.
“Colorado’s natural areas are home to some world-renowned rock climbing locations. By requiring additional agency guidance on climbing management, we are taking steps to protect our climbers and the spaces in which they recreate,” Neguse said in a press release upon the bill’s introduction.
In his statement, Curtis underscored outdoor recreation as an “ever-growing industry” in his state.
“Ensuring access to these lands is vital not just for our economy, but also to ensure the millions of Americans who enjoy rock climbing can fully explore our nation’s national treasures,” he said.
The Outdoor Industry Association — a coalition of companies whose policy platforms range from climate to international trade — estimated in its inaugural “State of Climbing” report that the sport of climbing contributed $12.4 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017. The report also credits climbers for creating a “significant economic impact” to communities near rural climbing destinations, including Lee County, Kentucky, and Sandrock, Alabama.
Climbers and the Park Service
At issue is the lack of standard rules across federal agencies that manage U.S. wilderness and parks, said Erik Murdock, interim executive director of the Access Fund, a national rock climbing advocacy organization that represents roughly 8 million climbers and advocates for pro-climber laws and access.
“This bill is really important in order to provide clarity and to push back on some of the recent actions by the National Park Service to prohibit climbing,” Murdock said. He highlighted an NPS proposal that considered banning fixed anchors on the 2,200-foot walls of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park — a sought-after climbing destination in Colorado.
In response to a request for comment, the NPS pointed States Newsroom to its testimony against the bill, citing concerns that the legislation could impose “significant administrative burdens” and would have the “practical effect of amending the Wilderness Act, which is not only unnecessary but could potentially have deleterious consequences.”
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“The Department feels it has sufficient authorities under the Wilderness Act to fully support recreational climbing opportunities in designated wilderness opportunities in a manner that balances tribal, recreational, environmental, and wilderness preservation values and interests and therefore does not believe legislation is necessary,” said Michael T. Reynolds, NPS deputy director of congressional and external relations, in his statement to Congress.
Some park managers and wilderness advocates have long argued against the bolting of anchors to natural rock areas. The NPS wrote in its August 2022 draft plan for the Black Canyon area that anchors and other structures could “diminish” the natural landscape and threaten the “solitude” of the remote areas. The plan detailed an application and selection process for the installation of any new fixed anchors.
But the climbing community credits itself for major wins in land conservation across the U.S. According to Access Fund figures, the organization has purchased and conserved 90 climbing areas and just last year raised $3.6 billion for public lands conservation.
“What this particular (legislation) is doing is essentially codifying what climbers have been doing for decades in wilderness areas across the country, which is working in partnership with landowners to responsibly place fixed anchors to protect climber safety, to ensure sustainable climbing access, and essentially, to ensure access to these climbing routes that have historical significance for the climbing community,” said Ginette Walker Vinski, board president of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Climbers Coalition.
Prospects in the Senate
An amendment proposed to the Senate’s America’s Outdoor Recreation Act recognizes that fixed anchors used for climbing are “appropriate” in wilderness areas, and extends that standard across lands managed by the USDA’s Forest Service as well as agencies within Interior.
The amendment, by Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, received unanimous support in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in May.
“Outdoor recreation is enormously important to Colorado — for our communities, our economies, and our way of life,” Hickenlooper said just after the vote. “Rock climbing is a vital part of our outdoor recreation tradition and our economy.”
The Outdoor Recreation Act, a vehicle for several outdoor recreation proposals that was originally sponsored by committee Chair and West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin III, has yet to reach the Senate floor. The committee’s ranking member Sen. John Barasso, a Wyoming Republican, is the co-sponsor.
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