The Bitterroot National Forest banned the creation of new, bolted rock climbing routes earlier this month, forcing climbers and conservationists to contemplate the future of the sport in the area.
In so-called “sport climbing,” climbers clip ropes into small bolts fixed in the rock to keep from falling too far should they slip off as they ascend.
The ban means climbers could face criminal prosecution for drilling bolts for any new routes forestwide. That’s because the sport’s rise in popularity is bringing with it new conflicts over the role of recreation in the forest, prompting land managers like Stevensville District Ranger Steve Brown to ask, “What do we want climbing to look like on the forest as a whole?”
He says public meetings beginning this spring will form the backbone of a climbing management plan that answers that question — and governs bolting in the forest in the long run. Previously, climbing management was set to be handled with the Bitterroot’s broader forest plan revision, but that multi-year process has been repeatedly kicked down the road.
“If we have a management plan in place that allows for climbing, it safeguards that activity into the future,” Brown says.
This ban on new bolts stems from a decade-long battle over climbing on the soaring cliffs of Mill Creek, an area designated as "recommended wilderness," that’s also become a local sport climbing hotspot.
The influx of climbers means more trails, erosion, and bolts. Concerned locals have gone to extreme measures to keep climbers away. Late last year, bolts were damaged and access trails were destroyed.
Matt Anderson, forest supervisor on the Bitterroot, says the Forest Service order bans that sort of vandalism too.
“There’s been a lot of controversy, it continues, and we gotta find a better way to look at it and work through it,” he says.
Anderson says sports as a whole are on the rise in the Bitterroot, and the forest is also soon to begin a separate, strategic recreation plan.
Erik Murdock, policy director at the Colorado-based national climbing advocacy group, The Access Fund, says the ban is egregious, and was issued with little transparency.
“This is essentially the most over-arching climbing ban ever been implemented in the United States,” he says.
Although the Bitterroot National Forest says the ban is only on bolting new routes, Murdock says the wording of the order is vague and sloppy, and could even ban climbing new routes that don’t use bolts at all, or ban replacing old bolts that are crucial to the safety of climbers.
He says the order was issued with no public input, which sets a dangerous precedent for all types of recreation in national forests.
“Whether you’re in favor of climbing or not, or whether you ever go climbing, it should be concerning to you and our public lands really deserve better,” he says.
Gary Milner, a retired teacher and conservationist, says the ban is a good thing — a reset button that could help all sides see eye-to-eye moving forward.
“There’s definitely a place for climbing on the Bitterroot forest but we would like to see it managed in a thoughtful manner,” he says.
He’s concerned about bird and mountain goat habitat. And he says he’s frustrated by the process as it’s unfolded over the past decade. He’s seen more than 500 bolts and dozens of routes in the Mill Creek "recommended wilderness."
“That many routes, that many people, really can diminish from the wilderness quality of that area,” he says.
And, he says a permitting process for bolting is common in climbing areas across the country.
But Damian Mast with the Western Montana Climbers Coalition says of over 150 national forests in the U.S. only a couple, not including the Bitterroot, have climbing management plans — and those are in areas with much higher use and population pressure.
“It does strike us as a little strange,” Mast says.
Wyoming’s Bighorn National forest also issued a ban on new bolts last summer, but that area is home to thousands of climbs clustered on a short cliffline. Mast says the dispersed, remote climbs of the Bitterroot are of an entirely different character.
A 2017 agreement with the Bitterroot’s previous forest supervisor restricted new bolts only in a specific area of Mill Creek, not the forest as a whole. Mast says climbers have worked hard to follow policy and minimize impact.
"I think this is a philosophical issue we’re dealing with about how our public lands ought to be used,” he says. “Climbers are as a group almost entirely wilderness advocates, wildland advocates and public land advocates. And it’s disappointing to feel a division between various groups who are all public land and wilderness advocates, in a time when we should be banding together to protect those resources."
He hopes the national forest will revise or rescind its order and include ample opportunity for public input as the climbing management plan is formed.