Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability
Senior Seminar
University of California, Irvine June 1997 

Jason Davis

Global Sustainability Issue Paper

March 5, 1997

Climbing and Respecting the Environment

The debate between environmental groups and rock climbers has been a long roller coaster ride of ups and downs for each side. Little by little the two opponents are beginning to adapt together for the benefit of everyone. Rock climbers want to conquer natures vertical obstacles, but sometimes this leads to mistreatment of the rock faces and the organisms that live on or around the cliffs. The environmental groups want to preserve the beauty of these sheer rock faces along with the ecosystem around the rock cliffs. Many climbers are very environmentally conscious and practice minimum impact climbing. The problem is not deciding which side is right or wrong, it is the limited communication between the opposition that leads to confusion and misunderstanding. Climbers and the parties involved in environmental protection need to open a channel between them for communication so that policies can be developed that both sides can be happy with.

The placement of bolts on climbing routes defaces the nature of the rock, and in all but a few places is unnecessary. Many organizations involved with the climbers interests in mind agree with this idea and feel that bolt placement must be regulated. Communication between climbers and environmental policy makers has been very limited in the past. But now that the threat of closing and limiting access to certain climbing areas climbing organizations have formed to limit these restrictions. For instance, The Access Fund has been negotiating with leading environmental groups to try to reach a better understanding of climbing and of wilderness. In part, the goal of these discussions is to inform land managers that there is a broad base of support for regulations that manage , rather than ban, fixed anchor use (Davidson, 1994). Another group, The Wilderness Society calls for climbing to be managed by the same strict standards that apply to other uses of the wilderness (Davidson, 1994). The National Parks & Conservation Association now recommends that new fixed anchors be allowed by permit only, rather than banning them completely. Land managers need to better understand climbing and be reassured that climbers support wilderness preservation. Four agencies are involved in issues associated with climbing, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service. Of all these groups only the National Park Service's climbing regulations were prepared with substantial input from climbers. This should serve as a model for future regulations of climbing related issues.

Climbing activity affects the plants and animals located near the climbing site. Plants growing near the base of the rocks are cut back and trampled, fungi and lichens growing on the rock are disturbed, and animals in the area are displaced when humans are present. For instance, during the summer gravid females of an endangered species of rattlesnake inhabit open areas such as rocks, exposed walls, or roadsides with less canopy closure than areas used by males and non-gravid females (USFWS WWW site, 1997). During the summer, these areas would experience more climbing activity due to the pleasant weather conditions and therefore the habits of these snakes is affected by the presence of climbers. Many raptors also use these cliffs for nesting, which would be affected if climbers were present at these times. Climbers understand these issues and agree that minimizing their impact is a must to protect these species and their climbing areas. Seasonal closure of climbing areas because of nesting has been taking place for years with a few problems due to the infrequent visits by uninformed recreational climbers. Aside from these few isolated incidents, this understanding between land managers and climbers is an acceptable alternative to complete closure.

In conclusion, it is understood that all sides agree that the impact that climbers have on the environment must be limited. In order to achieve this climbing activity must be regulated. The "microscopic view" that the land managing agencies have on rock climbing needs to be dissolved and the focus needs to be placed on the protection and preservation of the natural environment. The impact that hikers have on an ecosystem is much greater than that of climbers, by rarely do hikers face access problems. Climbing in the past has been very abusive to the environment, just as everything was when it was first discovered, but now that we have realized this impact it has and will continue to be limited.



Davidson, Sam. Bolts on the Chopping Block, in Rock and Ice. Nov./Dec. 1994 US Fish and Wildlife Service home page

Back to Senior Seminar