The Middle Denver Peace Process

Do climbing bolts destroy wilderness? After a decade of war in the hills, environmentalists and rock rats draft a treaty.

Oct 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
SAM DAVIDSON and George Nickas are the best of adversaries. For years, Davidson, the outspoken senior policy analyst for The Access Fund, a climbing advocacy group, and Nickas, the quiet executive director of the monitoring group Wilderness Watch, have battled over whether or not climbers can legally place anchor bolts in federally designated wilderness areas. So when the pair sat next to each other at a late-June Forest Service negotiating session in Denver, Philip Harter, the mediator, suggested a solution to the problem. "Maybe," the Vermont Law School professor said, "we oughta just tie you two at the ankle and let you wrestle it out."

Davidson, a lanky 39-year-old Bay Area surfer and climber, and Nickas, a 42-year-old battle-hardened Montana conservationist, were two of the more passionate stakeholders at the first of a series of four two-day "reg negs"—fedspeak for regulation negotiations—that aimed to finally settle the battle over the use of fixed anchors, such as bolts, on wilderness rock faces. If all goes smoothly, new Forest Service rules for climbing in protected backcountry should be made public by October 1 and enforced during the 2001 climbing season.

Federal attempts to halt the spread of bolting in Arizona's Superstition Mountains in 1989, and later in Joshua Tree National Park and Idaho's Sawtooth National Forest, were met with fierce opposition by climbing groups. When members of Congress joined the fray in 1998, Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Jim Lyons, whose agency oversees the Forest Service, proposed a sort of treaty council to end the bolting war. Which is how 24 representatives from groups such as the Wilderness Society (generally anti-bolt) and the American Alpine Club (très pro-bolt) ended up haggling in a government-issue conference room on the outskirts of Denver this past summer.

Like many standoffs between recreationists and greens, at issue is the interpretation of the Wilderness Act, which bans "structures or installations" in wilderness areas. Nickas argues that a bolt—a three-inch stainless steel screw cranked into a hole drilled in the granite—constitutes an "installation." Forest Service lawyers have conceded that he may have a point. This scares the fleece off climbers. At risk are some of America's classic climbs, such as Weaver's Needle in Arizona's Superstition Wilderness and Prusik Peak in Washington State's Alpine Lakes Wilderness—both bolted routes. The Denver reg neg dealt only with Forest Service wilderness, but the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management may follow the spirit, if not the letter, of a Denver agreement. (Yosemite National Park, by the way, contains an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 bolts, and nearly all the valley's climbing routes, including El Cap, fall within wilderness areas.)

Things got off to a rocky start at the opening Denver reg neg. The meeting threatened to devolve into a death match until mediator Harter steered the combatants into a discussion of the various forms of fixed climbing anchors. It soon became clear that the wilderness advocates weren't out to ban bolts so much as prevent a precedent that would open the hills to mountain bikes, ATVs, and snowmobiles. "If we reinterpret the Wilderness Act, we open the floodgates," said Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness. "There are people looking for any loophole they can find."

Midway through the talks, the discussions produced, if not a solution, at least a way out of deadlock. Climbers and wilderness advocates both agreed that nuts, chocks, and cams would be considered "non-permanent" anchors, as opposed to the permanent bolts. "What about pitons?" someone asked. All eyes turned to George Nickas, who considered the question behind prayerful hands. "That," he decided, "is still a gray area." Sam Davidson nodded in agreement. By October 1, the gray should be rendered into black-and-white Forest Service rules as, after a decade of bickering, the opposing sides finally settle the issue. With luck, the tapping of hammers notwithstanding, peace will finally return to the steep hillsides.

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