The “Protect America’s Rock Climbing Act” is an Imminent Threat to Wilderness

Cliffs inside Joshua Tree National Park Wilderness Area. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

There are relentless pressures on the natural world at this moment, and right now, Congress has its attention on a bill that would compound those pressures in our most protected places. The boldly named “Protect America’s Rock Climbing Act” (“PARC Act,” H.R. 1380) will allow sport climbers to drill permanent metal anchors into Wilderness mountainsides and cliffs, leaving visual evidence of human development and undoubtedly drawing more climbers to sensitive and remote locations. And the bill will weaken the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act—America’s most protective environmental law—to appease the climbing preferences of a small but vocal group of recreationists. It is the proverbial crack in the Wilderness Act’s armor and a harbinger of what’s to come. Wilderness Watch, along with over 40 other conservation groups, have written Congress to oppose the bill and protect the tiny bit of wild we’ve allowed to remain.

Given the appalling squeeze we’ve put on the natural world, we must start shamelessly prioritizing something other than ourselves. We don’t often think of it as such, but recreation is consumptive. It consumes the diminishing resource of space. And with less than three percent of land within the Lower 48 protected as Wilderness, that space is in short supply. Meanwhile, stressors on the natural world—climate change, habitat loss, intolerance, indifference—are increasing. Many of our animal counterparts simply can’t withstand the pressure, and a startling number have made their untimely departure to the world of extinction. In a group discussion with the Forest Service about recreation overuse in a popular Wilderness, I recently heard a Tribal representative call the skyrocketing recreation trend “alarming,” noting bluntly that wildlife has nowhere left to go. With every “user group” demand, the refuge grows smaller.

The issue is coming to a head. Even though there are ample bolted routes outside of Wilderness, the Access Fund—the group behind the PARC Act—wants more. Fixed (i.e. permanent) climbing anchors are installations prohibited by the Wilderness Act, but the PARC Act directs federal agencies to allow their use in Wilderness. It’s a backdoor approach to statutory amendment that even the Forest Service and Department of Interior oppose. In a hearing on the bill, the Forest Service stated that “creating new definitions for allowable uses in wilderness areas, as [the PARC Act] would do, has the practical effect of amending the Wilderness Act, which could have serious and harmful consequences for the management of wilderness areas across the nation.”

Due in large part to Wilderness designation, we still have a few largely untrammeled, wild pockets left—landscapes protected from our tech-enhanced conquest to consume physical space. When it passed in 1964, the Wilderness Act marked an unusual gesture of restraint in an era of escalating entitlement. To assure that an increasing population “[did] not occupy and modify all areas within the United States,” it prohibited commercial enterprise, roads, motorized and mechanized uses, aircraft landings, and installations and structures in Wilderness. Wilderness is the last refuge—a small space left alone. Because of this, Wilderness provides some of the best habitat left for plants and animals trying to eke out an existence
alongside humans.

But the refuge is always under attack, sometimes intentionally, other times out of blindness. Restraint is slippery when you can’t see what you’re losing. Researchers describe this shifting baseline as “a persistent downgrading of perceived ‘normal’ environmental conditions with every sequential generation, leading to under-estimation of the true magnitude of long-term environmental change[.]” We can’t see the ratchet-effect and appreciate just how small the refuge has become.

Whether out of malice, indifference, or ignorance, the PARC Act is sending a loud message: that recreation interests are more important than Wilderness preservation. And what’s coming is clear. Some mountain bikers, led by the Sustainable Trails Coalition, have already introduced legislation to exempt mountain bikes from the prohibition on mechanized travel in Wilderness. Trail runners want exemptions from the ban on commercial trail racing. Drone pilots and hang-gliders want their aircraft exempted. Recreational pilots want to “bag” challenging landing sites in Wilderness. The list is long.

What’s more confounding about the PARC Act is climbing is already allowed in Wilderness. This bill is simply about using fixed bolts to climb as opposed to using removable protection. Discussing the bill, a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune goes so far as to state that “a ban on anchors would be tantamount to a ban on climbing in wilderness areas.” But even climbers are pushing back on the hyperbole. George Ochenski, known for his decades of first ascents in Wilderness without bolts, calls this position “Total bullshit.” He argues that bolting routes “is bringing ‘sport climbing’ into the wilderness—and it belongs in the gym or on non-wilderness rocks.”

Ochenski is not alone. Many climbers have been advocating for a marriage of climbing and wilderness ethics for decades. In Chouinard Equipment’s first catalog, legendary climbers Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost called for a preservation of the “vertical wilderness” that comes from “the exercise of moral restraint and individual responsibility.”

As someone who loves Wilderness, trail running, backpacking, and running rivers, I understand the allure of merging passion for the wild with a passion for adventure and reprieve. But I’m also understanding, more and more, that the flip side of this freedom is responsibility. I recall recently floating a remote river in Idaho during a big fire year—the sky was orange, thick with smoke, the hillsides smoldering and covered with fire retardant. Planes circled overhead, the river and beaches loaded with rafts, and I noticed something unsettling. Bighorn sheep and deer, pushed away by fire from the more secluded side drainages, were trying to get to the river to drink. They would cautiously approach the water waiting for a break in the planes and rafts, oftentimes retreating, sometimes with little ones in tow. I could see how stressed and tired they were, and I carry their faces with me now.

And I carry the face of the startled black bear my colleague and I encountered on a trail in the River of No Return Wilderness. We were there investigating a proliferation of private aircraft traffic along Big Creek—an otherwise remote Wilderness drainage—where recreational pilots practice touch and go landings at remote meadows along the creek, sometimes toting in coolers for a mid-day picnic. Planes buzzing overhead, we startled the young bear just before meeting two other hikers who were “fast and light” hiking from the Big Creek trailhead to a lodge 30 miles downstream, deep in the Middle Fork drainage of the Wilderness. They planned on having breakfast at the lodge and then hopping a private plane back to McCall. I’m sure the bear would agree, the largest Wilderness in the lower 48 felt impossibly small that day.

I’m struggling with my own presence in these places and trying to envision a future where we have the peace and connection one finds in Wilderness—the real world—without the consequence attached. One thing is abundantly clear though—the last thing the natural world needs right now is less protection. The Wilderness Act doesn’t need more exceptions. Wilderness, and all those who depend upon it for survival, needs our restraint now more than ever.

You can help keep Wilderness wild by writing your members of Congress and urging them to oppose H.R. 1380.


Dana Johnson is the staff attorney for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula, Montana.