In the Parks

Anchors Away?

The word “anchor” suggests the sea, not the land-locked expanse of our nation’s wilderness. But for the past two years, the anchors issue has forced the Forest Service to ride a growing swell of stormy debate over their on-shore use.

The anchors invading our wildest places are tiny
only a few bolts, or a loop of heavy webbing, drilled into the rock. The lives of climbers often hinge on their strength as they dangle from ropes hundreds of feet in the air, rappelling to the safety of the solid ground below.

The Wilderness Act, however, forbids any permanent human structures in wilderness areas. These small anchors, wilderness advocates argue, represent just such indelible additions to the landscape.
“The same sentence of the Wilderness Act that prohibits fixed anchors prohibits snowmobiles, mountain bikes, cabins and shelters,” warns George Nickas, executive director of Montana-based Wilderness Watch. “If we start making exceptions for climbers, then where would we stop?”

In June of 1998, the Forest Service agreed. Anchors were formally banned, generating a wave of protest from enthusiasts like Sam Davidson of the Access Fund, who believes: “What is at stake for climbers is the opportunity to climb on the most historic, the most scenic, and in some cases the most famous climbing routes in the world.”

Davidson argues that climbing represents a traditional use of wilderness. In fact, in many popular climbing areas, anchors considerably predate the 1964 Wilderness Act
a key point in the debate. “The best way to avoid setting a new wilderness precedent,” Davidson explains, “is to acknowledge that what climbers have been doing all along is permissible
a special use.”

Confounding the usual politics, the fixed anchor debate does not divide neatly between climbers and environmental organizations. Both the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society have sided with climbers, but not all climbers welcome their support. Thirty-year climbing veteran Steve Wolper supports a ban on anchors, accusing the environmental groups of abandoning “what was once a very strong wilderness ethic.”

To help resolve the issue once and for all, the Forest Service convened a committee of climbers, outfitters and environmentalists (including Nickas, Davidson and Wolper), which will issue a recommendation this fall. The final ruling of the Forest Service, expected by year’s end, will dictate whether it’s anchors away for the entire National Wilderness System.