Bolt Controversy in the Bitterroot

Earlier this year, under pressure from local anti-climbing activists, the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana expanded a generally accepted, one-year bolt moratorium at a developed front country crag to the entire Mill Creek Canyon drainage area, which includes incredible potential for backcountry first ascents.

Over the last few years, a few local residents have protested a newly developed climbing area in Mill Creek Canyon, which contains around 50 bolted and traditional routes at a variety of grades. The area is less than a mile from the trailhead and has become popular with local climbers. These residents argue that the 1985 Forest Plan precludes bolted climbing because Mill Creek Canyon could potentially be recommended to Congress for Wilderness designation. They asked the Forest Service to remove all bolts and delay stewardship projects at the climbing site.

To help diffuse the situation, in February of 2015 Western Montana Climbers Coalition (WMCC) agreed to a voluntary, one-year bolt moratorium at the Mill Creek sport climbing crag only. The former District Ranger hoped that this moratorium would give the Forest Service time to work with climbers and interested citizens to develop a longer term climbing management plan for the Mill Creek area.

The Bitterroot Mountains provide a lot more climbing opportunities than just the recently developed Mill Creek sport climbing area, and local climbers saw the value in supporting the discreet, short-term bolt moratorium in order to establish a collaborative relationship with the National Forest staff and work toward solutions that would preserve the greater climbing opportunities in the region. WMCC attempted to work with National Forest staff to develop long-term climbing management strategies, but a small number of anti-climbing activists elevated their complaints, and WMCC’s attempts at collaboration were not fruitful.

This recent unsubstantiated expansion of the Mill Creek sport climbing bolt moratorium effectively cuts off new climbing opportunities in the entire region for at least the next five years. (The Forest Supervisor stated that this expanded bolt moratorium could remain in place until the Bitterroot National Forest Plan revision is completed in approximately 5 years.) This expanded moratorium impacts the alpine walls that form the drainages of the Bitterroot Mountains, which hold endless opportunities for future cutting edge ascents.

Western Montana Climbers Coalition reached out to the Access Fund to appeal the expansion of the bolt ban, and the Access Fund Policy Director headed to Hamilton, Montana for a meeting with the Forest Supervisor and her staff. After hearing compelling testimony from WMCC board members and seeing Access Fund’s presentation of effective climbing management examples, the Forest Supervisor agreed to re-evaluate her decision. “The Forest Supervisor had been receiving a lot of pressure and misinformation from a few people. This meeting was especially helpful as Access Fund was able to correct the bad information she had been receiving," says Dane Scott of WMCC. "We are very optimistic that the thoughtful and informed perspective will cause the Supervisor to rethink her approach and move toward more balanced management decisions.”

“It is important to push back on poorly informed decisions in order to avoid harmful precedent,” says Erik Murdock, Access Fund Policy Director. “We also need to make sure that climbers don’t carry unnecessary baggage into the upcoming Forest Plan revision process.”

We are still waiting on the Forest Supervisor’s re-evaluation of the issue. Stay tuned for updates.

Photo courtesy of Dane Scott