What the New NPS Wilderness Climbing Policy Means for Climbers & Bolting

For decades, the future legality of fixed anchor use in Wilderness areas remained uncertain. Some national parks and forests banned new bolt placements, and a few land managers even removed commonly used rappel anchors and proposed the wide-scale removal of existing climbs. The threat of a national ban on bolts in Wilderness areas has always lingered, with the potential for significant climbing restrictions at places like Yosemite, Black Canyon, Canyonlands, and Red Rocks.

Would parks decide to ban all new bolts? Do they have the authority to remove anchors they consider an unacceptable impact to Wilderness character? And what about the thousands of existing anchors out there that need maintenance? Because land management agencies had no national guidance to assist local planners and managers, each local park and national forest was left to interpret the Wilderness Act—as it pertains to fixed anchors—on its own, and with wildly varying results.


Last month the National Park Service issued Director’s Order #41, finally clarified the agency’s policy for the management of Wilderness climbing, including the placement (and replacement/removal) of fixed anchors. Keep reading for an overview of what this policy will mean for climbers.

New Rules Require Prior Authorization
The good news: gone is the longstanding threat that NPS officials could ban all bolts and fixed pitons as illegal “installations” under the Wilderness Act. However, it is important to understand that climbers must now have prior authorization to install new bolts in NPS managed Wilderness (the use of existing bolts is not affected), and it is your responsibility to know whether you are in a Wilderness area. Parks may grant prior authorization on a case-by-case basis or “programmatically” approve (for example, by zone) fixed anchor placements through a park plan. Always check with your park first to be certain of the rules in place. If a park does not have a plan that includes fixed anchor authorizations, DO #41 directs that climbers may approach park officials for case-by-case “interim” authorizations via permit or other specific approval.

Nailing Routes and Leave No Trace Ethics
Direct aid “nailing” routes, such as on El Capitan, that require removable pitons are not governed by this policy, which defines “fixed anchor” as a bolt or permanent piton. However, DO #41 addresses all Wilderness climbing impacts, not just fixed anchors. And if frequent removable piton use results in cumulative impacts that are considered unacceptable” (an impact standard that applies to all Wilderness users, not only climbers), parks may restrict or otherwise manage the use of removable pitons. Thus, clean climbing should be the norm in Wilderness, and climbers should use Leave No Trace ethics.


Bolt Replacements
The new DO #41 policy states that the replacement of fixed anchors in NPS Wilderness “may” require prior authorization, so climbers currently do not need an authorization to replace anchors requiring maintenance (unless existing local rules apply; check with your park). If authorization is required to replace fixed anchors, the onus is on the NPS to publicize the requirement through a park plan or by issuing notification of a site specific restriction.

Bolt-Intensive Routes
The NPS policy states that bolt-intensive “sport climbs” are incompatible with Wilderness and in every case using power drills is prohibited. The new NPS policy also states that maintaining Wilderness character requires that climbers accept a higher level of risk in Wilderness areas and exhibit a respect for the resource and a “willingness to accept self-restraint in demanding access to it.” This means that bolting for convenience or to develop bolt-intensive face climbs is not an acceptable Wilderness activity.

The Bottom Line
This new policy ensures that climbers will not face a nationwide ban on fixed anchors in NPS managed Wilderness. This is good news for climbers! The vast majority of climbers are not likely to experience a significant change under this policy because it will not lead to the rampant removal of existing routes and anchors or a proliferation of bolted climbs in Wilderness, as some have suggested. Most climbers are not in the habit of placing fixed anchors at all, and this segment of the community can rest assured that they will have plenty of Wilderness climbing routes to enjoy for many years to come.

For those who place new fixed anchors, DO #41 does dictate a new management approach in that the placement of new fixed anchors in NPS Wilderness requires prior authorization in all cases. In some parks, authorization may require less red tape than in others—especially if parks have Wilderness climbing policies outlined in a plan already. But other parks may need to develop management plans that provide for new fixed anchor authorizations. Either way, if you need to place new rappel anchors or a few bolts to connect naturally protected terrain on a new route, contact your local park first to ask how this new Director’s Order affects the local management policies and procedures. Remember, this policy applies only to new fixed anchor placements in National Park Service Wilderness areas. You can use existing bolts everywhere that climbing is allowed.

More Information
The Access Fund will continue working with the NPS and the land management agencies to ensure that this new policy is workable for both climbers and land managers. For more information, read the full version of this article in the Summer 13 Vertical Times, read the entire Director’s Order #41 on the Access Fund website, or email [email protected].

Blog Comments

great photos!

Posted by: bubblegum casting | November 14, 2013 at 12:57 AM

Thanks for your ongoing dialogue with the NPS, and your efforts in Queen Creek.

Posted by: Michael Gray | November 21, 2013 at 01:40 PM

nice post, nice to read it

Posted by: toko murah | January 04, 2014 at 02:40 PM

Great summary of recent NPS interpretation of the Wilderness Act and resulting policies.

How does Forest Service policy compare to the Park service in these arenas (wilderness area permanent anchors)?

Where can I go to learn more about the policies of other agencies (specifically Forest Service both inside and outside designated Wilderness areas)?

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