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To Bolt or Not to Bolt: A Framework for Common Sense Climbing Regulation

Michael Sammartino


  • Suggests a regulatory framework for the management of climbing on National Forest lands.
  • Surveys climbing as a recreational resource, its required infrastructure, and associated impacts.
  • Addresses the Forest Service’s regulation of climbing resources and discusses a programmatic framework for regulating climbing.
To Bolt or Not to Bolt: A Framework for Common Sense Climbing Regulation
Buena Vista Images via Getty Images


On February 18, 2019, three climbers published an open letter describing an uptick in climbing routes in Ten Sleep Canyon where the rock had been “intentionally altered by gluing or chipping for the purpose of creating or enhancing holds.” The majority of these “manufactured” routes were established by a recent transplant to Ten Sleep––the owner of a local campground that caters to climbers. Other Ten Sleep locals, opposed to manufactured routes, decided to act. Under the cover of night, they removed fixed protection and holds or obstructed access to approximately 60 of the manufactured routes. The U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) swiftly responded by placing a moratorium on all new route development in Ten Sleep Canyon until completion of an area-wide climbing management plan. Currently, the management plan has yet to be completed and the moratorium remains in effect.

The Ten Sleep controversy, and the Forest Service’s response, has sparked further criticism of the agency’s climbing management approach. Though climbing has been tolerated on public lands for more than 50 years, regulation is inconsistent, disjointed, and has failed to keep pace with the sport’s expansion. Unlike other uses of recreational resources, the Forest Service has no formal framework to guide climbing resource management decisions pursuant to its responsibility to provide for varied and accessible recreation opportunities. The patchwork regulatory approach not only inhibits climbers’ access to and enjoyment of climbing on public lands, it threatens the health and sustainability of the climbing resource itself. Accordingly, the Forest Service should mitigate such ill effects by adopting programmatic climbing management regulations.

This paper suggests a regulatory framework for the management of climbing on National Forest lands. Section I briefly surveys climbing as a recreational resource, its required infrastructure, and associated impacts. Section II surveys the Forest Service’s regulation of the climbing resource. Section III then discusses a programmatic framework for regulating climbing.

I. A (Brief) Overview of Recreational Climbing and Its Impacts

American recreational climbing first developed on federal public land. Though initially a largely unregulated fringe sport, technological developments established distinct styles of climbing—traditional climbing and sport climbing—with vastly different impacts. These distinct styles widened climbing’s accessibility, and expanded its public profile, and they underlie the various approaches to climbing regulation.

The roots of American recreational climbing lie in Yosemite National Park. In the 1920s and 1930s, European climbers developed rope systems and hardware to complete steeper, taller, and more technical climbs. Climbers brought these techniques to California in the late 1930s and began attempting to scale the granite walls in Yosemite Valley. By the mid-1950s, climbing techniques and equipment had evolved to make the Valley’s crown jewels—Half Dome and El Capitan—accessible, thus ushering in climbing’s modern era.[11

Until the 1980s, climbing retained a reputation as a fringe sport, practiced by “vagabonds in pursuit of an incomprehensible and vaguely foolish Holy Grail.” Cumbersome equipment, limited climbing access, a small community of practitioners, and high-risk imposed substantial barriers to entry that limited the sport’s growth and popularity. Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, equipment and clothing improvements increased climbing’s safety and comfort. The emergence of a more widely accessible form of climbing—sport climbing— and the later introduction of climbing gyms further increased the sport’s public profile. Information about climbing and climbing instruction become more widely available. Portable power drills expanded the capabilities of route developers and number of routes available to climb. By the late 1990s, climbing had transformed into a popular and widely practiced form of recreation. Recently, the proliferation of climbing gyms spurred an ongoing outdoor recreation boom marked by rapid growth in outdoor retail availability and increased use of federally managed recreation resources.

A. Climbing Technology and Styles

Fixed anchors are essential for safe climbing. They are usually fashioned from slings, bolts, or pitons. These devices, considered “fixed” once permanently placed into the rock, are used for belaying, protecting the lead climber, or rappelling. Though only a small percentage of climbers place fixed anchors, all climbers depend on fixed anchors to some degree. An absence of fixed anchors increases climbing’s risk factor, limits the accessibility of certain climbs to a small fraction of climbers, and, in some cases, makes any climbing activity impossible.

There are three primary “styles” of rock climbing: traditional climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering. Apart from bouldering, every climbing style relies on the placement of equipment into the rock to protect the climber from the consequences of a fall. However, the differences between sport climbing and traditional climbing are stark. In traditional climbing, the leading climber places equipment into constrictions in the rock to protect against falls, and the following climber removes this equipment as she ascends. Though traditional climbs occasionally require the use of “fixed anchors” (i.e., permanent bolts or pitons placed in the rock), traditional climbing emphasizes a “clean” climbing aesthetic: leaving a minimal trace to provide the next climber with the most “natural” experience. Accordingly, preservation of the climber’s wilderness experience forms the foundation of traditional climbing’s aesthetics and ethics.

Sport climbing, in contrast, is wholly dependent on an abundance of fixed anchors. Rather than emphasizing the wilderness experience, sport climbing revolves around climbing’s athleticism and testing the physical limits of a climber’s abilities. Instead of placing and removing gear during the ascent, the climber relies exclusively on pre-placed fixed anchors for protection from falls. Sport climbing route development is far more involved than development for traditional climbing. To maximize safety, route developers glue or drill fixed anchors into the rock. Loose or dangerous rock features are removed from the wall, sharp edges are filed down to make them less abrasive and more comfortable, and loose holds are sometimes strengthened for safety with epoxy or resin.

B. Impacts of Climbing

Climbing imparts distinct environmental and social impacts. The development and long-term use of ad hoc “climber trails” and “staging areas,” as well as human-created rock fall, increases soil erosion, thereby affecting water runoff and diversion and impacting water quality.Climbers trample vegetation using ill-defined trails, remove it from the base of climbs to establish staging areas, and strip it from rock faces and fissures in order to “clean” the rock when establishing new routes. Climbing can disrupt wildlife since climbing routes often follow rock features used by wildlife for breeding, roosting, and nesting. Fixed anchors and chalk residue impart visual impacts on the rock faces that may affect other users’ recreational experience. These impacts are compounded by increasing numbers of climbers, and are more pronounced for sport climbing than traditional climbing. Sport climbing’s social nature leads to a greater density of climbers using a given area. Compared to traditional climbing’s emphasis on wilderness preservation, sport climbing’s emphasis on athleticism results in more extensive human-caused alterations to the rock: fixed protection for sport climbing increases the number of bolts drilled into the rock; and sport climbing route development often includes a degree of chipping or filing of holds. Increased climbing activity can also adversely impact areas of historic and archeological significance, as well as inappropriately encroach on Native American sacred sites.

Given climbing’s distinct impacts and the sport’s growth in popularity, active management and regulation is required to effectively mitigate climbing’s effect on public land resources.

II. Climbing Management and Regulation

Generally, federal regulation of climbing on public lands has been minimal. Apart from access regulations for particular areas, climbing has been largely self-regulated: climbers bound themselves to and enforced particular ethical norms intended to mitigate particular environmental impacts. With the emergence of sport climbing in the 1980s, land managers began to approach climbing with greater scrutiny. Despite Forest Service efforts in the mid-1990s to develop comprehensive service-wide policies, formal regulation mostly concerns activities conducted on designated Wilderness. Regulation of climbing on non-designated multiple-use lands remains highly discretionary and often inconsistent.

The codification of multiple-use management entrenched the Forest Service’s active regulation of the recreational resource. The Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act (MUSYA), established outdoor recreation as a resource akin to “range, timber, and watershed” whose preservation is a fundamental purpose of the national forest system. MUSYA charged land managers with balancing commodity resource and recreational resource uses to maximize the utility of public lands and ensure perpetual resource availability. Congress enacted further management guidelines through the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act (RPA) of 1974, as amended by the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) of 1976. The RPA includes “outdoor recreation” among the listed goals of renewable resource programs, and the NFMA established legal standards the Forest Service must adhere to in developing and managing forest resources. Subsequently promulgated implementing regulations established binding requirements for land management plans applicable to all forest service units. The regulations favor comprehensive management by requiring forest management plans to provide for “social, economic, and ecological sustainability . . . consistent with the inherent capability of the plan area.” The regulations are highly permissive of recreation and encourage land management that enhances and expands outdoor recreation opportunities.

The Forest Service has twice attempted, and failed, to establish programmatic climbing management regulations. Conflict spurred by backlash to a 1988 prohibition on fixed anchors in Tonto National Forest led to a task force recommending guidelines that permitted fixed anchors, but included procedures for curtailing fixed anchor proliferation and placement. However, the Forest Service shelved the task force’s recommendations after the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of General Counsel issued an internal opinion in 1990 finding fixed anchors inconsistent with the Wilderness Act. In 1998, the Forest Service attempted to restrict fixed anchor in all Forest Service managed Wilderness. The ensuing conflict between the Forest Service and climbers led to a negotiated rulemaking to establish service-wide fixed anchor and climbing regulations. The negotiated rulemaking sought to settle major climbing management issues including the types of climbing equipment permissible, whether to implement a regulatory process to govern fixed anchor placement, and which parties are responsible for the placement and removal of fixed anchors. Despite several stakeholder meetings, the Forest Service abandoned the negotiated rulemaking process.

The Forest Service still lacks nationally applicable regulations to guide climbing management decisions and existing regulations are scattershot. Only two national forest units have dedicated climbing management plans. Forest Service wilderness management regulations neither acknowledge climbing as a legitimate wilderness use nor address the use of fixed anchors. As a result, forest managers enjoy far greater regulatory discretion, which results in inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary enforcement decisions. For example, fixed anchors are still prohibited in the Sawtooth Wilderness under regulations prohibiting the storing of “equipment, personal property or supplies.” In Ten Sleep and in Bitterroot National Forest, the Forest Service justified bolting moratoriums under 36 C.F.R. §§ 261.9(a) and 261.10(a), which prohibit damaging U.S. property and making unauthorized improvements of National Forest system land. Vandalizing or removing existing fixed anchors is also considered to be damaging U.S. property. Further, the Forest Service considers obstructing access to a climb an impermissible impediment to travel along an existing trail.

Ultimately, the extent of any national climbing policies is limited to the use of fixed anchors on designated or potential Wilderness lands. Unit-specific regulations are highly contextual, and generally lack unifying standards. As the next section will argue, the issues arising from the current regulatory landscape necessitate programmatic regulation.

III. Mitigating Management Issues with Programmatic Regulation

The varying regulatory approaches taken by the agencies result in a number of management and policy issues, including discrepancies in service-wide management standards, inconsistent and arbitrary enforcement, inadequate notice to regulated parties, and a lack of developed agency expertise in climbing management. The resulting effect is exceedingly discretionary climbing management that inadequately mitigates climbing’s impacts, reduces opportunities for climbing recreation, and leads to conflict between climbers, other resource users, and land managers. Climbing’s increasing popularity compounds these issues, thereby highlighting the need for a service-wide climbing management strategy.

Such a strategy is best adopted through enacting programmatic regulations. This section first discusses the need for a programmatic approach and looks to the history of programmatic off-road vehicle (ORV) regulation as a comparative example. Finally, this section suggests several principle features of a proposed programmatic climbing management policy.

A. The Need for a Programmatic Approach

Given the lack of management guidelines, climbing’s recent emergence as a form of recreation poses challenges for land managers. Compared to hunting, fishing, hiking, and backpacking, climbing requires unique infrastructure and impact considerations for which there is little prior institutional knowledge and expertise. The agencies only employ a small number of rangers with the substantive expertise necessary to appropriately administer climbing regulations. Moreover, both the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service’s recreation management policies lack any specific mention of climbing, despite numerous references to mountain biking, off-highway vehicle usage, camping, and hiking. Though each agency has adopted specific climbing management plans for particular areas with significant climbing opportunities, such plans are generally not required for all areas where climbing recreation occurs.

This general lack of guidance for land managers results in scattershot regulations and seemingly arbitrary enforcement. As evidenced by the response to the Ten Sleep controversy, the Forest Service’s tolerance toward climbing is directly tied to individual land mangers exercising their enforcement discretion. If placing fixed anchors and the cleaning of new routes is generally prohibited under 36 C.F.R. §§ 261.9(a) and 261.10(a), then all fixed anchors on national forest land are technically illegal. This, in effect, makes continued access to climbing resources subject to the discretion of local forest managers. Such a decision contravenes the Forest Service’s multiple-use mandate and the managerial maxims of the NFMA, which encourages comprehensive and permissive, rather than discretionary and limiting, regulation of the recreation resource.

Moreover, the absence of guiding principles results in confusion regarding best practices among climbers and land managers. The lack of clear and comprehensive climbing guidelines frustrates climbers’ awareness of what actions are permissible and which regulations apply. Land managers’ unfamiliarity with area climbing ethics, coupled with the lack of formal management guidelines, may lead to regulations that contradict established practices. Local climbers may be aware of existing regulations specific to regional climbing areas, and implement and enforce informal regulations in the form of climber ethics and norms. The resulting effect can lead to contention between land managers and climbers, and potentially frustrates further expansion of the sport.

B. ORV Regulations as a Comparative Model

The development of ORV use regulations illustrates the appropriateness and effectiveness of establishing programmatic regulations for popular recreational activities with distinct resource impacts. Though the environmental impacts of climbing are distinct from and pale in comparison to those of ORV use, the circumstances necessitating programmatic climbing regulations are similar to those that led to programmatic ORV regulation.

Before the 1970s, ORV use was widely unrestricted; except for Wilderness areas, national forests and BLM lands were openly accessible for motorized recreation. Minimal regulation of ORV usage allowed the activity’s environmental and social impacts to go widely unchecked. Yet, the small number of enthusiasts rendered the activity’s overall impact somewhat minimal. By the mid-1970s, however, the negative effects on flora, fauna, and non-motorized recreation due to increasing ORV usage became apparent and incited widespread calls for increased regulation. Through Executive Order 11,644, President Richard Nixon called for land management agencies to adopt a systematic approach to ORV management. But given BLM and the Forest Service’s wide regulatory discretion under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and MUSYA, early management was comprised of unit and area-specific standards and guidelines established under general recreation management policies. The lack of programmatic regulation manifested in discretionary, inconsistent management and had a minimal effect on restricting ORV use and limiting environmental impacts. Advances in ORV technology from the 1980s into the 1990s increased the capabilities of ORVs to access previously inaccessible multiple-use lands, further expanding the popularity of ORV use, but at the expense of increased damage to natural resources, recreation opportunities, and conflicts between users. These effects further incited calls for more specific regulation and management standards, ultimately leading BLM to promulgate a new ORV management strategy in 2001, and the promulgation of new Forest Service travel management regulations in 2005.

BLM and the Forest Service’s ORV policies establish nationally applicable guidelines for managing ORV related recreation. BLM’s ORV policies identified strategies to ensure coordination between regional and national ORV management decisions, required the development of regional plans to address environmental concerns, and mandated an update to BLM’s ORV regulations. The updated BLM regulations clarify that ORV use is generally permitted in areas designated open to ORV use by a local BLM officer. The regulations not only define what sorts of ORV’s are allowed, but provide specific designation criteria for land managers and standards of ORV users. The Forest Service’s ORV regulations operate similarly. The regulations grant discretion to individual Ranger Districts to designate specific roads, trails, and areas for vehicle use. Land managers are required to consider specific criteria in making designation decisions, including environmental impacts, conflicts between users, and the type of vehicle class/activity.

Though land management decisions are highly contextual, BLM and Forest Service ORV regulations provide a framework to guide local land managers in designing, implementing, and enforcing unit-specific ORV policies. The result is a nationally consistent approach to ORV management that ensures continued access to ORV recreation opportunities, duly considers and addresses environmental impacts, and requires ORV users to be informed as to what activities are permissible and where.

C. Resolving Management Issues through a Programmatic Framework

Similar circumstances that lead to programmatic ORV regulations underlie the need for programmatic climbing regulations. Improvements in climbing equipment and climbing’s increased popularity have heightened environmental impacts and lead to conflicts between user groups. Land managers further lack an adequate “toolbox” for designating climbing areas, permitting or restricting climbing practices, and providing due notice to climbers as to best practices. Accordingly, the discretionary enforcement of recreation regulations against climbers has increased friction between climbers and management agencies that threaten long-term climbing access. Programmatic regulations would establish a climbing management framework that clarifies standards of use and provides guidance to land managers. Effective regulations should include (1) uniform fixed anchor policies, (2) use designation criteria, (3) new route and fixed anchor permitting guidelines, and (4) clarified enforcement authorities and standards of use.

1. Fixed Anchors

In 2019, Congress expressly addressed climbing regulation for the first time in the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. In particular, section 1232(b) of the Dingell Act permits all fixed anchors established prior to the Dingell Act’s passage and allows new fixed anchors to be placed “in accordance with the Wilderness Act.” Congress intended this provision to ensure that recreational climbing could continue in newly established wilderness areas. Moreover, National Park Service (NPS) and BLM’s Wilderness management regulations recognize climbing as a legitimate wilderness use and expressly state that fixed anchors do not violate the Wilderness Act.

Accordingly, categorical prohibitions on fixed anchors in designated or potential Wilderness areas contravenes the express intent of Congress to establish permissive climbing policies and is inconstant with both BLM and NPS fixed anchor regulations. To resolve these inconstancies, the Forest Service should clarify that climbing is a legitimate recreational use of wilderness and that fixed anchors are categorically permitted on all Forest Service lands, including in designated Wilderness areas.

Further, adopting a permissive fixed-anchor policy would establish consistent baseline standards for all federal lands, including designated or potential Wilderness areas. Unlike certain recreational activities prohibited by the Act, fixed anchor placement is distinguished by its necessity to ensure safe wilderness recreation, and its effectiveness in reducing long-term natural resource damage. Given that the Wilderness Act provides for “unconfined recreation,”—which the Forest Service interprets as mandating the minimum amount of regulation necessary—categorically permitting fixed anchors aligns Forest Service regulations with Congress’s intent to preserve opportunities for wilderness recreation and climbing.

2. Use Designation Criteria

Existing federal fixed anchor policies do not take into account the differences between sport climbing and traditional climbing. Currently, sport climbing is outright prohibited by the Forest Service’s interpretation of 36 C.F.R. §§ 261.9(a), 10(a). Given sport climbing’s greater prevalence and popularity compared to traditional “clean” climbing, such bans effectively hinder climbing’s growth and restrict access to recreation resources otherwise insured under the Wilderness Act and MUSYA. Outright prohibitions on fixed anchors and “bolted face climbs” may eliminate certain climbing areas as tourist destinations, with potential economic losses to climbers and the communities they visit totaling more than $90 million. Sport climbing’s heightened impacts can be mitigated through careful and sensible management practices contravening justification of outright prohibition. Moreover, given that the difference between “bolted face climbing” and “clean climbing” is as much ideological as it is technical, it is inappropriate for land management agencies to prefer one style over another, despite recognizing the entire sport as a legitimate wilderness use.

The Forest Service could provide better guidance clarifying that both “clean climbing” and “sport climbing” are legitimate recreational and wilderness uses. Given that Congress intended for the Forest Service to retain a degree of discretion in making resource management decisions, programmatic regulations should outline criteria to guide climbing use designations. Just as agency ORV regulations mandate specific considerations for designating lands open or closed for ORV use, climbing regulations should do the same to determine whether sport climbing or traditional climbing (or both) is appropriate.

3. Route Development and Fixed Anchor Permitting

Programmatic regulations should establish uniform definitions for fixed anchor hardware and set basic standards to guide administration of unit-specific new route/fixed anchor permitting.Standardizing definitions of fixed anchors would aid land managers’ ability to ensure new routes are developed safely with approved hardware, as well as inform climbers as to the technical requirements needed to obtain a permit. Establishing route permitting criteria would ensure due consideration of the potential impacts of new climbing routes and require developers to obtain permits that could preempt and avoid potential conflicts between climbing groups and other recreational users. The framework for such a permitting process could be drawn from various NPS-specific fixed anchor permitting policies, as well as programs established by state and regional land management authorities, and should include the following:

  • categorically defining “fixed anchors” as referring only to expansion bolts or pitons drilled into the rock;
  • technical standards for fixed anchor hardware, including stating a preference for stainless steel bolts, specifying minimum bolt lengths and diameters, and requiring anchors to be colored to blend in with surrounding rock;
  • guidelines for anchor frequency and spacing;
  • authorizing land managers to cap the number of permits available each year;
  • permitting land managers to establish unit-specific criteria concerning route development practices (i.e., cleaning vegetation or loose rock) subject to agency approval; and
  • a uniform application form that requires applicants to provide specific information about a proposed route or anchor placement.

4. Standards of Use and Enforcement Discretion

Programmatic guidelines could clarify the scope of land managers’ enforcement discretion and mitigate issues stemming from inconsistent or arbitrary enforcement. As BLM recognizes, omitting specific activities from regulation could result in “confusion about enforcement authority and lead to inconsistent management decisions.” Such guidelines should clarify that the fixed anchors are permissible “installations or structures” under section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act, and that placing fixed anchors is neither the illegal “storing equipment, personal property, or supplies” nor damaging of U.S. property. Instead, programmatic guidelines would establish uniform, legally enforceable standards of use. Coupled with the use designation criteria, these standards would ensure adequate regulation of climbing impacts and provide notice to climbers as to which activities are impermissible. Further, formal usage standards would rein in agency discretion and avoid ad hoc enforcement decisions with potentially lasting consequences.


Climbing’s prevalence and rapid growth as a recreational activity requires updated management practices to minimize its impacts. The Forest Service can better manage climbing’s impacts by standardizing management approaches through promulgating programmatic regulations. Adopting a programmatic approach to guide unit-specific climbing management decisions benefits both climbers and land managers. For climbers, such an approach would reduce the regulatory uncertainty and excessive enforcement discretion that frustrates access to recreation opportunities for some, and sparks conflict with other recreators and management authorities. For communities reliant on outdoor recreation-related tourism, a programmatic approach would enable the continued expansion of economic opportunities. For land managers, programmatic regulations would provide clarity regarding best management approaches, enhance the agencies’ abilities to mitigate climbing-related impacts, and provide for recreation regulation within the boundaries intended by Congress.