My wife and I love living in the Bitterroot.
Back in 1996 we were at the north end of a 3000 mile, self-contained mountain bike trip along the Continental Divide, and had seen oodles of beautiful country. But from the moment we dropped down from Gibbons Pass into Sula, laid our eyes upon the jagged Bitterroot Mountains, we were hopelessly smitten.
Since then we’ve travelled many thousands of miles on foot, bike and ski, exploring the nooks and crannies of Bitterroot National Forest (BNF) lands. We cherish these public lands, are humbled, and never take them for granted.
All’s not perfect though. There are challenges and threats to the integrity of BNF lands. Some, like noxious weeds, are obvious, well-documented, and often confronted “head-on.” Others, like recreation in its many forms, are more subtle and less monitored by the BNF. It’s challenging to strike the right balance between disparate recreational activities and user groups, and their environmental impacts.
At the core, recreational opportunities need to exist across user groups, provided laws are followed and natural resources and wildlife aren’t jeopardized. This applies whether you’re fishing, hiking, hunting, ATVing, snowmobiling, whatever. Or, if you’re rock climbing.
Right now the integrity of natural resources, wildlife, and recreational parity is at risk in the Bitterroot’s Mill Creek Canyon due to uncontrolled, unsustainable sport rock climbing. And laws are being broken.
I am absolutely not against rock climbing. I’ve climbed many times, in awe-inspiring places like Joshua Tree and the Dolomites. But with any activity on National Forest lands, laws and ethics should be reasonably followed, and recreational desires shouldn’t trump resources or wildlife, nor ruin other folks’ experiences. Sadly that’s what’s happening in the Mill Canyon area.
My wife and I live near Mill, recreate there constantly, and have seen the dramatic changes firsthand: establishment of illegal, user-created climbers’ trails with frequent “maintenance;” erosion, trash, illegal gear caching, displacement of peregrines up-canyon, fewer mountain goats, suffocating parking issues, denuding of plant life at cliff bases, and the innumerable climbing bolts, slings, ropes, etc. Mill’s become a trashed outdoor climbing gym in just a few years.
Folks have climbed in Mill Canyon for decades. This past climbing has generally been respectful, sustainable, and ethical. But starting about 5 years ago, a handful of dedicated sport climbers have made it their mission to bolt-out Mill’s rock faces.
Things reached a head last summer after a Ravalli Republic article profiled the adventurous Mill climbing exploits of Michael Moore and UM Professor of Forestry and Environmental Ethics, Dane Scott. In the article there were many incriminating admissions made–direct evidence of violations of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
Enough was enough, so my wife and I went as private citizens, unaffiliated with any organization, to BNF authorities. Others had complained too, including local climbers.
We met with District Ranger Dan Ritter. After investigating the matter, Ritter sent Scott and Moore a letter outlining resource concerns (erosion, impacts on plants and wildlife) and CFR violations, including damaging natural features and constructing/maintaining a trail without authorization.
The letter was essentially a “cease and desist” request. It demanded immediate cessation of permanent bolting, deemed illegal by BNF legal counsel.
In fairness, the legality of bolting on National Forest lands outside Wilderness is ambiguous. There seems to be no Forest-wide policy. Citations have been issued for fixed anchor placement on other Forests. It seems up to the individual Forest’s discretion, based on their interpretation of the CFR – provided there are no significant adverse impacts related to the activity.
What’s clear in Mill is that resources are being damaged, violations of law are occurring, and wildlife is being displaced. Local homeowners are affected from the high-volume traffic, other recreationists are impacted, and there’s an enormous liability issue regarding the questionable climbing hardware being permanently installed.
The sport climbers continue to be on a PR blitz and want the rest of us to overlook the negative impacts of unfettered, unsustainable climbing in a popular, wildlife-sensitive canyon. To this day, laws and ethics continue to be broken and marred; natural resources degraded. Where’s the accountability?
You can bet your bottom dollar that if, instead of climbers, it were known ATV’ers constructing illegal motorized trails, putting in jumping ramps, harassing wildlife, damaging resources, and then boasting about it in the media, then the Forest Service wouldn’t tolerate it, and would be all over it. Why the double standard?
Rock climbing can be a fun, ethical, sustainable, and lawful recreational activity on the BNF. Now, it’s out-of-control and causing too much harm. Mill Canyon is in the cross-hairs.
The BNF needs to get out in front on this burgeoning issue; take a leadership role, and hold the responsible parties accountable.
We concerned Bitterrooters want a more natural, intact Mill Canyon once again, with all its falcons, goats, and myriad sustainable recreational opportunities; not metallic-covered rock walls in a canyon void of wildlife but festooned with the latest neon climbing ropes and shiny hardware.
Van P. Keele