SHERIDAN — This summer, the Bighorn National Forest is taking steps to address concerns about climbing impacts in the West Ten Sleep Canyon after tension in the area for months.
The agency is working on a climbing management plan, and has hired a seasonal climbing ranger, according to Traci Weaver, Powder River District Ranger for the forest. Construction of new climbing routes or trails is prohibited, according to a media release on July 19, but these regulations are not new.
“In reality, these are federal regulations that we have had all along, so this is not a new closure or order,” Weaver said. “We just wanted to make sure climbers understood we are closely monitoring the canyon as well as other popular climbing areas on the Bighorn National Forest.”
Forest officials have tasked James Pfeifer, its seasonal climbing ranger, with bridging the gap between the agency and the climbing community. He will begin his 60-day tenure Sunday.
According to numbers that are now nearly a decade old, but the most recent count done by the Outdoor Foundation, approximately 6,148,000 Americans had participated in rock climbing activities such as bouldering, sport climbing, indoor climbing, traditional climbing and mountaineering in 2010.
People come to Wyoming from all over the world to climb Ten Sleep Canyon, and they inevitably leave their mark.
“Climbing is getting popular all over the place, but primarily the drive behind this is activity in West Ten Sleep Canyon,” Weaver said. “It is an international climbing destination, and there has been a lot of controversy over heavily manufactured routes, chipping, gluing and bolting the rock.”
Over the past several years, new heavily manufactured routes have appeared in the canyon, and the U.S. Forest Service believes that there are around 1,200 bolted routes in the area. Staff is working on a climbing management plan, but in the interim, Weaver said they made what they call an “emergency hire” — meaning, time would be of the essence — to get Pfeifer on staff for the remainder of the summer.
“No one in the Powder River Ranger District is a climber, and we don’t know the language, and the whole sport is just exploding,” Weaver said.
Pfeifer grew up in Alaska and lives in Park City, Utah, doing wilderness and outdoor education with the U.S. Forest Service. He also works on a fire crew and has been a traditional climber for a long time, Weaver said.
Having a seasonal climbing ranger is typical in certain areas, including White Mountain National Forest in the northeast and the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Washington. Weaver’s own background is in the National Park Service, which employs a lot of climbing rangers.
“When I was trying to form a climbing management plan, I called the former superintendent of Devils Tower, who I had worked with in Yellowstone … to learn about climbing and how to best reach the climbing community,” Weaver explained.
Inside the climbing community, there has been tension over the new development, which some local climbers believe has been ill-advised.
“Some of the more traditional climbers got upset (about new routes), and they posted a letter around February, with around 700 signatures, saying that they wanted heavily manufactured development to cease and desist. They also asked the Forest Service to respond,” Weaver said, adding that the seasonal hire and the establishment of a management plan is a part of the Forest Service’s response.
The Ten Sleep Canyon issue has been a topic of conversation for most climbers this season, Nick Flores, a guide with Bighorn Mountain Guides said.
“To put it simply, there have been a few developers (individuals who develop new rock climbing routes) in Ten Sleep Canyon who have gone too far with their development tactics,” he said. “For example (this includes) over-comforting climbing holds, increasing the size of a hold with a drill bit, hammer, screwdriver, and adding glue to pockets to make them feel less sharp and more comfortable.
“These development tactics are not deemed as best practice by most route developers. When a handful of Wyoming local climbers found out about this they were outraged — rightfully so,” Flores said.
A local nonprofit called the Bighorn Climbers’ Coalition was formed with a mission to preserve, protect and promote rock climbing throughout the Bighorn National Forest. The BCC has been working with both route developers and the concerned individuals about the situation in Ten Sleep Canyon, Flores said. The BCC held three meetings to discuss the concerns from the public with the route developers, and as of now, is working with the National Forest on the climbing management plan. The plan will help regulate route development, educate individuals on best practice for developing climbing routes on limestone, development/maintenance of climbing trails, scope out all climbing areas within the Bighorn National Forest and more.
Under federal regulations as it stands, anyone manufacturing or creating new routes with any type of permanent hardware or apparatus, including bolts, glue, manufactured hand holds, or modifying routes through chipping or hammering new or existing holds, will be subject to criminal fines that could be used as restitution to the impacted area.
Pfeifer will fill a seasonal position for 60 days, and the Forest Service will advertise for the position again next summer.
“We are mapping out — OK, where does he need to spend his time,” Weaver said. “That might be putting him in the canyon, doing education and outreach, talking to climbers or getting a better idea of where some of these heavily manufactured routes are.
“We want to ensure that folks who come from all over the world to climb here understand what all the ethics are, and what the expectations of the Forest Service are,” she said.
The Forest Service is working with law enforcement to determine what damage has already been done to the canyon, and has opened discussions with a consultant that helped to write climbing management plans for other federal agencies and national parks, including Teton National Park.
“The biggest thing that folks need to know is that there is no new route development Bighorn National Forest-wide,” Weaver said. “We are also working with the Worland office of the BLM, and I think they will do the same thing. We want to take a deep breath and go about this thoughtfully so that we don’t do irreparable harm to this natural resource. We can’t go back and ever get this the way that it was.”