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California and the West

Rock Climbers, Rangers Nail Together an Accord

Park: Joshua Tree will allow replacement of aging bolts in boulders and, after a review, installation of new ones at new sites.

April 01, 1999|DIANA MARCUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

JOSHUA TREE, Calif. — After more than a year of heated debate, rock climbers, rangers and environmentalists have hammered out a plan that will allow new bolts in the soaring boulders of Joshua Tree National Park.

The compromise will allow climbers to replace loose, aging bolts as they see fit. Climbers slip safety ropes through the bolts, which are pounded into smooth rock faces, to catch themselves should they fall.

The plan also allows bolts--and thus new climbing routes--in places that currently have none but sets up a permit process to ensure a thorough environmental review of new intrusions.

"A year ago people were looking to run me out of town," said park Supt. Ernest Quintana. "It would have been easy for the park, the climbers or the environmental groups to dig in their heels and not budge. But there was a real sincerity about listening to each other, and we closed the gap."

Initially, Quintana opposed all bolting in the 800,000-acre park, which draws rock climbers from around the world. He saw the glints of metal pounded into Joshua Tree's ancient boulders as a conflict with his mandate to keep protected areas pristine.

In response, hundreds of rock climbers packed public hearings and wrote letters warning that park officials could have blood on their hands if climbers were forced to trust worn bolts. More than 1,200 people responded to an early draft of the plan.

To many, the issue went beyond rock climbing to the heart of what a national park should be: Is its purpose to protect natural resources, even at the cost of recreational activities? Or should these public lands be available to a public hungry to climb, bike, hike, ride or ski? Park officials sought to strike a balance in the management plan, expected to be final by early summer.

"I learned that our primary responsibility is to protect the resources, but people have to be able to use and interact with the park or you won't have public support for your conservation efforts," Quintana said. "Once you accept that there are going to be impacts, you get down to the nitty-gritty of minimizing the impacts."

Brian Huse, regional director for the nonprofit Wilderness and Conservation Assn., praised the efforts to curtail the toll that rock climbing takes.

"The level of communication helped create a comprehensive plan that addresses not only bolting, but impacts such as trampled vegetation, chalk marks and seasonal closings to benefit wildlife," he said. "It builds a level of responsibility among climbers using the park."

Many climbers, especially those who live near the park, say they have long felt a sense of responsibility for the land. Many consider themselves conservationists and felt betrayed to be singled out as a threat to the park, said Tina Kraft, a climber and clerk at Nomad Ventures, a climbing store in Joshua Tree.

"It seemed one-sided, like everyone had a negative attitude toward climbers," Kraft said. "But then everyone did a good job of listening to each other. When it comes down the pike, I think most people will be able to live with it."

Not everyone will be happy, of course.

"There's always going to be that old granddad who stands beside his car with his binoculars and says, 'What are those people doing up there? I just want to see the beauty of the rocks!' " Kraft said. "And there are always going to be climbers grousing about the government telling them where and when they can climb."

This will be Joshua Tree's first management plan since 1994, when 234,000 acres were added to the former national monument and it all became a national park. The plan also calls for 29 miles of new bike trails, bans automobile camping in some areas and puts limits on group size at campsites.

The climbing portions were crucial not just because of the controversy, but because Joshua Tree is among the first national parks to develop a policy on a sport that has grown from a pastime for a small group of individualists to something taught at the local gym.

Still to be worked out are criteria for getting a permit to install new bolts. A committee made up of climbers and environmentalists will act as an advisory board.

It is unlikely that the plan will be used as an exact blueprint for other parks because of varying environmental issues, but Quintana said Joshua Tree's very public process could set a precedent.

"Here's an example where we took a hard line. Then we sat down and listened to people representing each group's interests," he said. "The lesson learned is that you can come to an understanding. Now comes the testing: working out the details. We have a lot of hard work still ahead."

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