New Routes for Top Colorado Climbing Area Unanimously Rejected

Climbers in Colorado seemingly botched an opportunity for access to more routes in Rifle. Some of the finest — and hardest — limestone routes in North America are located in Rifle Mountain Park, which features 200 bolted sport routes, few rated below 5.10, with average grades more like 5.12. But a move submitted to the Colorado Division of Wildlife this past fall by the Rifle Climbers Coalition (RCC), with backing from the Access Fund, to expand routes in the area has just been rejected unanimously by a 14-member panel of the state wildlife commission.

The RCC and the Access Fund commissioned a biological survey of Rifle Falls last summer and in January presented their vision of what climbing might look like in the Rifle Falls area. The commission, however, rejected the petition on multiple grounds:

  • Rifle Falls was established as one of only a handful of fish hatcheries in the state — and its existence is funded by a federal excise tax on fishing equipment. Access to fish there is free as a result, but there’s a fee to climb at Rifle Mountain. The commission worried that allowing climbers free access would amount to a misuse of federal funds, since any management of the area as a result of climbing could be deemed as inappropriate by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for oversight of Rifle Falls. It wasn’t willing to jeopardize federal funding.
  • The area climbers wanted opened up is an active nesting ground for federally protected golden eagles.
  • The final factor was how climbers, climbing, and illegal bolting are perceived — the commission cited a few too many examples of illegal bolted routes already in place at Rifle Falls; the fact that this became known publicly at last week’s hearing rather than  last summer didn’t  help the cause. Worse, however, is that the 14-member panel clearly weren’t at all aware of what bolted routes look like.

An article in the Grand Junction Sentinel explained how members of the commission toured Rifle Mountain and saw rock “festooned with carabiners, slings, runners and, lengths of chain,” which “certainly raised a few eyebrows among the commissioners, none of whom admitted to ever hanging from a rope more than 10 feet off the ground.”

The article went on to quote commissioner Dorothea Ferris of Carbondale, who was apparently shocked to find that the climbing area “had bolts with things hanging from them.”

And commissioner Mark Smith, a rancher and farmer from the town of Center added, “After seeing what I saw in the canyon, I move we deny the petition.”

Without a solid financial plan, let alone a seasonal approach to avoiding critical raptor nesting, climbing at Rifle Falls may have been doomed before it ever got in front of the commission.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.

{ 8 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Andrew Bisharat

    I wasn’t at the meeting, but I am on the Rifle Climbers Coalition board, and from what I understand, this was a frustrating meeting. There are easy solutions to all of those problems cited by the DOW. We had all of those solutions laid out in a presentation. The DOW promised us 30 minutes to give a presentation, but instead what happened is the DOW philibustered the meeting by talking for 24 minutes, and then allowing representatives from our group as well as the Access Fund six minutes to speak.

    There is a strong precedent with climbing co-existing peacefully with raptors due to voluntary closures that climbers adhere to. This was ignored. More so, those golden eagles aren’t going anywhere: they live in a penthouse right next “whole foods” for birds: a fish hatchery!

    Also, this land was purchased by the DOW to protect eagles or wildlife in this area. It was purchased to install a fish hatchery to supply rivers with fish for hunting and gaming purposes. If you walk into the DOW fish hatchery offices, the wall looks like an African safari of wildlife … they are pro hunting, not pro climbing. I don’t get that, but whatever …

    They also mentioned they believe there to be big-horn sheep in the canyon. This is ridiculous–I’ve probably logged over 800 days there, and have never seen a sheep … but whatever.

    The illegally bolted routes that they were referring to were bolted almost 30 years ago by climbers who weren’t aware that they weren’t allowed to climb there. At this point, there was no rule that we couldn’t climb there; therefore, it wasn’t illegal. That no climbing rule was established afterward, and once that restriction became known, climbers adhered to it. The fact that the DOW doesn’t know that there are even bolts on its own property speaks volumes about how much it cares or knows about these walls. Kurt Smith’s rope has been hanging in the Vatican for over 25 years and no one at the DOW even knows about it.

    They were also concerned about how the base of the climbs are devoid of vegetation … if you look at most of the areas in this half of the canyon, where no one has climbed yet, it looks just as barren. Plants tend not to grown beneath walls that are so steep they deny the soil rain water and sun.

    Trails, parking, bridges, whether or not the bolts have “things hanging from them,” guidelines and protocol for establishing routes … there are easy, exisiting solutions to all of these problems. The DOW did not allow us to offer any of these solutions, which is frustrating.

    This article is misleading. It makes it sound like climbers somehow messed up or dropped the ball. Ask the current land managers of our climbing area what kind of user group we are. The Town of Rifle loves climbers, loves that we take care of this canyon through clean-up days, trail building, bridge building, and maintenance. We replace fixed gear and keep it safe; hence, accidents are really rare.

    The issue isn’t that climbers botched some kind of opportunity! This is a really wrong interpretation of the issue. We have a strong relationship with the Town of Rifle, and climbing access is open in a majority of the canyon. But we have been pursuing opening the lower half of the canyon to climbing, which is currently closed–despite technically being public-owned land. The DOW dismissed our request this time around …

    But, we’ll be back next year. Do to an event that could work in our favor, the DOW has merged with Parks and Rec, reportedly on our side. So the board will be changing … and there is now a precedent and a dialogue in place …

    Finally, the real issue is, like you write, that the legalese makes it impossible for them to accept day-use fees for climbing here … but they don’t want to just let a user group use their land without getting some cash for it. So their stuck in a catch 22, which is why it’s easier to just say no.

    What preceded the meeting with the DOW? People who were incensed by the DOW’s recent allowance of crane hunting stood up and read crane poetry … for an hour. Crane poetry!

  • splitter choss

    You guys should have contacted some of the climbers involved before running this. Just like the commissioners that met and toured the park without any climbers to give them some perspective, it feels very one sided.

    At least there is still plenty of unclimbed rock in Rifle Mountain Park, and they DO value climbers and what we bring to the area.

  • Matt Stanley

    Editorializing and only “reporting” select sound bites from the commissioners. Maybe you should change the site’s name to Adventure Opining?

  • Professional journalist and climber

    I agree with Splitter Choss. The angle on this story makes it sound like the climbers don’t take care of their resource when that is definitely not the case. (There is a major cleanup and maintenance party every year.) It’s a bit like condemning the cattle ranching in Indian Creek without interviewing the ranchers. Consider that the small canyon is internationally popular, with a road running down the middle of it, and the picture changes into one that looks pretty good in spite of such heavy use.

    How about the regular traffic of huge trucks with huge trailers full of ATVs that barrel through there all the time? In the last two or three years, I’ve seen two trucks that went into the creek because they went around a bend too fast, and those vehicles didn’t belong to climbers.

    I think the panel’s decision was more to do with management being too under-funded and under-staffed to deal with change. It would be tough to work through the kinks of any such plan. If there’s a convenient excuse to not put in that time and effort, then there you go.

  • Jonathan Godes

    How the hell is having a fish hatchery more “natural” to the environment than some hanging draws. If the commission wasn’t being led on a tour that pointed out the draws, my guess is that any of the commission members would have driven through Rifle Mountain Park and have never noticed anything. If you are so worried about tweety, don’t put a production plant of a raptor’s favorite food in the area.

    This smacks of Bush’s “Energy Task Force” that contained no representation of solar, wind or other renewable energy representation. I love it when our government stacks the deck to get an answer they want.

    Also, quit being lazy. If the hatchery was worried about jeopardizing federal funds – ASK THEM!

  • G_Dubya

    I have to agree that this article and the one in the Sentinel both seem to paint the climbers as having botched something when that simply isn’t true. There was no way this was ever going to go through based on the very clear objections of the hatchery, the fact that there is a Golden Eagle’s nest there. and the cost to Parks and Wildlife to manage the area.

    Andrew – it doesn’t matter if the property was purchased to protect eagles or not, there IS an eagle there and they are a species protected by federal law.

    http://www.fws.gov/midwest/Eagle/guidelines/bgepa.html

    Andrew – The idea that the DOW didn’t know about the bolts in the hatchery is ridiculous. The Commission is not the DOW. The climbing group said it would be easy to manage the area yet, even after being asked several times who was going to do that, an answer was never given. Who was going to pay for this management? If the DPW collected fees, all of the fee money would be immediately deducted from the federal money given to the DPW so that is a loss when figuring the staffing to collect the fees.

    Jonathan – No one was being lazy. The hatchery manager was at the meeting and was very clear that federal funds would be cut if access fees were collected. The hatchery manager was also very clear that he did not support the petition despite the petitioners claiming he was in favor of it.

    It was pretty lame, though, that the climber’s group did not get to present due to the crane peotry mentioned above and one of the other commenters who compared crane hunting to Nazi Germany. I was expecting the Commission to put a stop to his comments when he said that but I guess Godwin’s Law only applies to the internet.

    As I said though, this was neevr going to happen with this Commission and it is unlikely to happen with any other Commission. The fish produced in Rifle make this state a lot more money than opening a small part of the canyon to climbing would and anything that jeopardizes fish production on a fish hatchery, I believe, is a non-starter.

  • Andrew Bisharat

    Climbing in no way would jeopardize fish production. In fact, fiver years ago, the fish hatchery manager told me that climbing there wouldn’t affect what they do. He has changed his tune now due to pressure from his bosses.

    This article is slanderous and libelous. It accuses climbers of engaging in illegal activities, which simply isn’t true. People established some routes in this section of the canyon in the early 1990s, before there was a “rule” that we weren’t allowed to. After the rule was imposed, no routes were established and no one has climbed on this land. Therefore, nothing illegal has been done.

    To say that climbers have trashed the park section of the canyon is also misinformed and just plain wrong.

    Since Rifle Mountain Park was discovered by climber’s about 20 years ago, The City of Rifle has been involved and has approved ALL climbing activities. There is a strictly legal process that must be and has been adhered to regarding climbing, hardware and ethics in the Park. NO ILLEGAL ACTIVITY takes place in the Park. All activities, placement of hardware, equipment, etc. is and has been approved by our coalition first and then ultimately by the City of Rifle for final approval.

    In addition, we keep the canyon clear of any trash, most often trashed by NON climbers, have a “project day” each and every year where we complete maintenance projects which are needed AND approved by the City of Rifle. In my opinion, if it weren’t for the climbers, maintaining the Park would cost of the city of rifle more money than it does.

    Anyway, we went into this meeting knowing that this board wasn’t likely going to approve climbing access this year. WE KNEW THIS. This effort has been part of a multi-year effort to establish a working relationship with members of the DOW.

    Years of planning and preparation went into that meeting, including the fact that it occurred at all. The story isn’t over; we knew this particular commission was unlikely to view climbing in a positive light. This is a multi-year effort. There will be a new commission to petition in the near future. Though the odds are stacked against us, we believe it is worth trying to get portions of the area open to climbing. There is an opportunity for the newly formed Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife to manage climbing differently from the City of Rifle if they see fit. We were prepared to address their concerns, but were only given 6 minutes to present at the meeting.

    We have offered financial and staff support for management planning and infrastructure. We commissioned a wildlife survey to inform possible seasonal closures.

    The Grand Junction Sentinel published a poorly researched, factually incorrect article that is slanderous. The Adventure Journal picked up on this wrong information and sensationalized it even more. Both the Sentinel and Michael Frank owe climbers an apology and a retraction.

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