Recreation is the future of wilderness conservation

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Next year marks eight decades of protection for public lands under the Wilderness Act. Since its passage in 1964, lawmakers have used Wilderness designations to protect vast tracts of land for their conservation value and capacity to inspire. Our goal in doing so was to protect them for future generations to enjoy, to explore, and to connect with Mother Nature.

As a United States senator, I sponsored and helped to pass new Wilderness protections for Colorado’s James Peak Wilderness, Indian Peaks Wilderness, and Rocky Mountain National Park. These bills became law thanks to a united coalition of advocates for conservation and recreation. In my experience, the two cannot be separated. The time we spend outside is what defines every conservationist I know.

My own advocacy for wild places was also driven by outdoor adventures. In 1976, my brother Brad and I decided to climb The Diamond on Longs Peak (elevation 14,259’) in Rocky Mountain National Park. After a day of climbing, we had yet to reach the top of the vertical wall, so we built an anchor and played “rock, paper, scissors” to decide who had to sleep closest to the edge of the ledge. I won. In the morning, we finished the route and descended off Longs Peak. None of this would have been possible without a trusted climbing partner and the occasional fixed anchor — bolts, pitons, and slings — placed by climbers who came before us.

I’ve spent my life in the mountains, where safety is more than an abstract concept. You make choices and accept the consequences. And since the dawn of technical climbing in America over a century ago, fixed anchors have played a role in climber safety. That’s why their placement in designated Wilderness is legal today.

As the primary sponsor of the Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness and Indian Peaks Wilderness Expansion Act, I want to be absolutely clear: Nothing in those bills was intended to restrict sustainable and appropriate Wilderness climbing practices or prohibit the judicious and conditional placement of fixed anchors — many of which existed before the bills’ passage. I used fixed anchors to climb in these areas, and I want future climbers to safely experience profound adventures and thereby become Wilderness advocates themselves.

Protecting Wilderness requires careful management that allows primitive recreation activities that are compatible with preserving Wilderness characteristics. Over the last decades, the management of fixed anchors in Wilderness areas has been ad hoc. It’s varied from area to area, often causing confusion and conflict. The Protecting America’s Rock Climbing Act (PARC Act) would clarify for the land agencies, the public, and climbers where fixed anchors are appropriate, when they can be replaced, and where they are banned.

By resolving the ongoing debate over fixed anchors, our public land managers can devote their priceless time to the serious, existential, and quickly progressing impacts to America’s Wilderness Preservation System. For example, air pollution and climate change don’t respect boundaries on a map. In fact, 96 percent of national parks “are plagued with significant air pollution problems.”

I was raised on conservation values in a family that knows what it takes to protect these places. Rock climbing was part of that education, and still motivates me to the worthwhile pursuit of public land protections. It’s hard work that requires coalition building, consensus, and compromise. But it’s always worth it in the end.

In a nation of incredible landscapes, my home state of Colorado more than holds its own. Its mountains call to us, ready with many lessons to teach. That’s why I’m so proud to see Coloradans like Sen. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Joe Neguse leading the charge to protect reasonable rock climbing access in America’s Wilderness areas. Their legislation that protects sustainable climbing access and the integrity of Wilderness can help hold together the critical coalition between recreation and conservation advocates.

If we’re going to take a proactive approach to protecting America’s last pockets of Wilderness, we need a new generation of advocates to lead the way. Supporting sustainable climbing access to America’s Wilderness areas will help ensure that climbers—long-standing wilderness champions—are part of that coalition.

Mark Udall served as senator from Colorado from 2009-2015.

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