MY REPORT OF THE THIRD AND FINAL PUBLIC HEARING OF THE JOSHUA TREE BACKCOUNTRY MANAGEMENT PLAN, 1/17/98.
Like Mick Jagger, I went down to the demonstration, to get my fair share of abuse. I was even standing right next to Mr. Jimmy (Jim Bridwell). The Joshua Tree Community Center was packed with over 150 people, about 80% of them climbers. After everyone got a bit settled, Ernest Quintana (his friends call him Ernie) began the meeting by reading from the National Park Service credos, as well as quotes from the 1995 General Management Plan. Although the 1995 plan discussed general concepts such as, "the purpose of the park is to preserve the wildlife therein", the plan did not address specific backcountry issues, so the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the new Draft Backcountry and Wilderness Management Plan, which was to be finalized in February. I tried to get a look at the maps posted in the back corner of the room, but I was redirected by a park service law enforcement ranger to move to another part of the room. "Fire control" he said, meaning that the maps were placed in a fire aisle that needed to be kept clear. Ernie then outlined the 8 points of the new plan, which were:

1. Trails management: to identify and designate use for equestrian, bike and hiking trails.
2. Fixed Anchors: Bolts.
3. 4-WD roads that were acquired with the new lands added recently to the Park.
4. Campgrounds.
5. Backcountry overnight permits.
6. Artificial water sources: a concern for the Big Horn Sheep population.
7. Area closures (complete and utter closures).
8. Desert Tortoise.

He then announced the decisions that were to be made for the new plan were to be heavily influenced by an Advisory Board appointed by Bruce Babbitt, and consisted of Native Americans, property owners, equestrian folks, and others, including Cyndie Bransford, of Friends of Joshua Tree, who represented climbers. He said without doubt that to have any influence, people must be represented by members of the advisory board. He then made it clear that the only comments that were to be considered were those received in writing, clearly only by letter on paper only, not by email, not by phone, and not by spoken comments at the meeting.

When the question period began, Todd Gordon got things going by asking about the specifics of the plan regarding fixed anchors. Ernie responded without giving any specifics, and then passed the question to Brian Huse, western regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, a member of the Advisory Board. Brian also proceeded to comment without giving any specifics, saying that the policy was still being formulated. After a bit of disappointment from the crowd on not getting to hear anything about our fate, it was asked (and not answered clearly) why Brian Huse was chosen to give the answer about fixed anchors in wilderness rather than Cyndie Bransford, whereupon after some discussion it was agreed that Brian and Cyndie would come to consensus regarding any recommendations that the Advisory Board would give regarding fixed anchors in wilderness. It then became clear to me that the NPS is about to create a policy defining the meaning and intent of the 1964 Wilderness Bill and has passed the buck (and onus of responsibility) onto private citizens and members of special interest groups.

Other comments and questions were asked. One person said it had been hard to get the maps in a timely manner. Another gentleman made a plea for extended equestrian use, and proceeded to complain about all the talk about climbing, whereas there "were more horse people than you'll ever see a rock climber!" This statement was received by the crowd `throwing the flag' loudly. Others discussed the big horn sheep crisis, and other man pleaded for llama use (giving a great advertisement for llamas in the process), since only horses and mules are allowed presently.

By and by it got back to climbing issues. I asked Ernie if he had received any feedback from the townships regarding the economic ramifications of restricting climbing access (he said that no letters were received, only a phone call). I also asked him (because I was really curious) if there would be any restrictions on military fly-bys over wilderness, to which he responded that it was still allowed. A woman from the southern California's climbers association gave a rousing statement that said it all: that we as climbers had been part of the community since day one (the first park ranger had placed fixed anchors for climbs), that we had been good citizens and had managed ourselves extremely well, and that the proposed plan was clearly confrontational to climbers. Huge cheers and a standing ovation erupted.

Toward the end, it was asked of Ernie as to what weight he planned to give the comments from the Advisory Board verses the comments sent directly to him, to which he responded, "about equal".

Now's the time to write those letters. My letter's going to go like this:

Superintendent Ernest Quintana
74485 National Park Drive
Twentynine Palms, CA 92277

Dear Mr. Quintana;

As a climber and citizen of the United States of America, I am a supporter of wilderness. I speak for a group of my peers, who believe that the original intention of the 1964 Wilderness Act is to preserve areas but not to disallow minimum impact activities such as climbing with fixed anchors. On the domes of Joshua Tree, we require the conservative use of bolts to climb and rappel safely, and we are opposed to the proposed ban on fixed anchors in designated wilderness which would eliminate thousands of historic climbing routes. We are also opposed to regulation requiring the filing of a permit in order to pursue our craft as long as we are in accordance with the Wilderness Act.

The 1964 Wilderness Act specifies that land designated as wilderness is allowed multiple uses. The uses as currently defined include: foot and horse travel, guiding, scientific study, livestock grazing where previously established, and mining on pre-existing mining claims. The uses that are NOT allowed are use of mechanized transport, road building, logging, and staking new mineral claims or mineral leases. Clearly, climbing on durable surfaces with pre-established anchors is within these boundaries. We believe that the impact caused by climbers is negligible, and we feel that climbing routes utilizing fixed anchors placed with hand tools is not comparable to the impact caused by acceptable use of wilderness in other areas. We believe that the Joshua Tree Backcountry Management Plan misrepresents the 1964 Wilderness Act in the reference to the installation of bolts detracting from wilderness, and we feel that to maintain the integrity of the 1964 Wilderness Act, any refinement of the definition needs to be done democratically on a nationwide basis so that wilderness will be consistently and fairly defined for all user groups, including climbers.

Yours sincerely,
(name and address)

AFTERNOTE: I offered the climbing community free big wall spoons and birdbeaks for writing letters on these issues. All told, I sent out over 500 pieces of free gear and recieved copies of wonderfully thought-out letters.

 

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