A recent controversy in Boulder got me thinking about the connection between climbing and the environment. A professional mountain biker, Mike West, was caught by rangers riding an illegal trail down the north side of Flagstaff Mountain. News of this event was published on the day before a major vote on a plan for Boulder's open space, a plan that continued to exclude mountain bikes from the so-called West TSA. This is essential the mountain backdrop to Boulder between Eldorado Springs and Mount Sanitas. Mike West initially claimed to be unaware of any restrictions, a highly unlikely possibility as there is literally not one square foot of public land in this area that has allowed off-road biking in over 20 years.
What was even more surprising were the reactions in the message boards of mountain biking sites and the local paper. A surprising number, perhaps even a slim majority, applauded the actions of West and derided the actions and policies of OSMP. His sponsor, Yeti Cycles, immediately dropped him, however. Much of the impulse to defend him seemed rooted in a feeling that Boulder OSMP had not provided sufficient riding opportunities and that illegal trails and riding were inevitable as a result.
Which led me to wonder. How would climbers feel if the same kind of restrictions were in place for climbing? Not merely a bolting ban, which in fact went into place in the Flatirons around the same time as the biking ban but in fact a simple ban on climbing on certain formations or times of day, unrelated to birds or other environmental concerns? How about a simple ban on the use of chalk? It's hard to say. Despite the presence of substantial bird bans in the Flatirons, Eldorado and Boulder Canyon, climbers seem very disinclined to climb in posted areas and I have not heard of any well-known climbers getting into trouble with rangers for illegal climbing or other problems.
However I have recently heard of things happening on nearby public land that do not reflect well on climbers as stewards of the land, especially altering environments to make problems feasible. I wonder if in 2011, something is changing in climber attitudes that is making it acceptable unilaterally to use tactics that substantially modify the very landscape we are bouldering in so that we might squeeze a few more moves from a problem or create a "new" one altogether.
I think that the climbing community's place as a welcome user of public lands in the vicinity of Boulder is secure. There is a huge constituency, expert political advocacy (the Access Fund is based in Boulder), industry presence, and of course a huge array of climbing possibilities that disperses climber presence and impact effectively. But I wonder if we take that relationship a bit too much for granted, or even believe that as climbers we are, like Mike West, entitled to go where we like, when and where and how we like, justifying our behavior because climbing feels important to us.
I am pleased to see the work being initiated by the BCC on Boulder Canyon. Please read this proposal to find out more about this much-needed initiative to repair the effects of laissez-faire management and climber practices.
Mountain bikers have their faces pressed against the glass when it comes to public land access around Boulder. There may be very good justification for restricting their ability to ride in the West TSA and given the current political climate, I doubt that the efforts of the BMBA will come to anything substantial for many years if ever. The appearance of a pro rider on an illegal trail in the middle of a heated debate certainly didn't help the cause. But climbers shouldn't rest easy. Climbers should instead be redoubling their efforts to proactively anticipate problems, environmental or social, that arise from the practice of the sport and not rely on flying under the radar for much longer.