A rock climber on one of the thousands of routes in Indian Creek, part of Bears Ears National Monument. [Photo credit Todd Bogan]

Rock climbers have high stakes in the management of Bears Ears National Monument.

The monument, controversially reduced by President Donald Trump in 2017, contains Indian Creek, a world-renowned rock climbing area an hour outside of Moab known for unique “splitter” crack routes and stunning scenery.

Bears Ears has become a national touchstone in ideological debates about the power of the federal government and local governments, about multiple uses on public lands, and about the meaning of “conservation.”

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Land Management released a management plan for Bears Ears. Many called the move premature, as ongoing litigation is challenging the 2017 reduction of the monument from 1.35 million acres to just over 200,000 acres.

In spite of qualms with the process and support for the 2016 boundaries, climbing groups want a seat at the table in management planning for Bears Ears, particularly the Indian Creek unit.

Climbing advocacy groups are trying to walk the line between protest and partnership, serving as plaintiffs in the lawsuit along with Native American tribes, environmental groups, and scientific groups, but also working to see a plan that protects recreational access.

Indian Creek’s popularity

Indian Creek is one of the most heavily visited places in the Bears Ears Monument. The BLM draft management plan estimated that there are over 187,000 visits to the Indian Creek unit each year, and that number is rising. 2017 visitation estimates were 64% higher than 2013 estimates.

“[Climbers] are by far the largest user group in the Indian Creek district,” said Rachel Nelson, president of Friends of Indian Creek.

The Moab-based group was established in the early 2000s to represent the interests of rock climbers in Indian Creek. The founders were prompted by the purchase of private property in the Indian Creek valley by The Nature Conservancy. Climbers worried that, as their numbers were growing and new private land-owners moved in, their access to climbing crags in the area could be at risk. Climbers also recognized that as Indian Creek became more popular, impacts from users were starting to increase.

“Some climbers in the Moab area realized that if we didn’t start communicating with the land management agencies, then maybe we would be denied access,” said Nelson.

Friends of Indian Creek consults with the BLM about user impact concerns, and helps the BLM disseminate messages to the climbing community. For example, each year a BLM wildlife biologist surveys Indian Creek for nesting raptors, and any cliffs where nests are observed are closed throughout the nesting season. Old closure maps published by the BLM were confusing, and because of laws involving archaeological sites, the maps couldn’t cite the closed crags by name. Friends of Indian Creek works with the BLM to make sure closure information is clear and accessible to climbers.

Along with Friends of Indian Creek, other climbing advocacy groups like the Access Fund, a national nonprofit, and the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, have contributed to stewardship in Indian Creek, working on trail projects, promoting Leave No Trace principles, and implementing a human waste carry-out bag program while the BLM installed new vault toilets to accommodate the area’s growing popularity.

A Successful Partnership

This partnership has paid off in recognition for climbers.

When Bears Ears National Monument was established via presidential proclamation by President Barack Obama in 2016, it was mandated that the monument must provide for a variety of recreational uses, including rock climbing, hunting, hiking, backpacking, canyoneering, whitewater rafting, mountain biking and horseback riding. That edict was restated by the proclamation reducing the boundaries in 2017.

The management plan released by the BLM lists rock climbing as a “targeted activity” in the Indian Creek Special Recreation Management Area, something Nelson said is a first.

“If there is future conflict between a targeted activity and a non-targeted activity, management actions would generally favor maintenance and enhancement of the targeted activity,” Nelson explained.“That’s kind of a huge win for the climbing community.”

Jason Keith is also on the board of Friends of Indian Creek. He also works for the Access Fund, and for the Moab-based nonprofit Public Land Solutions, which advocates for outdoor recreation businesses. Keith discussed rock climbing and public land management in a Feb. 15 KZMU interview with Lisa Hathaway, another board member of Friends of Indian Creek.

“For the first time ever, climbing was acknowledged in a federal proclamation,” Keith said in the interview. “We worked really hard to get that acknowledgment in there, because Indian Creek is a world class climbing area.”

Both Keith and Nelson credit that acknowledgment to the climbing community’s proactive steps to communicate with other groups and to take ownership of their impacts.

“Climbers worked a lot,” Nelson said. “We worked quite a bit with the tribes and the other nonprofit pro-monument groups to give input on the Bears Ears management plan and be supportive of it… I think they realized that climbers have done a lot of work in the area, a lot of trail work, and most of the stewardship, in that Indian creek unit.”

On a national level, Keith said that as climbing has grown in popularity, climbing organizations have been able to get the attention of land managers and policy-makers in Washington DC and in management areas across the country, and have established themselves as reasonable and willing to meet in the middle.

“We’ve gotten a reputation that we’re willing to compromise,” said Keith. “We don’t draw lines in the sand or have a hardcore ‘our way or the highway’ perspective. We’re very passionate about protecting these landscapes that we care about, but we’re seen as people that will compromise.”

For example, Friends of Indian Creek has been giving input on the management plan even as they protest the procedure behind it. They point out that the original proclamation mandated that the management agencies establish the advisory group “to provide information and advice regarding the development of the management plan,” and the following proclamation retained that order. The fact that the BLM created their draft plan before the committee was established, they say, makes the process invalid. The Access Fund is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit demanding a return to the 2016 boundaries of Bears Ears.

Keeping it wild

The hard work of partnering with land management agencies is a compromise in itself for some rock climbers passionate about remote, wild places like Indian Creek.

Climbers want the area to feel unregulated and free, but they also want management to protect the slopes from erosion, protect the many archaeological sites in the area, keep dispersed campsites from expanding into the desert, keep human waste under control and maintain the solitude and natural beauty of the place they love.

“What has become obvious is that people love it because of its wild character, the beauty of the wide-open spaces down there,” Keith said of climbers in Indian Creek. “The crack climbing is the best in the world of that kind—but it’s also the character of the landscape” that climbers cherish, he said.

Keith said that before climbers were visiting Indian Creek in such large numbers, the user group generally tried to lay low and avoid inviting regulations to the area by not creating a large impact. Now that visitation has grown, climbers themselves see the need for regulation.

“If we really want to protect this place and try to retain that undeveloped character, we need to have more management of this landscape,” Keith continued.

He cited social trails, human waste, off-leash dogs, and parking on vegetation and biological soil crust as growing problems, and said he was glad that the new Bears Ears management plan defines regulations on camping, trail use, and cultural sites in Indian Creek.

“In our view, these changes are much needed,” Keith said.

In fact, climbing groups are so much in favor of the management of Indian Creek that they are disappointed at the projected timeline for the creation of a climbing-specific, implementation-level recreation management plan, which is scheduled to be created in three to five years.

Nelson said Friends of Indian Creek was pleased that the BLM had incorporated terminology changes that made climbing guidelines in the plan more clear and accurate, and that the group also approved of the BLM’s choice of the “adaptive management” alternative in their final management plan. This strategy allows for minimal regulation, while the managing agency maintains the option of implementing tighter regulations in response to problems.

“The adaptive management plan allows them to come up with another solution. That’s a good thing,” said Nelson.

“It’s that delicate balance, as always, of managing the resource for increased visitor use,” she said. “So mitigating the impacts, but also providing for an experience that’s really very free. That’s why people go out there—they don’t want excessive rules and regulations. People want to get away from society a little bit and have a break from that. That’s one of the reasons people go there.”