Litter, climbing impact not good for Rifle Falls

Sights such as this, a rock wall festooned with discarded carabiners and other left-behind rock climbing gear, are common along the narrow canyon of Rifle Mountain Park.


Sights such as this, a rock wall festooned with discarded carabiners and other left-behind rock climbing gear, are common along the narrow canyon of Rifle Mountain Park.

You didn’t need Tarot cards Thursday to know the Parks and Wildlife commission was going to shoot down a request to allow rock climbing at Rifle Falls State Fish Hatchery.

It was obvious from the start that wildlife and parks managers had well-honed arguments against a petition to open a state wildlife area to non-wildlife recreation, but some of the blame for the petition’s collapse falls on the climbers themselves.

The state’s arguments, which included well-founded concerns about potential diversion of federal funds if such activity were allowed in an wildlife area purchased with federal excise tax dollars, also included the considerable costs incurred by the need for more staff and more law enforcement and, not in the least, potential impacts to nesting golden eagles.

However, in listening to the commissioners discuss the request, it appeared one determining factor was the commission’s personal tour Wednesday of the climbing area in Rifle Mountain Park.

Unless you’ve been to the narrow canyon of limestone crags upstream of the fish hatchery, you can’t truly appreciate how popular and heavily used the climbing area is.

Climbing websites hail the 1.5 miles of cliffs and caves as one the premier climbing areas in North America, and with at least 195 named and bolted routes (some sources put the number at 250 or more), it seems there hardly is an arm’s span of rock without some sort of metallic adornment.

Discarded, forgotten or simply left behind, the cliffs are festooned with carabiners, slings, runners and lengths of chain, much of which caught the collective eye of the commission.

The practice of bolting, where a climber uses a portable electric drill to place expanding metal bolts in the rock, 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.

It was the impacts from that intense use, the hundreds (thousands?) of metal objects apparently discarded heedlessly by prior climbers, and the sight of two routes of unknown age or origin illegally bolted into a wall within the existing fish hatchery closure, that brought pointed comments from some of the commissioners.

The cliffs in the climbing area “had bolts with things hanging from them,” said Commissioner Dorothea Ferris of Carbondale, which has a healthy community of climbers.  “I can’t see adding (more climbing) in an area where eagles are nesting. There are other values for these areas.”

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

It also was apparent that the commission as a whole approved opening state wildlife areas to suitable wildlife recreation opportunities when they fit the mission of the area. An archery range, for example, would be acceptable.

“We need to look at how best to develop (appropriate recreation) opportunities on our state wildlife areas,” said Bill Kane, the parks representative from Basalt.

The idea is to attract young people to the outdoors “without all the issues Rifle Falls brought to us,” Smith said.

The recent passage of House Bill 13171, which legislates the makeup of the parks and wildlife commission, including cutting the number of commissioners from 14 to 11, means the governor should announce a new commission around July 1.

Whether that commission will share the same ideas about managing state wildlife areas is only one of the multitude of questions even a fortune teller might stumble answering.

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