Rockclimbing attracts reckless thrill-seekers prone to throwing common sense to the wind…right? Johnnie Lyman begs to differ.
“Climbers are geeks,” says Lyman, who’s crowded with myself and two fellow climbers, Josh Higgins and Adam Kimmerly, around a table at Regents Pizza in University Town Center in San Diego.
“Just look at us. You’re talking to a registered nurse, an engineer and an oceanographer,” she says, pointing to Higgins, Kimmerly and herself. “Climbing’s all about solving puzzles.”
My dinner companions are all longtime San Diego climbers and officers of the Allied Climbers of San Diego (ACSD), a grassroots nonprofit focused on issue important to the region’s climbers. They’ve agreed to debrief me on the organization’s efforts to protect climber’s access to crags and bouldering areas in the San Diego area. The pizza joint is a convenient rendezvous just off Interstate 5.
What I’m learning is that climbers parse access issues the way they tackle a sheer rock face — methodically, rationally, persistently. In fact, as they talk about the history of the ACSD, it becomes clear to me that the group’s story can be summed up as a battle to make the irrational more logical — to make arbitrary and poorly considered government policies make more sense.
I’d come across the ACSD while looking for more information about an ongoing update to the management plan for Mission Trails Regional Park (MRTP), the large open space just to the east of downtown San Diego. A popular rock climbing, hiking and mountain biking areas, the park has recently been the source of tension between city park officials, federal land managers, a citizens advisory council and outdoors enthusiasts — the climbers and mountain bikers who recreate in the park.
The process for updating the master plan for the park began in 2008, and is the first update to the plan since 1985. As I researched the issue, I came across a letter ACSD recently filed MRTP managers as part of a public comment stage for the draft management plan.
In the letter, the climbers objected to plans to permanently close a climbing area know as the Santee Boulders, located in the park’s eastern boundary. The ACSD letter also argued against plans to make permanent a prohibition against climbing in Mission Gorge Quarry, an old quarry that was ostensibly closed to protect pocketed free-tailed bat, despite the fact that there’s no evidence that climbing would harm the animals.
Originally, I had a narrow story in mind, one focused just on the access issues in MRTP, but talking with the climbers over Regents’ deep dish pizza and pints of IPA — climbing apparently keeps you sinewy despite such indulgences — it became clear this isn’t their first rodeo. Higgins and Kimmerly were founding members of ACSD, and Lyman has served as vice president for three years. I learn that the story of ACSD is bigger than this one battle.
Higgins explains to me that ACSD got started when the Cleveland National Forest in East County San Diego decided seven years ago to restrict climbing at Corte Madera and Eagle Peak, two areas popular with rock climbers for decades. The planned closures came after an Ramona-based organization called Wildlife Research Institute claimed that climbers were harming golden eagles and peregrine and prairie falcons who nest in the area cliffs.
The Wildlife Research Institute was run by John David Bittner, a self-proclaimed wildlife expert, who had convinced the forest service that humans should be banned from getting anywhere near the mountains from December through May. This time is during Golden Eagle nesting season, but Golden Eagles had not nested at these areas since at least the early 1990s and were nesting successfully in other parts of the county. Both Eagle Peak and Corte Madera host falcon nests, but climbers were already voluntarily avoiding climbing routes in the immediate vicinity of the nest sites for years.
“It made absolutely no sense,” says Higgins. “The raptors in question weren’t threatened species, and there was no reason to think that climbing was harming them in any way. We’d climbed those crags for decades. The Wildlife Research Institute insisted that climbers would disturb the falcon nesting–but had no evidence to back that up — and also insisted that the closure should be year-round, even during times when the birds aren’t nesting.”
The climbers also questioned the bona fides and motives of Bittner and his organization, which was known for its free educational Hawk Watch seminars held at its headquarters in Ramona. To make money, Bittner captured and banded wild birds and collected data about them for corporate clients, such as wind industry firms. It would later come to light that in 1979 the state of Ohio had revoked Bittner’s state banding permit, after he was convicted on charges of illegal possession of wild turkey eggs. In August of 2013, Bittner was convicted of illegally banding a golden eagle in California and sentenced to three years probation and a $7,500 fine for violations of the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEPA).
But back in 2007, forest service officials were taking very seriously Bittner’s advice to close the climbing areas near San Diego. To counter the closure, local climbing legend Jeff Brown rounded up 15 San Diego climbers to form Allied Climbers of San Diego and began lobbying the forest services to avoid a blanket closure of the crags. Talking with the climbers today, it’s clear that their outrage wasn’t just about having climbing closed — the whole incident was an affront to the mindset of people attracted to an activity as procedural and analytical as rock climbing.
“The Wildlife Research Institute was making claims that were completely unsubstantiated,” says Kimmerly. “There was no research that showed the birds were threatened, none that said climbers were harming them, and nothing suggesting that closing the area to climbing would protect the birds. The irony is that climbers tend to be very environmentally conscious. If we see a bird’s nest, we steer clear. But here you had a person who had been caught illegally interacting with birds who was accusing climbers of being the threat. It was absurd.”
By banding together, the climbers were eventually able to convince the forest service officials that a closing the both areas entirely from May to December was overkill and that in fact the climbing community could be an asset in tracking the birds. They made the case that the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which Bittner and the Wildlife Research Institute had invoked to insist on closing the crags, is not appropriate as a recreation-use zoning statute and does not provide land managing agencies legal authority to restrict recreation access to vacant habitat.
Once that was settled, the climbers told the land managers that if they wanted information on the location and nesting status of raptors, who better to report the information than people actually climbing in the nearby cliffs?
They also convinced the forest service that climbers could police themselves by making sure information about nesting closures was communicated and adhered to by the climbing community. ACSD negotiated a system where parts of both Eagle Peak and Corte Madera are closed during raptor nesting season, from early March through late July.
“It took a long time, and we didn’t get everything we wanted, but we avoided a draconian all-out ban, and we developed important relationships for preventing things from getting that far again in the future,” says Kimmerly.
To make sure the information gets out in the local climbing community, ACSD posts information on the closures on its website, sends announcements to local climbing gyms and developed a system for marking the first bolts on sport routes in the affected climbing areas with a metal tags indicating that nesting is taking place.
This paved the way to negotiated similar partial nesting season closures for other climbing areas in Cleveland National Forest, including Glen Cliff and Mount Gower — and with no nesting taking place at Mount Gower this year, the crag is completely open.
Emboldened by their success securing access to climbing on federal lands, the San Diego climbers set their sites on areas managed by local municipalities. They convinced the City of Poway in 2010 to open Poway Crag, a climbing area closed for more than seven years. Similar to the Eagle Peak and Corte Madera deals, climbers can now scale the cliffs in Poway when birds aren’t actively nesting.
Stories of the access battles they’ve fought and won spill of my dinner companions as I stuff my face with pizza and beer. “Just let us know if you’ve got any questions,” says Higgins, “we can go on and on about this.”
They are clearly jazzed at their success injecting some logic into the management of climbing areas, but they seem equally perplexed at the witches’ brew of politics, private interest and bureaucracy they are still grappling with.
The update to the management plan for Mission Trails Regional Park is of particular concern recently, as they are not convinced the city park managers, the formal citizen’s advisory committee and other entities involved are really managing the park as for recreation, the way it was intended.
If the final plan bans climbers from Santee Boulders and continues the ban on climbing in Mission Gorge Quarry, it will be a setback that could take years or decades to right. They are also concerned about El Capitan Preserve, an area in Lakeside that has been closed to climbers for years, and will soon be closed permanently if current plans for the areas management are finalized.
“We’re really focused on these right now,” says Higgins. “The other areas we’ve worked on have come a long way, but Mission Trails and El Cap are really up in the air.”
My dinner companions go on to describe an intricate web of people, politics and policy, and to outline the challenges of navigating these three elements to make sure climbers still get to climb in San Diego. It’s tricky, no doubt, but I can hear the passion in their voices for tackling these access issues, and it somehow makes me think its similar to their passion for climbing. A puzzle is a puzzle. And if anyone in the outdoors community can solve a puzzle, it’s a climber.