Friday, June 13, 2014

Ravalli Republic Anti Climbing Letter

Submitted by Ken

For several years during the process of exploring and developing the North Rim at Mill Creek, we have witnessed anonymous acts against our approach trail and the climbing area. At first these seemed like simple mischief, but as most of you know, during the last two years the vandalism has escalated to a disturbing level.

For the past year and a-half, our primary suspect has been a Bitterroot resident named Van Keele. Keele's name has come up in context with complaints issued to the Forest Service, and an individual matching his description has been encountered several times by climbers, including at least one time while placing branches over the ridge trail. We still have no direct proof that Keele is behind the trail and climbing area sabotage, but a letter to the editor from Keele that appeared in the Ravalli Republic this past Wednesday, June 11, certainly supports our suspicions.

As with most "viewpoint" pieces, Keele's letter is primarily subjective opinion. But it's implications, questioning the legality of bolting and incidental access trails on forest service land, are filled with false claims.

To set the record straight: The bolting and route development we've done at Mill is a legal activity on public land. This is not heresay. It is confirmed both by our own meetings and ongoing correspondence with the Bitterroot National Forest, as well as national legal precedence supported and documented by the Access Fund.(See for example United States v. Craig (Coronado National Forest))

Incidental user trails, which is what the Mill approach trail is, are also legal. The BNF has confirmed this specifically for the Mill creek climbers' trail. One also need only consider the numerous such trails at climbing areas across the country, areas far more sensitive and prominent: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Yosemite National Park, and Joshua Tree National Park where Keele, in his letter, alleges to have climbed, to name a few.

As the creator and publisher of this blog, I've intentionally set a tone that is fairly neutral and factual. I started this blog as a way to distribute information about the climbing we'd discovered and were creating at the North Rim. I did this not to shine a light on those of us developing the routes, but to contribute to our local climbing community --to spread the word, to share the climbing, to be inclusive to all.  We may have opened the climbs, but the crag has since grown well beyond those early days. It's taken on a life of its own as climbers from around the region, and increasingly beyond, have their own experiences on the routes, creating their own memories and relationships with the crag.

I've been outraged and disturbed by the acts of vandalism and intimidation committed against us at Mill by, if not Keele, those who share his views. At times it's weighed heavily and I question if it's worth it. But then I'll overhear someone excitedly describe doing their first ever lead on the Tick Farm, or another who projected the hell out of one of the steep routes and finally sent, or I'll just hang out on the terrace beneath Big Science on a sunny spring Saturday and listen to the chatter and laughter of other climbers, people who are drawn for as many different reasons as there are climbers to the sport that has been a constant in my own life for over thirty years. Those are the times that remind me that standing up to the Van Keele's of the world is damn well worth it.

A quick Google of Keele's name reveals he is a chronic writer of letters-to-the-editor. But Keele is also affiliated with an organization named Friends of the Bitterroot, and that organization has sued the Forest Service in the past over public land policy. It's ironic, of course, that Keele --an obvious, if mis-directed environmentalist-- is attacking climbers, a category of outdoor enthusiasts that is famously pro-environmental and pro-conservation. But as a friend of mine in Bozeman pointed out after reading Keele's letter, his is a classic example of the "close-the-door-behind-you" attitude. In his own words, "My wife and I moved to the Bitterroot because of its vast and beautiful public lands." Now Keele wants the door shut. He will allow access to public lands only if the use conforms to his set of rules.

The hypocrisy in Keele's attack is nearly laughable. It's not climbers, but likely Keele, or those who share his anti-climber view, who have repeatedly disturbed and destroyed hillside habitat and vegetation to construct obstacles like this on the approach trail:

And it is likely Keele, or those who share his view, who have literally dug up the area beneath the Tick Farm, escalating the erosion that climbers worked to mitigate with primitive stone barriers:

Van Keele speaks of being "respectful" in his letter, but it is Keele, and no other, who has gone on record to say, if he has his way, you and I will be denied our right to enjoy our public lands in the acceptable and responsible manner we choose.

A response to Keele's letter is being written and will be submitted to the Ravalli Republic. The Western Montana Climbers Coalition continues to work with the Bitterroot National Forest to secure our right to climb at Mill.

For now, what can you do?
  1. Complete the climbing survey here:   --This will help in the work being done with the Forest Service to establish an official trail to the crag making it a federal offense to vandalize it.
  2. Join the Access Fund  --You've read that before on this blog, but the Access Fund has given us invaluable support and guidance for the past year as we've worked with the Forest Service on the escalating issues at Mill. The Access Fund will continue to help us going forward, including if lawsuits ever enter the picture.
  3. Support the Western Montana Climbers Coalition --The coalition is just getting started, but keep an eye out for events and membership drives in the months ahead. As climbers, we are generally independent, and all this organization stuff often grates against the fundamental reasons we got into climbing in the first place. But this is one time a show of strength in numbers will count for a lot. Please consider taking the time to head down to Freestone when there's an event, attend public meetings when they come up, or add your voice when possible, such as to the comments on letters like Keele's (as several have already done).
  4. Go Climbing  --Hell yeah! That's what all this fuss is about, right? 
We're lucky to live in Montana. Ultimately, there remains an underlying culture here that grants freedom to everyone to pursue their own passion on public land. There's plenty of room out there for us all, despite Van Keele's argument to the contrary.