The Bighorn National Forest has hit pause on a multi-year process to create a Tensleep Canyon climbing management plan.
The national forest cited lack of leadership as the reason for the delay. It seeks to replace outgoing Powder River District Ranger Traci Weaver, who guided the climbing plan process before resigning in June to take another job.
An environmental analysis was anticipated to be released this fall.
“There were some items that were coming up through the data collection and some questions, and we just can’t really answer those yet until we get our permanent district ranger in place,” said Sara Evans Kirol, Bighorn National Forest public affairs officer.
The agency does not have a timeline currently for when the position will be filled or the plan restarted, but Kirol said leaders “are working very diligently trying to fill the position because it’s a priority for the forest.”
The Powder River Ranger District has been drafting a climbing management plan for Tensleep Canyon to grapple with management challenges related to the canyon’s skyrocketing popularity as a recreation destination. With roughly 1,200 established routes, the canyon is the most popular sport-climbing destination in the Northern Rocky Mountains, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
But with crowds, the canyon has experienced symptoms of being over-loved, such as user-created trails and crowded parking lots. The discovery of manufactured climbing routes — a widely condemned practice that employs hammers or glue to manipulate rock holds — also fueled a contentious battle amid climbers over ethical development.
The Forest Service stepped in in July of 2019 when it issued what amounted to a moratorium on the establishment of any new climbing routes or trails in the entire Bighorn National Forest.
The prohibition was aimed at giving the agency time to develop a climbing management plan, Weaver said. The 2005 Bighorn National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan included recommendations to develop such a plan, she noted, and it was overdue.
The forest released a scoping document on the plan in February 2021, and received nearly 500 comments by the March deadline. Agency personnel worked over the summer to collect data on resource impacts, Kirol said, as they worked on an environmental analysis.
The scoping documents identified several issues the Forest Service hopes to address in the 26,000-acre project area. They include dangerous highway conditions, improper disposal of human and pet waste, erosion at the bases of cliffs, impacts on wildlife like nesting raptors and a proliferation of dispersed camping — including within 100 feet of Tensleep Creek, which flows into the town of Ten Sleep.
The plan has the potential to ripple beyond the walls of the canyon, climbing advocates say. As one of only a handful of Forest Service plans specifically focused on climbing, it could influence how the pursuit is managed on national forest land across the U.S.
While the planning process has been temporarily paused, the prohibition on new development remains in place, Kirol said.
The forest hired a climbing ranger to help educate the public about good resource stewardship a couple seasons ago. This summer it hired a second ranger in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, she said.
The agency doesn’t have exact numbers on 2021 visitation, Kirol said, but the climbing rangers “said they were very busy.”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the forest was working on an environmental analysis for the plan. -Ed.