Bighorn National Forest officials are resuming work on a climbing management plan for Tensleep Canyon, new Powder River District Ranger Thad Berrett said.
The development of a plan to address impacts of the sport’s rising popularity on the canyon has been on pause since the fall. The Bighorn National Forest idled the process as it worked to replace former District Ranger Traci Weaver, who left her post in June 2021.
Berrett, who transitioned into the role in late January, said he intends to make significant headway on it this year. Berrett spent seven years as a rangeland management specialist for the Powder River Ranger District before he was hired, so the issues surrounding the climbing management plan are not entirely new to him.
“The climbing management plan, you know, I’m saying December of this year to get everything done,” Berrett said. “Now, can we get it done way sooner than that? I sure hope so.”
What it is:
The district has been working for years to draft the plan to grapple with management challenges related to the Tensleep 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.
Those crowds have resulted in symptoms of overuse, such as rogue trails and traffic congestion. 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 in July of 2019 issued what amounted to a moratorium on the establishment of any new climbing routes or trails in the entire Bighorn National Forest. It then began working on the plan, which stands to be one of only a handful of Forest Service plans specifically focused on climbing.
Scoping documents released in February 2021 identify several issues the Forest Service hopes to address in the 26,000-acre project area. They include dangerous parking 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.
An environmental assessment was expected to be released in fall 2021.
Officials are rethinking the process’s order of operation, Berrett said. Where before the district was working through National Environmental Policy Act assessments prior to issuing a plan, “Now we’re working on the draft climbing management plan, identifying the things that actually need to occur out there that would require NEPA … and then we’ll wrap in the NEPA after we get a pretty good draft plan put together.”
The district is currently working on those drafts, Berrett said. He does not have a firm idea of release timing, but said “we know we need to get back out to the public with this stuff.
“It’s definitely on all of our plates to get working on it,” Berrett said.