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060310 climbing one

Tim Karst belays Ken Turley while rock climbing in Mill Creek in the Bitterroot Valley.

HAMILTON – Rock climbers using a popular sport climbing area in Mill Creek won’t be allowed to establish any new bolt-intensive climbing routes or climb near an eagle’s nest under new rules released this week by the Bitterroot National Forest.

Members of the Western Montana Climbers Coalition are fine with the moratorium.

“We’re absolutely fine with it,” said the coalition’s co-chair, Claudine Tobalske. “We do not need any new rock climbing routes. What we do need is good management of the existing climbs.”

Over the past few years, a small area of cliffs on the northeastern end of Mill Creek has become a popular destination for rock climbers of varying skill levels. Called the “tick farm” by local climbers, the 150-foot section of cliffs currently has numerous defined routes with bolts drilled into the granite to provide anchors.

It’s become a popular place for climbers because it offers opportunity for novice climbers to test their skills, Tobalske said.

“It’s the only place that we have locally where there are some moderate climbs that are bolted,” she said. “The hike is not too long. You can bring children. It is a great place to introduce people to climbing.”

The new popularity of the area has created concerns among both locals and U.S. Forest Service officials over parking, vehicle traffic, trail erosion and the visual impact of climbing equipment left on cliffs.

Most people access the area from the Cow Creek trail that begins just west of Pinesdale at a bend in a national forest road. There is no trailhead and parking is limited. The actual climbing site is accessed from a user-created trail that joins the Cow Creek trail.

There are concerns over erosion on the user-created trail and along the base of the section of cliffs where most of the climbing begins.

“The popularity of this area has really grown in just the last few years,” said Stevensville District Ranger Dan Ritter. “Many new climbing routes have been developed and Mill Creek has become a preferred location for climbers, especially in the Bitterroot.”

Ritter hopes the moratorium on the creation of new routes will give Forest Service officials time to work with climbers and interested citizens in developing a longer-term climbing management plan for the area. That plan could include work to restore areas that are eroding and establishing a better trail to the crag.

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Gary Milner of Corvallis has represented local interests with various social and environmental concerns about the increased use of the area.

“I think people overall were just a little concerned that it didn’t appear that there was any planning for long-term impacts to the area,” Milner said. “Mill Creek has been climbed in for decades, but this kind of rapid development that was highly publicized appeared to be unsustainable to some local people.”

The moratorium is a good first step, he said.

“I applaud what Dan Ritter and Julie King have done,” Milner said. “It’s a real logical step. There are a lot of areas in the country that are experiencing the same impacts of growth in sport climbing. I think a climbing management plan will help protect plants and animals, while promoting the kind of ethical no-trace climbing that is sustainable.”

Tobalske said the climbers’ coalition is looking for the same thing.

“We are really looking forward to collaborating with the Forest Service to address a variety of issues that will make Mill Creek become a sustainable place for climbing,” she said. “It’s a great area. It’s beautiful and there’s no place quite like it.”

Ritter is also working with the climbers’ coalition and members of the public to develop an educational program for “Leave No Trace” climbing. The new brochures and posters will be available later this spring at trailhead bulletin boards.

People interested in learning more about that effort can go to www.fs.usda.gov/recmain/bitterroot/recreation.

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