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Harpers Ferry rock climbers worried about closures

December 19, 2019 GMT

HARPERS FERRY, W. Va. (AP) — “This is not how the Park Service is supposed to work.”

That’s according to Eric Murdock, policy director for the Access Fund, a rock climbing advocacy organization that has worked with land managers all over the country to keep climbing areas open to the public.

Although each federal land agency has a slightly different approach to managing rock climbing, Murdock says the National Park Service is usually a great agency to work with, collaborating with climbing communities across the country and allowing for public engagement before making access decisions.

So when a beautiful national historic park just an hour away from National Park Service headquarters in Washington banned rock climbing without any input from the climbing community, local climbing organizations were baffled.

More than two years later, they are still fighting for access.

Climbing banned in 2017

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, straddling three states and boasting a rock climbing history that stretches back to the 1930s.

For years, climbers have highly valued the bouldering, top roping and traditional climbing throughout all three states in the park, but especially in Maryland, which has the tallest cliff in the state, Maryland Heights, as well as many iconic boulders and routes.

Except for the temporary annual climbing closures instituted for peregrine falcon nesting and other conservation issues each year, the park has remained open to climbing for years.

But, in June 2017, new Park Superintendent Tyrone Brandyburg changed the superintendent’s compendium - park-specific rules - to restrict climbing in the West Virginia and Virginia portions of the park.

The compendium said the climbing areas had “limited and treacherous access for rescue personnel,” poor rock quality and no legal parking.

“A public closure to climbing of these areas will serve to mitigate the potential risk to the visiting population and those engaged in search and rescue activities associated with climbing,” the document said. “A less restrictive method to accomplish this goal will not be effective.”

Local climbers argued the climbing wasn’t dangerous or inaccessible for rescue, rather, they said the superintendent didn’t understand what climbing was all about.

“If Harpers Ferry was half as bad as what they are saying it is - in terms of how hard it is to rescue people - half the climbing in national parks west of the Mississippi would be closed,” said local climber Neil Arsenault.

With no input from the climbing community and a “completely unsubstantiated” closure, Murdock says this is atypical of the Park Service and sets a dangerous precedent for future climbing access. He called it “shooting first and aiming later.”

“There was no reasoning when they decided to close those areas,” said Jackie Feinberg, communications director for Mid Atlantic Climbers, the local chapter of the Access Fund. “The people making the decision may not have been educated about where people were climbing and what climbers were doing.”

Climbing organizations, including Mid Atlantic Climbers, Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, the Outdoor Alliance and the American Alpine Club, began meeting with park officials to try to change the compendium and sent them an inventory of climbing resources in the park, including GPS coordinates.

“The Park Service didn’t know where the climbing areas were,” Murdock said. “It’s a hard pill to swallow when the park hasn’t visited the sites.”

The organizations also showed the park that the rock quality was sufficient for climbing and offered to participate in an environmental assessment of the climbing areas and develop a climbing management plan - but the compendium remained unchanged.

Maryland side closes, opens over a year later

A year later, in June 2018, after a landslide above Sandy Hook Road, the Maryland section of the park was also closed to climbing. Maryland Heights is the most popular section for climbing, and where the vast majority of the routes are. It also holds the most routes out of any area in the state.

But the landslide was about half a mile west of the climbing routes, and the Maryland Heights hiking trails still remained open.

“The park overreacted,” Arsenault said.

After several tried-and-failed attempts at meeting with the superintendent, Mid Atlantic Climbers started a campaign to show Brandyburg the importance of the area to the local climbing community.

“We felt like the park wasn’t holding up their end of our memorandum of understanding,” Feinberg said.

The memorandum of understanding between the National Park Service and the Access Fund was signed in 2009 and provides a framework for collaborating on NPS land.

“We wanted to make sure we were working through official channels and when we didn’t hear anything back, our community members were concerned,” Feinberg said. “They hadn’t heard anything in a really long time regarding the closures.”

As part of the campaign, climbers sent hundreds of postcards and emails to Brandyburg, which urged him to end the climbing restrictions and work with the climbing community on a management plan.

Arsenault, a local climber not affiliated with any climbing organization, was wary of the campaign, calling it a “media blitz.” Thinking it would have an adverse effect on Brandyburg, he took it upon himself to knock on the superintendent’s door and ask him what needed to be done to regain access to climbing.

Brandyburg answered, and accepted Arsenault’s offer to teach the park rangers courses about climbing.

“Offering your services to them is a good approach,” Arsenault said. “Doing it one-on-one, I’ve got some criticism for ... I’m not trying to do anything other than normalize the climbing situation there.”

Brandyburg didn’t respond to questions from Capital News Service about the effect of the media campaign.

“We at the Access Fund believe it’s important to engage the public and comment on their public lands,” Murdock said of the campaign.

In August 2019, the Maryland section was reopened.

But today, West Virginia and Virginia still remain closed to rock climbing.

Setting a dangerous precedent

In order to reopen the park to climbing, Arsenault is trying to show Brandyburg that the areas are accessible, both to climbers and for rescues. He and a cartographer from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club have spent days marking all of the routes, trails, and appropriate parking with GIS equipment.

“NPS wants to see documentation justifying the change, even though there wasn’t documentation to justify it in the first place,” Feinberg said.

Taylor Luneau, policy manager for the American Alpine Club, says that’s not the climbing community’s job.

“If the Park Service is interested in knowing where folks are, perhaps the appropriate measure would be to go do the appropriate mapping, not put an initial halt to all climbing,” Luneau said.

To open the rest of the park, Brandyburg needs to alter the superintendent’s compendium, which he can change at any time. But, according to the climbing organizations, Brandyburg claims he needs additional data and analysis.

“This is something we’ve done all over the country,” Murdock said. “The superintendent certainly has the power to change his own compendium.”

Brandyburg did not respond to questions about changing the compendium.

In an email to Capital News Service, Brandyburg said: “We’re learning from Mid Atlantic Climbers and other climbing groups about climbing terminology and their desires for access and approaches in the park...We appreciate climbers’ volunteer work in the park which includes documenting the approach and staging areas throughout the park.”

Brandyburg said the National Park Service is working to develop a climbing management plan for Harpers Ferry, and plans on engaging local climbing groups in the process.

But, Luneau says that’s not how it works.

“It’s open until closed, not closed until open,” he said.

“This is not typical of the park service,” Murdock said. “This is one of the reasons we are so interested in solving this issue: this is not how the park service is supposed to work.”

Mid Atlantic Climbers has spent years working with land managers to support substantiated closures, educate climbers and promote environmental stewardship.

“We are not opposed to climbing closures,” Feinberg said. “But we are concerned about precedent.”

Until access is regained, climbers say they are going to continue to fight back.