Local climbers request Parks and Wildlife to open lower Rifle Canyon for rock climbing | PostIndependent.com

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Local climbers request Parks and Wildlife to open lower Rifle Canyon for rock climbing

Rifle Mountain Park is a climbing Mecca for those who know good rock.

According to area rock hound and Rifle Climbers’ Coalition board member Mike Brumbaugh, the rock walls of Rifle Mountain Park are world-class.

“It’s Yosemite for climbers,” he said. “If you mention Rifle to a climber anywhere in the world, they know where you are talking about.”

The Rifle Climbers’ Coalition is a local nonprofit dedicated to maintaining the park in coordination with the City of Rifle Parks and Recreation Department. The group has worked with the city for the past decade by cleaning up trash, building bridges and performing trail maintenance, according to Brumbaugh. It’s a relationship that Brumbaugh hopes will strengthen the RCC’s request to open the lower Rifle Canyon for climbing access.

The RCC, with assistance from Boulder-based climbing advocacy group the Access Fund, has asked the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission for access to the rock walls of the lower Rifle Canyon area for climbing recreation. The property lies within the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery boundary and, in the past, was managed under the Division of Wildlife.

However, with the consolidation of the DOW and the Colorado State Parks Department to the recently formed Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the option to open lands once preserved for wildlife and wildlife-related recreational uses can now be looked at for non-wildlife related recreational use. At least that is what climbers like Brumbaugh hope for.

“They manage the land, but we want to be able to climb there,” Brumbaugh said.

Currently, rock climbing is allowed in the canyon from the entrance of Rifle Mountain Park, which is owned by the City of Rifle, on Rifle Creek Road (County Road 217) to the north. However, climbing is prohibited from the park’s entrance, south to the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery. But the rock walls shooting skyward are prime climbing according to Brumbaugh.

“The thrill for us is climbing new routes,” he said.

While climbing is prohibited, hiking in the area and fishing in Rifle Creek are allowed.

The climbers’ main opposition for access to the canyon walls is a golden eagle’s nest that rests on a ledge on the east wall of the canyon. Golden eagles are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

The dilemma lies in that the merging department is charged with protecting wildlife habitat and wildlife-related recreational uses in the area, but must also consider reasonable non-wildlife recreational uses that can be safely accommodated within such areas that don’t interfere with wildlife related recreation or habitat.

“We understand that is a special nest and a protected species,” Brumbaugh said. “We don’t want to harm that at all.”

However, he said that there has to be a way for the birds and climbers to co-exist in the area. His hope is that the climbers’ coalition is given a chance.

“We would love them to say that they’ve identified this as a concern and come up with a management plan to have climbers

and the golden eagles co-exist,” he said.

Another bump in the road comes from diversion of funds, in which wildlife monies go to fund non-wildlife recreational uses, such as climbing, in areas now managed by the CPW. Brumbaugh said that this is a new issue for the commission, but it could potentially become a reoccurring problem with the joining of the two departments.

“I don’t know what the solution is to that,” Brumbaugh said.

Brumbaugh and R.D. Pascoe, policy director for the Access Fund, presented a proposal to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission at a meeting on Jan. 10, with a positive reception, according to Pascoe.

“We proposed to work with them [Parks and Wildlife] however they see fit,” Pascoe said.

After meeting with the CPWC for more than an hour, Brumbaugh said that he’s hopeful to get an opportunity for the coalition to plead its case, and that he’s optimistic that the commission could allow climbing in the coveted area.

“If they’ll meet with us, I think there is a way for both of us to benefit,” Brumbaugh said.

The petition is currently pending commission approval or denial.

According to Mike Porras, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman, the commission has asked parks and wildlife staff to evaluate the situation and bring back findings at a future meeting to allow the commission to make an educated decision regarding the petition.

“That is where it stands at this point,” Porras said.

CPWC Chairman Tim Glenn said that he couldn’t comment on the proposal considering it’s a pending petition before the board.

According to Pascoe, the climbers’ coalition and Access Fund paid for a raptor study of the area, which was completed in Oct. 2011. The study gives the organizations information to develop a management plan that would allow climbing while protecting golden eagle habitat.

“We don’t want to be unreasonable. We are pro wildlife,” Pascoe said. “Nobody wants to have a negative effect on the area.”

Having a management plan in place that would prohibit climbing near the nest during hatching season is one way that the organization has found success in other areas with similar wildlife versus recreation issues.

“There are examples all over the country, really,” Pascoe said. “It’s the norm to have a standard restriction if you have a known raptor nesting.”

While having the commission agree to further evaluate the situation is a positive step according to Pascoe, he’s not sure how the commission will rule. But he says that it’s a good opportunity for the organization to educate people about the popular outdoor sport.

“We view this as our chance to help educate people about climbing,” he said. “A lot of people have opinions about climbing, but few have direct contact with climbers, or climbing.”