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Do rock climbers enjoy being in nature, or are they causing harm to it?

On her initial trip to the cliff in Boone, North Carolina, Laura Boggess was captivated by the vibrant rock tripe that adorned the steep wall, as well as the lush green moss mats nestled on its summit.

The crag was situated in a hilly and mountainous terrain, with steep cliffs rising above a vast valley covered in trees of different shades of green. It displayed the untouched and typically unattainable magnificence of nature that attracts numerous climbers to the activity.

However, upon Boggess’ return to the cliff face nearly ten years later in 2022, she noticed significant changes. The spot had become increasingly popular among climbers since her previous visit. The moss mats were now gone and the rock tripe had been scrubbed off.

“I am not using scientific language, but I noticed a change in the energy of the route, as if the area had been altered,” says Boggess. He is both a rock climber and an assistant professor of biology at Mars Hill University in North Carolina. He has chosen to keep the name of the crag a secret in order to protect it from further damage.

Due to accessibility concerns, cliffs are one of the least disturbed ecosystems in the world. These steep walls provide a home for a diverse array of rare plants, lichens, nesting birds, and bats. Recently, there has been an increase in a new species making their way to these cliffs: humans. In the late 1990s, there were less than 500,000 climbers in the US, but that number has now reached over 10 million. Globally, there are an estimated 40 to 50 million climbers, and the sport’s popularity continues to grow. While many rock climbers and boulderers enjoy connecting with nature in remote and untouched locations, this rise in popularity has raised concerns among ecologists.

A dramatic cliff in Enciña da Lastra natural park in Spain

The Petrocoptis grandiflora, a subshrub with purple petals, is facing danger in Spain’s Enciña da Lastra natural park. This flower thrives in sparsely vegetated areas and temperate climates, and is currently classified as vulnerable on the IUCN red list.

According to Martí March-Salas, a postdoctoral researcher in plant evolutionary ecology at Goethe University Frankfurt, there are currently only two to three remaining populations of this species in the area. These populations are being increasingly impacted by climbers, who are installing climbing routes in close proximity to each other. This has caused significant damage to one of the populations, increasing the risk of extinction for the species.

Studies indicate that cliffs harbor a minimum of 35% of indigenous plant species and offer sanctuary to a variety of creatures that reside on rocks. The act of climbing has been observed to impact both animal and plant species, as the use of chalk in the activity alters the pH of the surface due to its high magnesium content, affecting the growth of plants. Additionally, there is often little oversight on the placement of climbing routes in various locations.

A climbers fingers, covered in chalk, on a rock face

According to March-Salas, a former climber, those with the skills to create climbing routes can now do so in almost any location. He recently penned a letter for Conservation Biology advocating for stricter rules to preserve cliff ecosystems.

While March-Salas desires stricter regulations, he does not intend to prohibit individuals from rock climbing. He recognizes the positive impact the sport has on physical and mental well-being. March-Salas suggests that improved communication would aid in preserving cliff ecosystems. He emphasizes the importance of placing signs near cliffs to educate climbers about the environment and what they can appreciate while climbing.

Boggess acknowledges that climbers must play a role in finding a solution. She believes that simply telling people not to climb is not a viable option, as you cannot undo what has already been done.

The Carolina Climbers Coalition purchased a parcel of land in Rumbling Bald, North Carolina, with the goal of preventing development and preserving the at-risk small whorled pogonia. Climbers aided in this effort by conducting annual species surveys and monitoring. As a result, the perennial orchid population in the area is now stable, according to Boggess.

“According to her, a lot of conservation biologists and land managers have a heavy workload when it comes to monitoring. Meanwhile, climbers frequent a particular area repeatedly, regardless of the season or time of year. This allows them to form a meaningful bond with their local climbing spot, which is a unique and enriching experience that not everyone gets to have.”

Rob Roy Ramey’s first job as a biologist was as a climber abseiling into peregrine falcon nests in the 1980s when the insecticide DDT threatened the birds. In the decades since, he has gained a PhD in ecology and has worked with nesting raptors across many parts of the US. Part of his expertise is in finding nesting sites and determining which are being used – knowing where birds are nesting allows parks to open and close routes at the right times, to protect them from climbers.

A man and woman sit in a cave next to a dead bird

This year, in order to protect a thriving golden eagle nest in Boulder Canyon, Colorado, Ramey assisted in the removal of traverse ropes above the Colorado River in partnership with the US Forest Service. He explains, “The river is currently too dangerous to cross, so this removes that obstacle.”

Although Ramey acknowledges the negative effects of rock climbing on cliff ecosystems, he believes that the issue is exaggerated. He argues that there are more pressing concerns for birds, such as lead poisoning from consuming prey containing bullets and the threat of avian influenza. Ramey suggests that younger sport climbers should be more conscientious about maintaining clean cliffs and avoiding cutting trees.

When climbers have the necessary information, they can effectively regulate themselves. Ramey remembers witnessing a climber breaking a restriction and how the individual was publicly criticized on social media. According to Ramey, this action helped prevent issues for several years. “In certain ways, climbers must act as our own police force,” he explains.

Indra deCastro-Arrazola, a biologist with a PhD who specializes in cliff ecosystems and also happens to be a climber, believes that the environmental effects of rock climbing may be overstated. According to him, we are focusing on minor issues while ignoring larger ones. He acknowledges that his love for the sport and profession as a mountain guide could create potential conflicts of interest, but believes that the real dangers lie in habitat destruction and pollution.

A delicate purple flower on a cliff

In the case of extremely endangered species, even minor actions can drive them closer to extinction. March-Salas cites the example of the Petrocoptis grandiflora flower in Spain. He explains, “Climbers were unaware that this plant was a protected species and that it was highly susceptible to disturbance.”

Due to the lack of regulation, many rock surfaces are open for climbers to create routes without restriction. This could potentially have an impact on other species that are scarce or in danger. March-Salas advocates for additional studies on cliff ecosystems, while both he and DeCastro-Arrazola suggest conducting environmental impact assessments to identify suitable climbing locations and preserve untouched cliffs.

According to him, the issue is a lack of understanding. As individuals who climb, we are unaware of the impact we are having.

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on X (formerly known as Twitter) for all the latest news and features

Source: theguardian.com