At long last, Boise's Black Cliffs are getting a little cosmetic surgery, thanks to the Boise Climbers Alliance. For years the climbing area, located along Highway 21 between Boise and Lucky Peak Reservoir, has provided a troubling representation of an otherwise conscionable sport. On one hand, the serene basalt spires and crags provide stellar climbing opportunities to enthusiasts of all levels. On the other hand, climbers frequenting the area both on foot and in automobiles have left a web of rogue trails, trampled vegetation and accelerated erosion in their wake--a sharp contrast to basic "leave no trace" principles those same climbers heed in wilderness areas.
This destruction may have far less to do with climbers not caring than with a lack of an administrative structure to implement and maintain trails over the public lands on which the cliffs are perched. But according to Mike Lanza, BCA president and conscience to the climbing community, "Most climbers around here really feel that it is right to actively try to lessen our impact." When, in a 1999 article in The Idaho Statesman, raptor guru Morley Nelson alleged that climbers were impeding the nesting habits of local golden eagles and prairie falcons, the BCA mobilized before any official action needed to be taken by the Bureau of Reclamation. They placed signs, worked with Idaho Fish and Game officials to enact voluntary closures of routes near nesting sites--even those sites where raptors only might nest--and have done so, in Lanza's words, "not because any land management area told us to, but because we thought it was necessary."
When, in 2003, the BCA decided to broaden its scope to include trail maintenance and other stewardship concerns at the cliffs, the group's reputation for proactive conservation aided greatly in gaining funding. "They told us that they didn't know of any other local climbing organization who had acted so preemptively on the issue of raptor protection," Lanza recalls of the Access Fund, a national nonprofit organization specializing in grants used for environmental protection of climbing areas. The Access Fund conferred a $3,000 grant to the BCA in March 2004, the second largest grant given so far this year by the organization, for use in combating "social trails and serious erosion problems" and "improving climbing access," according to the Access Fund's Web site.
After receiving an additional $1,000 grant from the American Alpine Club, Lanza and the BCA found themselves in the enviable position of being able to afford some professional perspective on their dirt dilemma. "The trails have always been kind of haphazard," Lanza explains, "so basically we had no choice but to get some advice from trail building experts who looked at our plan and helped us decide the best places for trails to exist. That way, there would be no need [for climbers] to go off trail."
An intense weekend of volunteer work followed in mid-May, during which over 30 volunteers aided in trail construction in the shadows of the cliffs, which now hold two golden eagle nests and one for prairie falcons--all of whom were new inhabitants to the cliffs. A month after the long weekend, Lanza is proud to report that the former ugly duckling of a trail system has become a gravelly swan of efficiency. Old trails have been eliminated, new ones constructed and the difference between the two made clear.
"Anybody who hasn't been out there recently will think it's a vast improvement," he says. "If they were used to hiking to places like Carbody Canyon and Wailing Wall, and were using trails that were crumbling and bad underfoot, they'll find well-built trails with switchbacks and erosion control measures to keep it from getting trashed up again." Perhaps most beneficial to the Black Cliffs newcomer, though, are the markers the BCA purchased to identify trails and junctions. The signs are little more than brown posts amidst fields of dust and sagebrush, but to someone who doesn't know Carbody from canola they could mean the difference between a good day at the crags and six bad weeks in a cast.
Lanza portrays the coming summer months as promising for the BCA, not only because the group's most successful season of raptor buffer zones will end on June 30, but also because remaining grant money will bring further transformation to the Black Cliffs area. "Our next couple of projects will require an actual work crew with machinery," he predicts. "We've committed to the Bureau of Reclamation to close off vehicle access to the old jeep road that goes up [off Highway 21] to the 'Short Cliffs.' That spot has experienced some severe erosion, and we're trying to line up a contract to [correct] that." Although contingent on BLM permission, Lanza also aspires to reconstruct a parking area that was devastated by a flash flood in September 2003, and in time even install informational kiosks at nearby trailheads.
"We're hoping that once we price them out, we'll be able to put two or even three kiosks out there," he says. "They would include information about the raptor protection plan, the BCA, the organizations that gave us funding and possibly even something functional for climbers using the area--like a message board." In the mean time, Lanza advises patrons of the cliffs only to make obvious concessions to the BCA's work: don't create new parking spots and don't wander off trail. His positive experiences with climbers heeding the BCA's raptor buffer zones have led him to believe that no further chiding is necessary. "We only ask people to recognize and respect the importance of what we're trying to do, because we're not going to act like policemen," he explains. "People have been respectful of the voluntary closures so far, and we hear from a lot of climbers that they think what we're doing is a very good idea."
News about activities and route closures by the BCA is available at the group's Web site, www.boiseclimbers.org, as well as through the bulletin board of www.boiseclimbs.com. Mike Lanza can also be reached through phone at 433-8652 and via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.