Climbers balk as feds seek to shut down roped activity in two popular canyons near Moab

In Hell Roaring Canyon outside Moab stands The Witch and The Warlock, a pair of sandstone towers that entered climbing yore in the mid-1980s after southern Utah climber Ron Olevsky scaled them for the first time.

Fast forward 35 years and these remote formations’ fame is getting amplified through the help of drones, YouTube and a new generation of thrill-seekers who rigged slacklines and a “space net” between the towers and canyon rim and posted video of their exploits.

Now the Bureau of Land Management wants to put an end to this kind of fun and other “aerial” activities in Hell Roaring and the neighboring Mineral Canyon for the sake of protecting wildlife. The proposed prohibition covers all roped sports, including rock climbing and BASE jumping, and Moab’s rock climbers are crying foul.

“You don’t make blanket closures,” Eve Tallman said. “If there are nesting birds there, you close the area, and, after they are gone, you reopen it. Climbers have accepted that that is a good compromise. I’m concerned with being lumped in with these quasi-commercial mayhem activities.”

According to a news release, activities covered in the planned prohibition “include, but are not limited to: zip lining, high-lining, slacklining, climbing, rappelling, and rope swinging. Aerial activities include those that either start or conclude on BLM-managed lands, such as BASE jumping, vaulting, parachuting, skydiving and aerial delivery.”

The BLM launched an environmental review for the proposed ban, and the public has until June 30 to submit comments. The plan would cover 10,000 acres to protect desert bighorn sheep, golden eagles and spotted owls that inhabit the canyons and nest on the walls.

“Human activity directly within sensitive habitats can be problematic for wildlife,” said BLM wildlife biologist Pam Riddle. “As wildlife respond and move away from human presence, calorie demands increase. Increased human presence results in increased alertness as animals, especially animals with young, actively watch for human presence, which is often perceived as a predation threat, further increasing calorie demands.”

The BLM has previously barred roped activities at two smaller sites at nearby Corona Arch and Gemini Bridges, popular hiking destinations that had become focal points for rope swinging several years ago, resulting in user conflicts.

The new closure seeks to balance recreation use and conservation of prime habitat by confining the spread of roped activities to a small but vitally important portion of these crucial habitats, according to BLM officials.

Since Olevsky's day in the spotlight, the canyons and sandstone formations around Moab have gained a reputation as a superb backdrop for high-angle sports, but now the focus has shifted to the "aerial" pursuits like rope swinging and walking on lines over chasms.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) GGBY riggers on three sides of the Fruit Bowl heave the the "space net," a giant circular spiderweb of parachute cord, rope and webbing strung together, suspended 400 feet above the canyon floor near Moab in 2017.

Traditional climbers wonder if they are being penalized for the perceived excesses of charismatic interlopers like guide Andy Lewis, the proprietor of BASE Jump Moab.

A fearless slackliner who goes by “Sketchy Andy,” Lewis has garnered a reputation among critics for pushing the limits of both safety and legality, but few can dispute his knack for solving complicated rigging challenges and enjoying life. His talents are on display in video posted April 29 on YouTube — and shot at The Witch and The Warlock — titled “The two sketchiest ways to tag a highline.”

It shows how he and his buddies rigged lines between the towers’ summits using a drone and parachuting out of a plane. Some observers wondered if stunts like this are what prompted the BLM to pursue the ban.

Interviewed Wednesday, Lewis said the proposal initially angered him because he feared it targets him personally and unfairly. Slacklining, along with the desert gatherings that go with it, has its share of impacts, he conceded, but those events are trivial compared with cattle grazing, industrial tourism and oil and gas development that abound around Moab.

Still, Lewis sees room for an improved environmental ethic among his sport’s practitioners, some of whom live out of vans and treat the landscape as a “personal toilet,” and are careless in how they place anchors.

“Andy Lewis and BASE Jump Moab, as an ambassador to the sport and permit holder on public land, fully agree with BLM’s decision to have a public forum on how to manage these lands and to set standards for our community so we can continue to use these lands freely,” said Lewis, who plans to meet soon with BLM biologists. “We are going to work hard, we are going to listen, we are going to communicate. ... We want to see wildlife, and we want conservation.”

Climbing advocates also say they support the BLM’s conservation goals but argue they can be accomplished with seasonal closures that have shown to be successful at much busier climbing destinations, such as Zion National Park and Indian Creek in Bears Ears National Monument.

(Courtesy photo by BASE Jump Moab) An aerial athlete shuffles across a slackline between The Witch and The Warlock and the rim of Hell Roaring Canyon near Canyonlands National Park. Last April, Moab-based guide Andy Lewis and fellow "slacklifers" rigged the complicated tower-to-tower setup using a drone and a parachute jump. The BLM is now seeking to ban such "aerial" sports, including BASE jumping and climbing, throughout Hell Roaring and neighboring Mineral Canyon to protect sensitive wildlife.

The Access Fund, a nonprofit advocating for the interests of rock climbers, does not oppose closures to protect endangered species and cultural resources as long as the restrictions are flexible and grounded in science.

“There is a large body of research on raptors and climbing. We know how to manage climbing and provide space for raptors. We have helped getting peregrine falcon delisted,” said policy director Erik Murdock. “For species that need to be given space during mating season or fledging, those closures are typically seasonal.”

The two canyons affected by the proposed rule connect to the Green River below Bowknot Bend, just north of where the river enters the park. The rule would not shut down two sites designated for aerial sports: The Fruit Bowl, a slacklining destination off the Mineral Bottom road, and the Sweet Spot, a BASE jumping haven where Mineral Canyon meets the Green.

By contrast, Lower Hell Roaring, where The Witch and The Warlock watch over the canyon, is difficult to reach; climbers rarely return to these towers, as many do year after year at Indian Creek. Tallman figures fewer than 12 groups of rock climbers visit the lower reaches of Hell Roaring each year.

"The Witch is one of the most iconic of the desert towers, and the wild nature of the place is what make it unique," Tallman said. "There are few places where backcountry climbers can get out in small groups and experience solitude and quiet."

BLM officials acknowledge that the planned closure area does not currently see a lot of action, but with a high-line venue now established at The Witch and YouTube videos advertising the wonders of Hell Roaring Canyon, it could be just a matter of time before real conflicts arise.

Coincidentally, oil and gas leases on about half the closure area will be offered at the BLM’s next auction in September. While common on the canyon rims, camping is forbidden inside the canyons, and new mountain bike trails are routed to avoid wildlife spots.

For some Moab climbers, it’s hard to see why they should be excluded while these sensitive lands remain open to oil and gas leasing and UTV riding.

“It is the epitome of backcountry climbing around Moab,” climber Jason Keith said. “It would be a shame to have a blanket closure. We are going to try to work it out with the BLM and come up with a compromise.”