On Mount Lemmon There Aren't Enough Rangers To Patrol The Paperwork
By Kevin Franklin
DURING THE PAST two years, the staff at Rocks & Ropes Indoor Climbing Center have been trying to get a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to allow them to lead climbs in the Catalina Mountains.
They finally received a definitive answer: "No."
"We've gone through the application process for two years, and after that process they call us up and tell us they're not issuing new permits," says assistant manager Chad McWhinnie.
Rocks & Ropes co-owner Jason Mullins says it's been an exasperating ordeal.
"We called up three years ago and asked a number of different people (if we needed a permit) because we thought there should be one. We were told by a number of different sources we didn't need a permit to do what we were doing. Then during one of our trips, a ranger told us if we were making money on Forest Service land, like using it as a business venture, we needed to have a permit. We said fine."
Mullins filled out the application, only to find out that the Forest Service had then decided to accept applications only in October. This year the application from Rocks & Ropes was the first one in on the morning of October 1, Mullins says.
The 15-page application was sent back to them because of a few clerical errors, which they corrected. The application was promptly resubmitted.
After numerous calls, Mullins finally discovered the Forest Service was no longer issuing any new special-use permits.
"It seems there's some kind of anti-climbing slant to all this," McWhinnie says.
Not so, says Dale Manse, Catalina district dispersed recreation manager: "It's nothing specific with Rocks & Ropes. We're just not issuing permits. We've had dozens of requests for permits ranging from hunting guides, lama riding, jeep tours and everything else. We're just not administering new permits, period.
"Our fiscal year starts in October. After October (the Forest Service) did a downsizing. We lost some personnel, which resulted in the remaining folks assuming their duties. Then we got significant budget cuts here on our district. As a result of the budget cuts and the downsizing, there aren't enough people to administer the current programs, let alone add new ones."
As far as the paper chase Mullins went through, Manse says the Forest Service is mandated to accept applications, but is under no obligation to issue permits.
Regardless of the Forest Service's ability to process the paperwork, Mullins and McWhinnie point out that the Catalinas are teeming with climbers, many of whom don't know what they're doing. For climbers who want to learn, no local outfitter can legally teach them.
Manse explains there are at least four special-use permits for companies teaching climbing in the Catalinas. But Mullins points out those are either parts of larger, intensive outdoor programs like the National Outdoor Leadership School, or out-of-town companies. The average Tucsonan who just wants a day or two worth of climbing instruction is out of luck, Mullins says.
"You go up there on any weekend," observes McWhinnie, "and there are these yahoos who are being really unsafe. Our interest is not in getting a ton of people up there climbing. Our interest is in taking small groups up to the mountain, showing them what it's like and how to do it safely."
"There are people going up there and using this mountain unsafely," Mullins agrees. "I've seen people up there drinking beers and thinking they know how to rappel. (Rocks & Ropes has been) a professional establishment for five years with a flawless safety record. I would think (the Forest Service) would want responsible use. That's what we teach."
"I don't argue that," Manse defends. "All I'm saying is on our district we have to be able to administer the permit. Right now that's not possible. We don't have the capability to administer more than we have right now."
Manse suggests Mullins and McWhinnie take their operation to other national forests, or other federal land.
"There are a variety of other lands they can use besides Mount Lemmon," Manse says.
McWhinnie says most of those other places are backcountry climbs, requiring a lot of time and hiking that makes a one-day class problematic. And the nearby climbs are too difficult for beginners.
"Since the Forest Service doesn't have enough people to patrol Mount Lemmon," McWhinnie points out, "that makes it all the more important to make sure the people you do let up there are qualified."
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