The National Capital Commission released the Gatineau Park Ecosystem Conservation Plan (PDF version) last week, which they’re calling “an essential reference document for Gatineau Park through 2035”. Basically, the GPECP is a long-term plan for the management of the various ecosystems in Gatineau Park. It describes the current state of and threats to the ecosystems and the steps that they believe must be followed to in order to protect and restore them.
Included in the GPECP are key actions on how they’re going to deal with various issues, including some that directly impact the rock climbing on the Eardley Escarpment. Specifically, they seek to “[c]onfine rock climbing to the two or three most damaged rock walls, where rehabilitation work will not be effective.”
They plan on achieving this by…
- Identifying two or three walls on which rock climbing could take place, based on their impact on the Eardley Escarpment ecosystem, their current level of damage and their popularity (also applies to Eardley Escarpment).
- Changing the boundaries of the integral conservation zone, as set out in the Gatineau Park Master Plan, to accommodate these walls.
- Restoring the environment of former climbing sites that are not selected, including any access trails.
Effectively, this means that the number of routes available to rocks climbers will drop from an estimated 500 route to as few as 40. In other words, a 90% reduction in the number of available routes.
Of course, it’s highly unlikely that the number of climbers will reduce by 90%, even though this “solution” also means that the number of top-roping routes is going to drop drastically. Top-roping is a style of climbing that involves setting a rope using anchors at the top of the rock face and it’s often the first style of climbing new climbers learn. Many of the routes on the proposed “the two or three most damaged rock walls” do not have cliff-top access, meaning that it’s not possible to top-rope many of the routes.
So, as a result they’re facing the prospect of a usage level that may not be sustainable. That combined with climbers who have nowhere they can climb is almost certainly to result in some climbers “going rogue” and continuing to climb where they have climbed in the past. The Eardley Escarpment is often described as "the best climbing in Eastern Ontario”, even though it lies in Quebec. This is because there really aren’t many sites in Eastern Ontario where you can climb. In fact, the only one I’m aware of within a reasonable drive of Ottawa is a site with a few routes near Packenham, though I’ve never gone climbing there.
For the last two or three years, there’s been an agreement between the Ottawa-Gatineau Climbers’ Access Coalition and the NCC. The agreement identified which cliffs were open and closed and any access restrictions in place. It had been reached after negotiations between the Coalition, the NCC and landowners.
By all accounts, it was considered successful.
So, when the NCC announced the GPECP with its extreme restrictions on climbing last week, the climbing community was understandably surprised (to say the least). CBC interviewed the chair of the Coalition last week, followed by the chair of the External Expert Committee. You can listen to both on the CBC’s All In A Day Listen Again website – just look for the clip titled “Rock Climbing in Gatineau Park” on March 18th.
If you do listen to it, you’ll note that the chair of the expert committee really tries to avoid the host’s questions about whether it is really necessary to close as many routes as will be closed.
I understand the desire to protect at-risk sensitive ecosystems, but a balance needs to be found between conservation and recreation. There are almost certainly alternative solutions that would meet most, if not all, of the conservation goals while still allowing recreation users access to the cliffs. If one of the concerns is about people straying from the trails and causing damage as a result then one solution would be to clearly mark the official trails and enforce their use. This would require conservation officers to more actively monitor their use, but if the goal is conservation then they’re going to need more conservation officers anyway. If it’s determined through monitoring and enforcement that the marked trails are not being respected then the NCC can take more drastic steps, such as closing a problem site.
Hopefully the NCC will hold some public information sessions on the new Gatineau Park Ecosystem Conservation Plan before they start implementing its more controversial elements.