So, I’ve been reading the full version of the Gatineau Park Ecosystem Conservation Plan during the last week or so, along with a number of research articles that it cites. Of particular interest (to me anyway) is Appendix 2, which is titled “Eardley Escarpment description and conservation issues”. This is where the authors of the GPECP lay out why, in their opinion, climbing should be all but banned from Gatineau Park.
It starts off by describing what an escarpment is, in general terms, and then moves on to describing the Eardley Escarpment thusly:
Eardley Escarpment is a cliff lying along a south-south-west line. It is approximately 300 metres high, with an average height of more than 200 metres, and is the dominant topographical element in the Outaouais region. It begins in the City of Gatineau and runs north-eastwards along the Ottawa River for several dozen kilometres, forming a characteristic rock slope alignment.
To the best of my knowledge, the Eardley Escarpment, the aspect of which is approximately southwest, follows a line that’s aligned roughly northwest-southeast. If it ran “north-eastwards along the Ottawa River”, it would actually be oriented almost perpendicular to the Ottawa River.
If you look at the image to the right, you can see the Eardley Escarpment (I’ve marked it with a red line) running most of the way from top left to lower right.
But this isn’t the most problematic part of Appendix 2.
It also talks about the various species of animals and insects that are found along the escarpment. A threatened species of butterfly, the juniper hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus), was captured for the first time in Quebec in 1990 at the bottom of the escarpment. Some new species of lepidoptera were seen in 1991, while some new species of beetles were found in 2001. There isn’t any newer information about these insects and how they’re doing – at least not in this part of the report.
But, the heart of Appendix 2 is a table and some text in a section titled “Impacts of rock climbing on the host environment, and conservation options”.
In 1994-1995, the NCC commissioned a report on rock climbing in Gatineau Park by Dubé, which showed “the significant impact of climbing on some Eardley Escarpment habitats”. According to the bibliography, there have been a couple of other studies on climbing on the Eardley Escarpment conducted for the NCC since then, but there’s no discussion of these reports in this section.
However, research conducted on rock climbing on cliffs in other parts of the world, such as the Niagara Escarpment (Canada), Joshua Tree National Park (US), the Red River Gorge (US), Devil’s Tower National Monument (US) and the Swiss Jura mountains, is repeatedly cited as justification for the various restrictions in the table describing impacts and conservation options. (I’ll come back to this in a moment.)
It also contains the following:
In addition, Kuntz and Larson (2005) report that the impact of rock climbing varies according to the degree of difficulty of the wall. The study recommends the use of walls with a level of difficulty higher than 5.10, rather than easier walls, since their impact on the environment is less severe.
A full review of the article (Influences of Microhabitat Constraints and Rock-Climbing Disturbance on Cliff-Face Vegetation Communities, Conservation Biology volume 20, number 3, pages 821-832) reveals that Kuntz and Larson used more sophisticated techniques than previous researchers had to determine whether climbing is responsible for the fewer number of species of plants found on cliffs that are used for climbing compared to cliffs that have never been climbed. Previous research had usually not accounted for differences in the rock faces, such as fracturing, that can have a significant impact on species variety:
Climbed sites had not diverged toward a separate vegetation community; instead they supported a subset of the species found on pristine cliff faces. Prior management recommendations to restrict development of new climbing routes should be reevaluated based on our results.
What they found is that climbers on the Niagara Escarpment, particularly sport climbers who use bolted routes (as opposed to pitons and other forms of protection), were tending to choose cliff faces that had fewer different species on them because those routes tended to be more technically challenging for the climbers. In a nutshell, they did not find that the climbers were responsible for the fewer number of species, which is why they made the recommendation they did concerning the development of routes with difficulties higher than 5.10.
As I mentioned above, much of the research used to justify the drastic conservation options being proposed in the table was conducted either at climbing sites on a completely different type of rock (e.g. limestone versus granite – limestone is quite a bit softer) or sites in other countries and other climates. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t apply to the Eardley Escarpment at all, it does suggest that more specific research needs to be conducted on the Eardley Escarpment itself before imposing significant restrictions.
Of the references that I’ve been able to obtain, I’m particularly impressed by the work of Kuntz and Larson. Their methods could be used on the various climbing sites on the Eardley Escarpment to help assess the extent of the impact the climbers are having on the vegetation on the rock faces. It may well find that the climbers are not the determining factor in the health of the vegetation on the rock faces.
Now, to be fair, there is more than just the rock faces themselves. To get to the rock faces, the climbers must hike in and this is inevitably going to have some impact on the environment. But with the cooperation of the rock climbing community, the NCC should be able to identify acceptable routes in to most of the rock faces. The recent positive experience of the interim access agreement that has been in effect for the last few years proves that the climbers are willing to respect reasonable limitations on climbing sites.
Outright closure of climbing sites has been repeatedly shown to be the least effective conservation option because it simply doesn’t work. Faced with few or no climbing options where there once were many options, climbers will often continue to use prohibited sites and it’s very difficult to enforce the closures. But when only certain climbing routes are closed and official access trails are created, climbers are much more likely to respect the rules.