Sunday, July 19, 2015

Gold Bar Access Update

I'm writing this post to provide a long-overdue update on the access situation in Gold Bar, as well as some current information about the "Timber Sale Boundary" signs recent visitors to the area have no doubt seen.  The bottom line is that some pretty big changes are coming to Gold Bar, but they will not be as bad as they might seem as first, and the long-term access situation for the area is stable.

Gold Bar Access
As many of you know, the land on which most of the bouldering in Gold Bar sits used to be owned by a Washington timber company named Manke Lumber Company.  Manke logged the "Clearcut" area (now more like the "Jungle") in 2000 or 2001, and allowed climbing on its property below Zeke's Wall due to the fact that the hillside needs some 40-50 years before it can be harvested again.

Because the Washington State Department of Natural Resources owned the land under the first mile or so of the road up the hill, however, vehicle access to the Manke parcel became collateral damage when DNR closed access to the entire Reiter Foothills area in 2010.  It is through Manke's grace that WCC members were briefly granted vehicular access to the area in 2011 as "permittees" of Manke's that were thus afforded the benefits of Manke's easement over the DNR land; this access was revoked in May 2012 when Manke succumbed to pressure from DNR to end what was perceived as favoritism toward our user group over others, including ORV users.  Under Manke's ownership, pedestrian access to Gold Bar was stable, but not secure.  The company could have posted the area and revoked climbing access at any point, logged other areas of the parcel, or even sold it to a developer, with no need to justify its decisions.

This all changed in early 2015 when DNR acquired the Manke parcel as part of a larger land swap deal with Manke.  DNR wasn't especially interested in the Gold Bar parcel itself, but is reported to have been interested in completing its holdings in the valley (the Manke parcel was something of an island among state and federal land in the Wallace Falls-Reiter Foothills area), as well as gaining a potential access point for a large stand of timber between May Creek and Wallace Falls.

DNR's acqisition of the Manke parcel is both a mild blessing and a mild curse for climbers.  After a boulderer reported on Facebook that they had been harassed by a DNR employee and told the area was off limits to climbing in the fall of 2014, representatives of the WCC, Access Fund, and Seattle Mountaineers met with DNR Cascade District Manager Al McGuire to discuss the district's approach to climbing.  DNR plans mostly to use the Manke parcel as an access point for a stable crossing of May Creek, and the timber beyond.  It plans to build a road that departs from the current logging road at the westernmost switchback, at the beginning of the trail to the Magic Boulders and to retire the upper portions of the existing road.  As a precursor to abandoning the upper portions of the road, it plans to open up a modest amount of timber in the vicinity of the boulders to logging (more about this later).

The main impacts that will come to Gold Bar under DNR's new plan involve the road.  The planned abandonment of the upper sections of the road is a huge setback for the already-remote possibility that full vehicle access would be restored.  DNR has a strict legal duty to manage the state trust lands in its possession so as to maximize their financial return, and is very unlikely to provide the several thousand dollars per mile per year (as quoted by Mr. McGuire) that it costs to maintain a gravel logging road on the wet west side of the Cascades.  There is a slight possibility of establishing an open road to the May Creek switchback after logging operations to the west are concluded, but the road to such a trailhead would likely still have to be mostly privately funded, and under DNR's regulations, it would have to be truly "public" - DNR cannot give preferential treatment to a specific user group.

Of more immediate importance in terms of pedestrian access to Gold Bar, as part of DNR's road-abandonment process, it builds large gravel waterbars every 50 yards or so that will make the hike to the boulders much more awkward and time-consuming.  There is a method of retiring roads so that an easy hiking path is preserved through the waterbars, and WCC and the Access Fund are working with DNR to get an estimate of the cost of preserving easy hiking access from the May Creek switchback to the Green Boulder and the western edge of the Clearcut.  If the cost is within the realm of possibility, the WCC will undertake a fundraising campaign to raise funds from the community to make it happen.  If it doesn't seem feasible, there will be a number of trail days in Gold Bar's future...

The silver lining to all of this, which is not to be overlooked, is that DNR has never closed an area to foot traffic, other than very short term closures for safety reasons around logging operations - Mr. McGuire said something to the effect that DNR is "not in the business of making its land unavailable to the public."  Thus, the Gold Bar boulders are now on land that (a) will be managed as timber land for the foreseeable future, and not privately developed, and (b) cannot be closed at the whim of a private landowner.  While DNR's acquisition of the Gold Bar boulders may be the nail in the coffin for vehicle access to the top of the hill, I believe it is ultimately better that the boulders are now on public land.

Upcoming Timber Sale
As mentioned above, part of DNR's plan for the Manke parcel is to sell a modest amount of timber before abandoning the upper portions of the road.  This fact has become very real in the last two months, when "Timber Sale Boundary" signs began to pop up next to the approach and throughout the Sanctuary area.  Access Fund Northwest Regional Director Joe Sambataro reached out to DNR to discuss the sale, and earlier this week, Joe, myself, WCC board member Truc Allen, and upcoming guidebook author Pablo Zuleta visited the area with three DNR employees, including the timber manager responsible for plotting the proposed sale and posting the sale boundary signs.

The WCC and DNR in the Sanctuary area

To provide a bit of background on this timber sale, DNR is one of the largest owners of timberland in Washington state, but it does not actually log any land directly.  Rather, DNR occupies a unique position as a "trustee" of state trust lands under its control, and has a fiduciary duty to maximize the state's return on its land holdings through timber sales.  The state trust lands benefit individual counties, and any local government agency has standing to sue DNR for not maximizing the revenue it receives from the state trust lands (two decent overviews of the state trust lands picture in Washington can be found here and here).  To fulfill this duty, DNR: (1) identifies suitable parcels of timber within its landholdings for logging; (2) plans the sale of those parcels, which includes two stages of review under the Washington Forest Practices Act and the Washington State Environmental Policy Act; (3) then publicly auctions the timber to the highest bidder, under contracts that typically require the winning bidder to complete their road-building, extraction, and re-seeding and remediation activities within two years.  Each DNR timber sale is given a specific, often whimsical name, and is advertised on DNR's web site.  DNR, and the private lumber companies it sells to, are required by law to leave eight substantial "leave trees" per acre of timber that is clear-cut (nearly all land in Washington is clear-cut, as logging selectively or via helicopter is so expensive as to be virtually cost-prohibitive).

The timber sale DNR is planning near the Gold Bar boulders (which is un-coincidentally called the "Dyno Sale") is currently in the first state outlined above, i.e., DNR is still figuring out the boundaries of the sale, and has yet to submit it to the state Forest Practices Board for public comment and review.  The sale will involve six or seven parcels on the hillside above Reiter Road, including a parcel adjacent to the trail above the Five Star and a 12-acre parcel in and directly northeast of the Sanctuary area.  This is thus a crucial step for climber involvement, and the WCC and Access Fund are privileged to have input at this early stage of the process due to the diligent efforts of Joe Sambataro, Jonah Harrison, and many others in developing a relationship with Mr. McGuire and other DNR representatives before having the relationship became so crucial. 

Showing DNR foresters the Sanctuary in the Central Washington Bouldering guide

As people who have visited the eastern portion of the Gold Bar boulders in the last month have noticed, the Dyno Sale is currently planned to begin near the Scab Boulder and stretch northeast from the small stream between the warmup area and the trail to the Sanctuary area.  The Midnight Lichen and Samurai boulders are within the sale boundary, and the boundary line currently runs through the middle of the Sanctuary area (Jamrock, Appeasing the Gods, and Road to Zion are outside of the sale, while Metroid Prime and the Contra boulder are within the cut area). 

During our walk-through, we stressed to DNR employees the importance of preserving vegetation around, as well as access to, specific boulders currently used for climbing.  The DNR foresters we met with were very receptive to our concerns (one of them being a climber himself), and are more than willing to designate the eight "leave trees" required per acre in the area directly surrounding each boulder.  The DNR foresters were also open to the idea of leaving a certain amount of shade trees to the south of each boulder that is currently climbed on.  In essence, I think we impressed upon DNR the significance of Gold Bar to the Pacific Northwest climbing community, and received their commitment to mitigate the effects of the impending logging on the area's bouldering.  But as noted above, there are limits:  DNR cannot forgo any revenue at the expense of non-paying recreational entities, and it will not generally require timber harvesters to employ non-clearcutting forest practices.

Showing off with a slickfoot warmup...

The bottom line is that the upcoming logging in Gold Bar will bring significant changes to the area, including: increased truck traffic on the road; short-term pedestrian closures for actual logging efforts; increased sun around the Sanctuary boulders; and significant destruction and mayhem around the Sanctuary area that will require substantial trail building efforts.  However, and more importantly, nothing about the DNR's plan for the area poses a permanent threat to the area's bouldering, and the WCC continues to believe that the acquisition of the Manke timber parcel by a public agency is preferable to the continued ownership of the parcel by a private entity.  While there will be significant changes to the area's approach and ambiance in the next few years, and vehicle access remains as remote a possibility as ever (though not something we're writing off), we can at the very least celebrate that pedestrian access to the area will continue to be open in perpetuity. 

If anyone has questions or thoughts about the access situation in Gold Bar, please feel free to contact the WCC or me directly to share them.  The WCC will also be hosting additional meet and greets at the Seattle Vertical World facility in the coming months. and we encourage anyone who is interested to come out and discuss the Gold Bar situation with us.  Thanks for reading this far, and happy climbing!


  1. With all the changes occurring will Zeke's Wall remain in the care of the Bureau of land management?

  2. Thank you Kelly and Pablo for your efforts on these talks with the DNR. Goldbar is a really special place and I hope it remains so!

  3. Thanks Kelly for the update

  4. The bottom line is that some pretty big changes are coming to Gold Bar, but they will not be as bad as they might seem as first, and the long-term access situation for the area is stable.

  5. I have been riding orvs on the Copperbell mineshaft road (that is where the road originated) since 1981....the large boulder field was common knowledge among dirt bikers....the best trails were accessed from this the climbers want exclusive access. if we are going to close this area to cars/orv's/mountain bikes...we should also close Stevens pass (fragile ,subalpine eco-system)....? but Stevens pass ski area is all about money...and people choose to worry about erosion on little foothill trails in clearcuts.

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