You don’t have to tell Boulder County climbers that August 1 is a great day to go climbing: It’s the long summer day when the ban on scaling many a local cliff is lifted until next winter.
Boulder’s foothills draw dedicated climbers from across the country. Ledges rising above the city from Mickey Mouse Wall at the south end of Boulder county up to Mount Sanitas and the Lefthand Palisades at the Flatiron’s northern-most tip are coveted by area residents: the climbers, of course, and the Front Range birds of prey who use those same bluffs for nesting. Considering how crowded the canyon walls of the Front Range are these days, it’s no small wonder the city-enforced closures intended to protect the Peregrine Falcons Prairie Falcons and Golden Eagles are so dutifully respected by local recreators.
We can thank, in large part, one man for the climbing community’s buy-in to the wildlife closures: Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) Ranger Rick Hatfield. The passionate climber drifted to Boulder by way of a cross-country road trip in search of incredible ascents, and then became the unlikely champion of both the city government and the climbers; translating the mutual interests of the once adversarial groups to each other.
Believe it or not, local climbers once resented city-led conservation efforts. Before the 1980s, area climbing was largely unregulated. There existed in Boulder a vibrant climbing community made of folks who had moved to the hippy hamlet at the Rocky Mountains’ edge for the purpose of ascending its legendary red sandstone and granite rock faces. As the activity popularized amongst the area’s growing number of residents, the city devised methods of corralling climbers into limited areas for preservation purposes. They instated a ban on installing one’s own bolts (the metal loops drilled right into rock faces that climbers loop their top ropes into), so that the city could be responsible for installing its own bolts and could thus more effectively regulate the area’s use.
For the city, it was a necessary solution to a tricky problem. For the climbing community, it was an outside entity limiting the freedom they found in their beloved pastime. The sport’s devotees felt targeted by these new regulations. Climbing, the sport of the wild at heart, was now regulated by the local government.
The climbers of Boulder didn’t take the ban lying down. They got organized, unifying themselves to effectively negotiate with the city for updated hardware and the routes they wanted. It was a period of uncomfortable growing pains for the Boulder climbing community, but the sport was undeniably growing up.
Rick Hatfield Migrates Westward
Hatfield was monkeying up a cliff in Acadia National Park in Maine in 1989 when he saw a Peregrine Flacon soaring around him. The adventuresome twenty-something was spending his summer enjoying the outdoors, climbing in Acadia National Park in Maine with a group of friends.
‘It was a pretty impressionable time, and a great time to find yourself in such a spectacular setting,” Hatfield says. That’s when his respect for the birds first began to flower.
He landed in Boulder in the early nineties, about ’93, he estimates, while road tripping around the country to climb and explore with his then-girlfriend. His travels ended there, at the base of the commanding Rocky Mountains. With a new job as a weekend live-in assistant to adults with developmental challenges, he could spend his weekdays in the foothills, hiking their every inch and climbing every cliff he could find. He knew the Flatirons in and out; which is why his neighbor called on him, one day, to guide him to remote vantage points to view raptor nests. Hatfield’s neighbor was participating in the city’s small volunteer raptor observation program, attempting to keep watch over the birds to better protect them and their breeding grounds.
Hatfield was hooked. He remembered his awe for the elegant birds of prey that soared above Acadia National Park, and he wanted more of that feeling.
So he took a position volunteering; treasuring the peace and solitude he found in spending his days in the mountains, perched near rocky cliffs, observing the rare birds he so admired. When he wasn’t on duty—which was rare, as he put in more hours than any other volunteer for three consecutive years—keeping watch over the raptors, he was looping himself into the city’s set bolts and scaling the foothills’ rocky walls. When, on duty, he observed a person climbing out of bounds in a raptor enclosure, he knew exactly how to call their location into the city’s rangers. He knew, by seeing them in ascension, where the climbers would come down and likely hike out.
He was so good at his volunteer position that the city asked him to work for them full time, creating a paid ranger position for him .
Community Reconciles to Preserve the Natural Environment
As deeply as Hatfield felt for the raptors he spent his days observing, he sympathized too with the climbers being shut out from their chosen habitat in the name of the birds’ protection. Luckily, the volunteer program was growing. With more individuals committing their time to watching the birds, more precise observations could be made of exactly where the birds chose to nest and if, at any point, raptor chicks died and the nest failed. That’s why he advocated for the city’s current conservation strategy: adaptive management.
Before an adaptive strategy was adopted, the city enacted blanket closures. The idea was that if they couldn’t know exactly where the birds nested and for how long, then best to close a larger area for a longer span of time.
With Hatfield’s expert lay of the land and the program’s swelling manpower, precise nest locations and length of spring nesting could be recorded. Hatfield advocated for these data-based solutions: a closure could be adjusted based on observed nesting habits and its boundaries more precisely drawn. That’s the program in place today. In 2012, the first Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Flatiron Climbing Council, a confederation of Boulder area climbers, and the City of Boulder.
Hatfield saw himself as a translator, in a way, between worlds of natural resource management and climbing. He could speak the language of either community; communicating the priorities of OSMP to climbers and advocating for quality route placement to the city.
“Everyone kind of wants the same thing,” Hatfield says. “The land manager [OSMP] wants the consistent viable habitat. Climbers want to be able to repeat experience, they want to preserve the environment they climb at; two different ways at getting at the same thing.”
Click here to view a list of climbing route closures that will open on August 1, 2017.