Bishop’s iconic Buttermilk Boulders may be getting loved to death
The popularity of the granite outcrops at the base of the Sierra Nevada west of Bishop, the Buttermilk Boulders, has grown exponentially along with the popularity of climbing as a mainstream sport. It hosts some of the hardest bouldering routes on the planet including Paul Robinsons’ Lucid Dreaming and has become an international climbing destination.
(ed. note: It is ‘Buttermilk’ not ‘Buttermilks’. It’s not the Yosemites or Pleasant Valleys, is it?)
But, climbers and boulderers are squeezing the life out of the beloved rocks. There is little control over where visitors camp or how they camp or where they defecate or a comprehensive plan of how to deal with trash or parking. Plants are being trampled and there’s the danger of out-of-town visitors introducing invasive plants to the area via seeds stuck in shoes or tires, said Deb Schweizer Public Information Officer for the Inyo National Forest (INF).
The Buttermilk area is receiving “higher levels of use in an area not really made for it,” Schweizer explained. She added the area is also popular for off-highway vehicles, adding to the overcrowding
INF that manages most of the land, does not have a method for counting the number of visitors, according to Schweizer.
Other land managers, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Bureau of Land Management are looking for the right solution to manage the crowds and the attractive landscape. An official designation such as a recreation area could usher in paved roads, established fee campgrounds and rezoning or forest lands.
“The designation could do what we don’t want to happen,” Schweizer explained. “Easier access could bring even more visitors.”
Dispersed camping, or camping where there are no designated areas and away from other campers, is currently allowed in the Buttermilk area, with the exception of LADWP land, but camping has out grown that definition. Schweizer said it’s rare to find a secluded campsite out there.
There is a tipping point where visitation exceeds management efforts and changes become necessary before the resources disappear or are inaccessible, says Policy Analyst for the Access Fund, Katie Goodwin. She understands Schweizer’s argument but used Joe’s Valley in Utah as an example of an area beyond the tipping point. The Forest Service did not upgrade roads or amenities at the popular bouldering for fear of attracting more visitors. Boulderers kept coming and growing in numbers despite not having services. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are now spending more than $250,000 on vault toilets and campgrounds to mitigate damage and keep the resources sustainable.
The agencies were also pressured by local government to make changes after once elected officials became aware of the extent to which the climbing community spends money locally, according to Goodwin.
Goodwin said she felt Buttermilk is beyond the tipping point.
Volunteer groups like Friends of the Inyo, Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association and the Access Fund regularly clean up trash, plant native plants in disturbed areas and reestablish and redefine trails to the rocks and routes. Redefining bordered trails is very important in the spring after winter snows shift rocks and trail boundaries where small rocks are used to frame the boundaries of small trails, also known as gumdropping. Schweizer explained that human nature can be to follow the path, or trail, of those who have gone before.
Goodwin explained the Access Fund wants to bring in its trail crew and establish maintained trails. Paperwork and expensive environmental studies that are mandated anytime work is performed on federal lands have thwarted those efforts.
The Access Fund is educating potential Bishop boulderers about what to expect on the Eastside, where to park and camp and how to clean up after themselves. It’s going to popular climbing gyms in metropolitan areas like Planet Granite and Touch Stone, with their program.
Julia Runcie of Friends of the Inyo said in an email that the organization tries to educate climbers to the impacts of their sport by introducing new climbers to the concept of stewardship and caring for high-use areas like Buttermilk.
Runcie said she feels that education maybe the key to sustainable climbing. “Many young climbers are growing up with an ethic of responsibility for the public lands where they climb,” she said. “If people learn to really care about a place, they will want to care for it. Friends of the Inyo’s stewardship program tries to harness that energy and put it to work for public lands.”
The Access Fund, the Friends of the Inyo and other volunteer groups are picking up the slack where the Forest Service money and staffing run out.
The Forest Service budget and staffing has been cut radically since the mid-2000s. According to a 2015 report by the Forest Service, more than 50 percent of the entire Forest Service budget, approximately $2 billion, is used to fight wildfires. In 1995, 16-percent of the budget went to firefighting.