By Amy Silverman
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On a Sunday in late March, the Arizona Mountaineering Club meets early in a parking area at 118th Street and Rio Verde. Dozens of beginning climbers are out here for an instructional class, and to practice on several climbs on Little Granite Mountain.
Wayne Schroeter, former chairman of the AMC access committee, has been working for years to maintain access to climbing areas like this one. He says climbers have recognized that in order to continue practicing their sport, they have to contend with not only land ownership issues, but environmental concerns.
"I think it's forced on people," he says. "I think every group recognizes if they don't do their part, they won't have access to the land."
Mountaineers and rock climbers have long been a major constituent of conservation organizations like Wilderness Watch and Sierra Club. In spite of this, and the fact that climbers are considered relatively low on the environmental impact scale, they are not escaping scrutiny these days. Environmentalists are concerned about rooftop vegetation and whether the climbers harm it when they reach the top of a climb. Also, the U.S. Forest Service banned the use of metal anchors and bolts in designated wilderness areas. Climbers argue against this, claiming it is dangerous not to replace old anchors that people use while rappelling.
The placement of fixed anchors in the Superstition Mountains was banned in 1990. Old anchors must be replaced periodically in order to safely support a climber's weight. For more than a decade, it has been illegal for the climbing community to replace old anchors in the Superstitions.
"We consider that a dangerous activity," Schroeter says, considering some people may not realize the anchors are unsafe, and use them anyway.
Aside from tackling environmental barriers, climbers have had their own access issues. They have been fighting since 1995, along with mountain bikers, to regain access to Pinnacle Peak. Also on the north slope of the McDowells, where the city owns the rock, but developers own the land leading up to it. They lost access to the Boulders in Carefree in the late '80s, and face ongoing closures in Prescott.
When an area closes, it doesn't eliminate the use, it simply moves it somewhere else.
The State Land Department will begin discussion of Scottsdale's application to conserve the crowded state land in May, and hopes to make a decision sometime this year. The department has said it will likely conserve at least a portion of the land, and Scottsdale's intent is to add the land to its preserve and manage it in the same manner.
The city's petition clearly states that its priorities lie with protecting the land -- not ensuring human access. "Conservation is the main goal of the Preserve and recreational opportunities are secondary to conservation," the petition states.
The awkward, clunky machine animals crawl along the canyon bed at an impossibly slow pace. This trail could be walked in about an hour, and could take days at this rate. But this is not about efficiency. This is about the juxtaposition of nature and machine. This is about conquest. This is about mechanically inclined men -- and a couple of women -- who are really, really into their cars.
The Arizona State Association of 4-Wheel-Drive Clubs' annual "show me" trail ride is a sort of PR campaign. Club members take people out from various state agencies, convinced that anyone who experiences the exhilaration of driving a Jeep or Land Cruiser to the back country and crawling it over obscene obstacles will be sold on the off-road world. They aren't going where no man has gone before, just going where you never thought you could in your truck.
They won over Terry Heslin of the State Parks Department. "I used to think these guys were just throttle-twisting boneheads who should be in jail," Heslin says. "Now I realize there's a lot to appreciate in what they do."
Jerry Steele, owner of a 1977 Bronco and trail leader for today's ride, thinks the opposition to OHVs is just misperception.
"Anybody outside what we do has very little concept of what we do and why we do it," Steele says. "So most can't see a problem in closing the land off to us."
The convoy of four-by-fours is working its way through a trail that's rated a 4.5 -- with 5 being the most difficult. As it approaches the crux of the trail ride, a blue Land Cruiser is ready for a challenge. After all, it's not what you bought, it's what you build, and this baby has $22,000 worth of rear axles, gear reduction in the hub, locking differential whatevers, and some really big tires.
The top-heavy vehicle crawls its way around a corner, up a steep, sloping rock. The angle between the vehicle and the ground becomes steeper. The driver cuts the wheel hard, but it's too late and gravity takes over. The heavy machine crashes onto its side, whipping its occupants around into contorted unnatural positions. The vehicle rolls down a ravine, coming to rest on the roof and leaving three passengers dangling from the seat belts.