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Conservation for Cliffhangers

Every year about 2,500 daring people test their minds and bodies by climbing Shovel Point, a stretch of 100-plus-foot rhyolite cliffs in Tettegouche State Park along the North Shore of Lake Superior.

"Most of the time you can't see anybody," says Cora McGlauflin, an instructor with the University of Minnesota--Duluth's Vertical Pursuits program. "When you're climbing, it's just you and the rock and the lake. It's a wonderful thing."

What's not so wonderful, however, is the damage that climbers can cause on the clifftop, an environmentally fragile area where trees and plants cling by shallow roots. That's why state parks officials have taken steps to mitigate those impacts, without closing the park to climbing.

When Tettegouche State Park was created in 1979, subarctic plants suited to the harsh climate and thin soil blanketed the clifftop. Years of concentrated foot traffic from climbers moving between climbing areas and tourists wandering off the main trail killed plants along the cliff edge, leaving behind zones of bare rock. Adversely affected flora included bunchberry, harebell, poverty grass, tufted hairgrass, Canada mayflower, big-leaved aster, three-toothed cinquefoil, gray goldenrod, and white cedars.

"This [mortality] was especially apparent," says park manager Phil Leversedge, "with trees that have historically been used as climbing anchors and those in areas used as staging areas for climbing groups."

Shovel Point climbers were anchoring their ropes to trees because nothing else in the vicinity was strong enough to hold a fall. The ropes themselves didn't hurt the trees. But the climbers' footprints did, compacting the soil in root zones, which eventually proved fatal to the trees.

In 1995 Leversedge and his colleagues from the DNR Division of Parks and Recreation assembled a citizens advisory committee of climbers and representatives of various organizations -- including Access Fund (a nonprofit climbers' advocacy group), Audubon Society, National Park Service, and several universities -- to put together a climbing management plan for Minnesota state parks.

"A couple of the first public meetings were a bit antagonistic," Leversedge says. "But over a few meetings, people started to build those trust relationships, and it's turned out really well."

Following the meetings, parks staff at Tettegouche took steps to direct foot traffic onto existing trails to prevent further damage. The methods included roping off damaged areas to allow them to recover and placing signs at critical points to direct visitors and encourage them to stay on trails. Park workers also installed wooden curbs to help define designated trails, added gravel to improve some walking surfaces, and built boardwalks to help identify paths to climbing areas.

In 1999 the park added a wooden platform to serve as a viewing area for visitors and staging area for climbers. In 2005 it added a second platform.

"The platforms are great boundaries to set for groups of kids," says McGlauflin. "They keep kids in one place and off the fragile terrain and give us [climbers] a place to stash our gear and have lunch."

This spring the park will drill custom-made steel bolts into the clifftop at five popular climbing spots at Shovel Point to spare the trees most frequently used as anchors. Standard climbing bolts hold 40 kilonewtons, but for insurance reasons the bolts at Shovel Point will be much bigger, rated to hold 150 kilonewtons each -- roughly the weight of three Asian elephants.

"We've made these changes very slowly," Leversedge says, "with lots of opportunities for people to understand what we're doing. Looking back, it's been a real success."

Shelby Gonzalez, freelance writer

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