Rock climbing

As rock climbing grows in popularity, biologist examines impact of climbers on lichens and mosses at Dishman Hills

Obscured by the mist of deep time – an incomprehensible 250 million years ago – two organisms made a pact: a fungus enveloped a seaweed, protecting the water-dependent organism and allowing it to survive in warmer climates. arid and dry. In return, the algae provided the fungi with nutrients.

This alliance created lichens, two distinct organisms so intertwined we didn’t know they were separate until 1867. Untangle a fungus from an algae and both die.

But together they form a strong and robust partnership, the shock troops of evolution, helping to colonize lands surviving harsh climates where other aquatic organisms could not.

Zoom in on just 70 million years ago, when volcanic magma seeped through fractures in Earth’s bedrock south of what is now Spokane and cooled into hard stone outcrops. Covered with earth, these monoliths remained more or less hidden until about 15,000 years ago when Lake Missoula, a huge glacial lake, erupted to send 500-foot-high waves of water roaring downstream.

This torrent uncovered these rocky outcrops, washing away the surrounding soil and rock. Soon after, at least within the framework of geological time, hardy lichens established themselves on these newly discovered rocks, the fungus protecting the algae from the southern wind and sun, the algae converting this light into nutrients and storing the water every time it rained.

These rocks and lichens remained. Now located south of Spokane, they are known as the Rocks of Sharon (named after the long-closed Sharon store). The tallest of these boulders, Big Rock is 200 feet tall, visible for miles from the Palouse Hills below.

And they are home to more than 74 species of lichens on Big Rock and some surrounding rocks, according to a recently published study from Eastern Washington University. The EWU study was carried out by Giovanna Bishop, an EWU graduate with a master’s degree in biology focusing on lichens and mosses. In particular, Bishop was examining the impact of rock climbing on lichen.

Bishop started climbing in New England as a student and was immediately struck by the biodiversity found in the vertical world.

“The cliffs can be difficult to access,” she said. “For a long time in North America, people thought they were too extreme an environment to support any biodiversity.”

This is not the case. In addition to numerous lichens, the cliffs and rocky outcrops are home to mosses, grasses, trees and more. In fact, Bishop said, some trees found clinging to mountainsides are so old and have such extensive root systems that they are considered ancient trees. Worldwide, more than 20,000 species of lichens cover about 7% of the planet’s surface. Lichen helps create oxygen, slowly break down rock in the soil, can help hold dry dirt together, and is so sensitive to air pollution that the U.S. Forest Service uses the presence or absence of lichen as a gauge of air pollution.

All of this piqued Bishop’s interest, so she began studying lichen, eventually coming to EWU to study with lichenologist Jessica Allen. Bishop’s climbing experience gave him the skills to perform lifts above ground.

“The fact that lichens can live right on rocks is pretty hardcore, if you think about it,” she said.

What she found is intuitive: on established climbing routes, there is less lichen and moss than on non-climbed faces. His investigation also revealed a number of previously undocumented lichen species in the area and showed that certain types of lichens benefited from the presence of climbers by eliminating other lichen species and mosses, thereby reducing competition. . Known as crustose lichens, they are embedded in rock and survive climbing better than others.

Overall, however, the climbing routes had less biodiversity than the adjacent non-climbed faces. Bishop reviewed six courses at Rocks of Sharon and 10 at McLellan Conservation Area. Over the past year, she has divided these roads into half-meter square plots and inspected the lichens and mosses she found there. She then repeated this process on the adjacent cliff faces that had no climbing routes. She also looked at route difficulty, distance from a starting point, and popularity.

The process of developing a climbing route usually involves extensive cleaning. Climbers take wire brushes to scrape off lichen, dirt, and moss, and will even peel away crumbling rock to expose the more solid rock below. Once established, climbing routes are kept clean, either by traffic or by occasional brushing.

For much of modern rock climbing history it has been a fringe activity with relatively few participants and an anti-authoritarian ethos. The routes could be climbed a dozen times a year or less, and the ecological impact of climbing was low. Over the past 20 years, however, rock climbing has exploded in popularity. In 2019, more than 2 million Americans climbed outdoors, according to a 2020 report from the Outdoor Foundation. These are just the latest numbers in a year of once-marginal business expansion.

This expansion has made once inconsequential practices — like hiking straight up a hill instead of building properly graded trails — more impactful.

The question of the biodiversity of cliffs is an example of this, even if the erosion at the foot of the climbing routes and along the climbing paths is more visibly reminiscent of the increase in the footprint of climbing.

Minimizing the impact of rock climbing on natural areas is a priority for the Bower Climbing Coalition, a Spokane-based nonprofit group, said chair Kristen Wenzel. Wenzel has seen Bishop’s report and appreciates having more information about the impacts of the escalation, especially as the BCC works more closely with local land managers.

For the most part, land managers in the region and nation have chosen not to regulate rock climbing, at least in part because of liability issues, said Paul Knowles, Spokane County Parks Planner. Instead, groups like the BCC have taken the lead, whether it’s organizing clean-up days, replacing safety gear or educating climbers on the principles of Leave No Trace.

This may change.

Spokane Parks and Recreation recently approached the BCC to include it in a planned management plan update for John H. Shields Park, an area popular with rock climbers for decades. Some state and regional agencies have begun to manage climbing areas – whether it’s a ban on bolting in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest or the institution of a permit system for climbers passing at night on tall walls in Yosemite National Park.

“They (the land managers) realize the climbers are here,” Wenzel said.

Jeff Lambert, executive director of the Dishman Hills Conservancy, praised the BCC’s efforts and Bishop’s study. The Dishman Hill Conservancy will host an event next week showcasing Bishop’s Lichen research (view sidebar). Lambert hopes the research can help terrestrial feeders and climbers find a way to “coexist a bit more with vegetation and rocks.”

For his part, Bishop believes that the results of the studies are important for several reasons. First, she cataloged a number of lichen species that had never been documented in the region before, including a species common on cliffs in Europe but relatively new to the United States. She only found this particular lichen on rock climbing routes.

Second, she hopes the information will give climbing route developers pause.

“My suggestion for them is not to develop in a place where you have to constantly clean up,” she said. “Which isn’t a problem at Rocks of Sharon because it’s so exposed.”

Since Bishop moved to Spokane in 2019, she said more than 50 new climbing routes or bouldering problems have been developed in the Spokane area.

With that in mind, she urges climbers and route developers to choose carefully when and where they create new routes and even suggested against developing new routes, although she said: “I don’t want to close no place.”

Instead, she hopes climbers, including herself, will reflect on the impact of cleaning and climbing on the ancient organism.

“Whether it’s developing a route or cleaning up a route, people don’t realize they’re scraping a living organism that took a long time to develop there,” she said. declared.