Access Fund and MAC meet with Harpers Ferry NPS

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An Historic Park

Harpers Ferry National Historic Park sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and at the borders of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. In addition to its importance in American history, the park is home to beautiful natural resources and recreation opportunities. Visitors who come to learn the town’s role in the Civil War can also enjoy a float down the river or hike a section of the Appalachian Trail.

For climbers, the main attraction is Maryland Heights, a 300 foot cliff overlooking the town with multi-pitch traditional climbing. At just over an hour’s drive from Baltimore and Washington, DC, Maryland Heights is a precious resource for climbers in the Mid Atlantic.

Birds of a Feather

A femal peregrine at the base of Sign Route. Photo MatthewOlear@msn.com
A female peregrine at the start of Sign Route. Photo: MatthewOlear@msn.com

But climbers aren’t the only species that love Maryland Heights. After an absence of more than 50 years, peregrine falcons have returned to the cliff. Their journey hasn’t been easy. After their North American population neared extinction due to the effects of the pesticide DDT, it took a coalition of scientists, conservationists, and the federal government to ban DDT use in agriculture and reintroduce peregrines to the Appalachians and throughout their former range. Peregrines were listed as an endangered species in 1970 and removed from the list in 1999 when recovery objectives were met in most regions. Though de-listed, the birds are still rare in the Mid Atlantic and, of the birds that are in MD, VA and WV, most are nesting on man-made structures like bridges, towers and buildings rather than their native cliff top eyries.

In the spring of 2015, the Harpers Ferry NPS instituted a partial and temporary closure for Maryland Heights to protect nesting peregrine falcons. The pair of peregrines returned in 2016 and a portion of Maryland Heights was again closed to visitors. These closures included all of climbing routes on the Gully, the Sign Wall and the ABC Ramps, as well as a partial closure of the cliff top overlook that was popular with hikers.

Closures like these are not unheard of in climbing areas. Even though Peregrines are not on the Federal Endangered Species list anymore, these birds are still rare in their natural cliff habitat; and their mating, nesting, egg incubation and fledging are processes that the park desires to be free of any human disturbance and/or harassment. The Mohonk Preserve, the land manager of the Gunks, closes sections of the cliff for peregrines and the New River Gorge has instituted cliff top closures to provide ideal conditions for the peregrines.

Climbers Meet with Harpers Ferry NPS

Last week, representatives from Mid Atlantic Climbers and the Access Fund met with park staff to discuss these closures and the future of climbing at Harpers Ferry. The meeting was cordial and very informative. Here are the takeaways:

  • We can expect a similar closure in spring 2017. Peregrines mate for life and will likely return to Maryland Heights. These closures provide the birds the opportunity to nest and breed, and for their young to fledge without disturbance.
  • Climbers have been in 100% compliance with the closures for the past two years.
  • Mid Atlantic Climbers will stay in contact with the park and provide feedback to any future plans and/or closures.
  • Separately from the issue of peregrines, Mid Atlantic Climbers will draft a plan to reduce impact and erosion on the climber’s approach trail to the climbs at Maryland Heights.

What Can You Do?

Learn about closures and help to educate other climbers. Be good stewards of the land and always practice Leave No Trace principles when climbing and hiking. Remember that climbing resources are precious and must be enjoyed responsibly, especially in a park that is designated as a National Historic Park.

Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock and MAC President Chris Irwin on top of Maryland Heights.
Access Fund Policy Director Erik Murdock and MAC President Chris Irwin on top of Maryland Heights with the historic town of Harpers Ferry in the background. This photo was taken immediately after their meeting with Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.

One Response

  1. Steve Lowe

    Nicely written article. Looking forward to working with the Access Fund and MAC this spring.