As rock climbing gains popularity, biologist examines impact climbers have on lichen and mosses in Dishman Hills


Obscured by the fog of distant times – incomprehensible 250 million years ago – two organisms formed a pact: a fungus enveloped an alga, protecting the water-dependent organism and allowing it to survive in more climates. arid and dry. In turn, the algae provided the nutrients for the fungus.

This alliance created lichens, two distinct organisms so closely related that we didn’t know they were separate until 1867. Unravel a fungus from an algae and the two die.

But together, they form a strong and robust partnership, evolutionary shock troops, helping to colonize lands that survive harsh climates where other aquatic organisms cannot.

Zoom into 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 rock outcrops. Covered with ground, these monoliths remained more or less hidden until about 15,000 years ago, when Lake Missoula, a huge glacial lake, burst its breeches to send waves of water 500 feet from high roar downstream.

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

These rocks and lichens remained. Now, sitting south of Spokane, they are known as the Rocks of Sharon (named after the Sharon store with the long shutters). The largest of these boulders, Big Rock, is 200 feet tall and can be seen for miles from the Palouse Hills.

And they’re home to more than 74 species of lichen 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 lichen and moss biology. In particular, Bishop was examining the impact of climbing on the lichen.

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

“The cliffs can be difficult to access,” she said. “For a long time in North America, people thought it was 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 clinging to mountain sides are so old and have such an extensive root system that they are considered ancient trees. Globally, 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 retain dry dirt, and is so sensitive to air pollution that the US Forest Service uses the presence or absence of lichen as an indicator. air pollution.

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

“The fact that lichens can live directly on rocks is quite difficult, if you think about it,” she said.

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

Overall, however, the climbing routes had less biodiversity than the adjacent unclimbed faces. Bishop reviewed six routes at Rocks of Sharon and 10 at the McLellan Conservation Area. Over the past year, she has divided these roads into half a square meter plots and studied the lichen and moss she found there. She then repeated this process on the walls of the adjacent cliffs that did not have climbing routes. She also looked at the difficulty of the route, the distance from the trailhead, and the popularity.

The process of developing a climbing route usually involves a thorough cleanup. Climbers use wire brushes to scrape away lichen, dirt, and moss, and will even peel 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 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 figures from a year of once-marginal activity expansion.

This expansion has made once-insignificant practices – like hiking straight uphill instead of building properly leveled trails – more impactful.

The issue of cliff biodiversity is one example, although erosion at the base of climbing routes and along climbing trails are more visible reminders of climbing’s increased footprint.

Minimizing the impact of rock climbing on natural areas is a priority for the Bower Climbing Coalition, a nonprofit group based in Spokane, said President Kristen Wenzel. Wenzel has seen Bishop’s report and appreciates having more information on the impacts of the escalation, especially as the BCC is working 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.

It can change.

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

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

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

For his part, Bishop believes 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 the cliffs in Europe but relatively new to the United States. She only found this particular lichen on the climbed tracks.

Second, she hopes the information will make climbing path developers think.

“My suggestion to them is not to grow 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 issues 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 not to develop new routes, although she said, “I don’t want to close any. place.”

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

“Whether you are developing a road or cleaning a road, people don’t realize that they are scratching a living organism that took a long time to develop there,” she said.