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Should public lands be a natural setting for extreme sports?

When an iconic geological landmark outside Moab, Utah, became the site of an extreme rope-swing, it captured the attention of the Bureau of Land Management. Officials are proposing a ban on rope sport activities at Corona Arch to evaluate the impact on the rocks and on others who might use the land. Jeffrey Brown reports on the rise of extreme sports on public land for our series Culture at Risk.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to the second in our two-part look at land disputes in the American West.

    Last night, Jeffrey Brown looked at a fight between local residents and the federal government over closing down a canyon rich in archaeological treasures to motorized vehicles.

    Tonight, Jeff has the story of a very different split over how to enjoy and experience the natural beauty.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Stretch a high-tech nylon line some 400 feet above a canyon near Moab, Utah.

  • HAYLEY ASHBURN:

    Do you want to tighten it before we walk?

  • SCOTT ROGERS:

    It's really tight, actually.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Strap on a harness.

  • SCOTT ROGERS:

    I'm going to go barefoot. I like feeling the line between my toes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And step out into the air.

  • HAYLEY ASHBURN:

    Whew!

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's called highlining, done on public lands, a perfectly legal activity that most of us, including your correspondent, who stayed far back from cliff's edge, would never dream of undertaking.

  • HAYLEY ASHBURN:

    I'm always a little bit nervous no matter how many I do.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But Hayley Ashburn and Scott Rogers, members of a group called the Moab Monkeys, do this sort of thing several times a week.

  • HAYLEY ASHBURN:

    You are forced to narrow your focus. So, I'm thinking about the anchor on the other side and how bad I want to get there. And I'm thinking about how long it's been since I took my last step and when I'm going to take my next step and what my foot feels like on the line.

  • SCOTT ROGERS:

    It's this really, like, rush of overwhelming happiness, because you have done something that you were terrified of, and then you overcame that fear, and then all of a sudden you're proud of yourself. You feel empowered, like you can do anything, really.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In highlining, sky walkers are tethered to the line. As this video of Scott Rogers shows, that's not the case in other new sports, like base jumping, in which jumpers launch themselves off stationary objects like cliffs and pull a parachute at the key moment. Timing is everything, the room for error very small.

    Rogers and Ashburn know people who have died when the wind blew them back into the cliff or their parachute was opened too late. But that doesn't stop them, and it certainly doesn't stop them from capturing their exploits on video and posting them online.

  • HAYLEY ASHBURN:

    I love spreading the joy, because I feel like we know the secret about life, about when you do things that are scary and you overcome your fears, not only is it the most fun you will ever have, but it's so empowering and it changes the whole rest of your life.

    And doing — being out here doing what we do and making media like that is our goal, for sure.

  • SCOTT ROGERS:

    It's taking something that is part of our life and then showing it to the world and saying, hey, look, you can have fun doing these things you didn't even realize existed.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But there's, of course, another way of looking at and being a part of this extraordinary landscape, one that's quieter, calmer, and sees the beauty, the drama, the extremes, if you will, in the land itself, the red rock walls, towering spires, winding rivers, plunging canyons.

    In this way of experiencing the wilderness, the long walk, the light footprint, the contemplation of man's small part in the universe take precedence.

  • ANDREW GULLIFORD, Environmental Author:

    The question is what sort of land protection do you want, and what sort of ethic do you want to evolve with the younger generation? Part of what the struggle is right now is for quiet users to have the space they need.

    Colorado historian and nature writer Andrew Gulliford says cultural shifts in how people view the outdoors have raised important new questions.

  • ANDREW GULLIFORD:

    We have a long tradition of public land use in the American West. The new kinds of outdoor activities, though, the extreme sport activities, there's not a lot of nature involved.

    So today's generation is treating the outdoors as a dirty gym, and that's not what was thought about 50 years ago with the 1964 Wilderness Act, with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. So those conservation laws were about preserving nature for nature's sake. And we have got a new generation of extreme sports enthusiasts who simply want to go out, use the outdoors, photograph themselves with, you know, special little cameras, and then hit the brew pub by dark and talk about their exploits.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There has been much talk about this particular exploit, the rope swing at Corona Arch, an iconic landmark just outside Moab.

    The YouTube video put out in 2012 has had more than 25 million views online. It also got the attention of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which had recently taken over the arch from the state of Utah in a land swap, and which administers so much of this state and other parts of the West.

    MEGAN CRANDALL, Spokeswoman, Bureau of Land Management Utah: It's just created over time.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Megan Crandall is a spokeswoman.

    So we learn about this on videos that we see. How do you learn about it?

  • MEGAN CRANDALL:

    The same way you do.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What was your reaction?

  • MEGAN CRANDALL:

    Holy cow.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • MEGAN CRANDALL:

    No, I mean, my reaction, I was just blown away. Wow, that's incredible.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And then what happens? You have to figure out how to manage this.

  • MEGAN CRANDALL:

    Right. Certainly, we have a responsibility to manage for some of these new uses, but, as we have seen with roped activities, it was like a firestorm. It took off. It gained in popularity. And we just saw usage in that way surge.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The surge of use including one death and one serious injury by rope swingers who misjudged how long the ropes needed to be.

    Crandall says BLM policy is that people use public lands at their own risk, but the agency does look at a variety of factors, including damage to the rocks and the impact on those who want to experience the arch the old-fashioned way. And while they study these impacts, federal officials proposed a ban on roped activities at Corona.

  • MEGAN CRANDALL:

    What we're doing is, we're putting out for public comment a suggestion that we institute a temporary two-year restriction on roped activities to give us the time and space we need to really evaluate if continuing to allow those activities here is the most appropriate use of the area.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The Moab Monkeys, of course, say they love the land too, and are happy to share it.

  • HAYLEY ASHBURN:

    It seems like a really long flight.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But Hayley Ashburn says there are plenty of public places for those who complain about the disruption of the extreme sports.

  • HAYLEY ASHBURN:

    If they want peace, they should go to Arches or any national park. I call those no-fun-allowed zones.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The national parks?

  • HAYLEY ASHBURN:

    Yes. It's, like, going to be nice and quiet. Nobody is going to be no base jumping, and nobody is going to be bolting anything. There's nobody going to be screaming and yelling and having a really amazing time.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The BLM's Megan Crandall suggests that argument works both ways, that there's also plenty of room for roped activities if a ban is put in at Corona Arch.

  • MEGAN CRANDALL:

    There are other places in the Moab Field Office area where you can still engage in these activities. But at least, for us, we want to take the time to really think about whether it's appropriate for those to continue here.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The BLM is taking public comments on the issue through the end of this month.

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