Climbers: More than just fun-hogs?

  • Land managers use a checkerboard backdrop to map coverage of plants before and after climbers use an area. Here, an area below a climbing rock is denuded after climbers have had access


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Invasion of the rock jocks."

If the climbing community has a unified public voice, it’s the Boulder, Colo.-based Access Fund, a group that fights to keep crags open to climbers. The group isn’t just about “all access all the time,” says Access Fund board member Jeff Widen, who is also the associate director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. “It’s also about protecting the climbing environment from our own impacts.”

The group has produced a guide for land managers that draws from successful climbing-management plans around the country. It gives grant money to agencies to help maintain toilets and campgrounds, survey archaeological sites and study climbing’s effects on raptors and cliffside ecosystems. Recently, the organization helped purchase land threatened by development at the base of Castleton Tower, near Moab, Utah (HCN, 2/17/03: Conservation pays off in a desert town).

Access Fund Policy Director Jason Keith says his organization supports over 70 climbing closures across the country that protect nesting birds of prey. “We support closures that are based on good science,” he says. All too often, however, the Access Fund and other climbers’ groups have used the lack of definitive science as a wedge to keep the gate open to climbers — a tactic often used by off-road vehicle riders, ranchers and extractive industries. It’s enough to make some wonder if these groups are out for enjoyment regardless of the environmental impacts.

The Access Fund “has become about one thing: lobbying to keep things open for climbers,” says Yvon Chouinard, the influential climber who founded Patagonia Inc., and also provided the financial backing to get the Access Fund up and running in its early days.

What does the science say?

The impacts of climbers on nesting birds of prey are well-documented. “There are plenty of studies that say (raptors) don’t like people above them, or that if climbers are too close, (the birds) get upset” and even abandon their nests, says Amy Fesnock, a wildlife biologist for the National Park Service at Pinnacles National Monument near Monterey, Calif.

Nonetheless, Fesnock has watched climbers sneak onto cliffs that have been closed to protect raptors. In a few cases, she’s watched birds dive-bomb climbers, only to have the climbers deny having seen the birds. “It’s really hard, when you’re hanging on a rock, 30 feet in the air, to say that you’re aware of a bird flying over your head,” she says. “You’re focused on getting to that next piece of protection.”

Climbers elbow out more than big birds, says Doug Larson, a biologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. In the nooks and crannies along 400 miles of Canadian limestone cliffs, Larson says he’s found 1,000-year-old trees and tiny snails thought to be extinct. “Cliffs everywhere, including the arid West, support ancient and incredibly diverse communities of microscopic plants and organisms,” he says. But on cliffs frequented by climbers, that diversity drops. One of Larson’s recent studies found that climbing is detrimental to snails. Half of the 40 snail species identified in the study’s unclimbed areas were absent from soil samples taken from climbing routes.

Still, Larson says, few scientists are looking at crags. “What’s ironic is that cliffs and rock outcrops are some of the last remaining wilderness,” he says. “Yet there are few questions being asked.”

Teamwork pays off

While some land managers have been bullied into keeping climbing areas open against their best judgement, others have taken a stand, and, at the same time, worked to build trust with the climbing community. “There is a way to allow climbing and to protect the resources. You can have both,” says Amy Fesnock at Pinnacles. “It just requires climbers to be aware of the impact that they have.”

A few years ago, she says, climbers took issue with the Park Service’s claims that gym chalk was permanently defacing a popular crag called the Monolith. Climbers argued that the chalk persisted because the rock is overhung, so the rain wasn’t washing it off. Fesnock and her colleagues armed climbers with scrub brushes and fire hoses, and challenged them to prove their point.

“They could not get the chalk off,” says Fesnock. “It had actually fused to the rock. It has integrally changed that piece of volcanic history in our park. It’s chemically altered.”

It took a few wake-up calls like this, and good communication between climbers and the agency to turn the situation around at Pinnacles. Today, Fesnock says the monument’s climbing policies have solid support from the local climbing association, the Friends of Pinnacles.

The Access Fund, too, has turned its attention toward building better relations between climbers and land managers. Through what’s know as its Adopt-a-Crag program, the group helps local climbers and guides, land managers, outdoor shops and climbing gyms organize events to clean chalk and trash from climbing areas, build trails and document wildlife.

“It’s a way for climbers to give back to the land and provide some stewardship,” says Jason Keith. “We can play hardball — and we have in the past — with land-management agents, but we’d rather work with them.”

Yvon Chouinard finds hope in the group’s new direction: “I think they’re on their way to turning into a more conservation-minded organization.”

Radio NewTowncarShare News contributed to this report. Adam Burke’s full-length interview with wildlife biologist Amy Fesnock is available at

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