At the end of October I drove from Boulder to Red Rocks for a climbing trip, and to represent the American Alpine Club at the second National Climbing Management Summit, hosted by the Access Fund. About 60 land managers from the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest Service connected with advocacy organizations such as ours—the largest gathering to date for any climbing management conference. From sunny crags to casino conference rooms, we spent two days covering big topics: everything from fixed anchor regulation to the protection of sensitive species, and from cultural resource sensitivity to heavy use impacts, like human waste and social trails.
Photo Courtesy Amy Ansari
Of all the attendees, I might have spoken the least but soaked up the most. Never before had I worked on climbing management issues, nor had I met any of the players in this relatively small climbing management world. And to make things more foreign, the first day of this Summit was literally my first day on the job as the AAC’s Information and Marketing Director. So, at the time, I wasn’t sure what all the presentations and conversations might mean for the AAC, and for climbers like you across the U.S.
Now I know that the AAC team works diligently on policy issues both here in the U.S. and around the world. Because of the trust we have developed with the agencies, much of our work takes the form of one-on-one communications with key decision-makers. And because there is strength in alliances, we work closely with other national advocacy groups to make the strongest possible case for climbers.
By now I’ve had time to get acquainted with the AAC, and I’m glad I attended the Summit. Not only did I learn about major issues facing climbers and managers today, but I also began working friendships. (Our first evening, I found myself holding a 32-ounce draft at Cirque du Soleil with new friends from The Access Fund, American Mountain Guides Association, and the NPS.)
Here’s what we accomplished and learned:
- Consensus: the great majority of climbers work well with land managers. Most climbers are respectful and sensitive to closures and restrictions; it is the minority that can further jeopardize access. Education and manager-user rapport, especially peer-to-peer education, help avoid closures and complexity.
- Every park, forest or district has its own specific resources to balance, and climbing can play either a very small or very large role given its history, user activity, and the local and national advocacy engagement.
- Our greatest asset is communication. Attendees agreed unanimously that exposing major issues and sharing stories of success and failure were useful in gaining perspective and seeing what other agencies and organizations have been doing. Such sharing may lead to the development of new strategies that, when customized, could improve communication and relationships in their own park, forest or district.
- Where there are climbing rangers or other managers that have credibility with climbing community, their efforts are much more successful. The healthiest cooperation tends to exist when the manager has built understanding with climbers by reaching out to that community with questions, information and general transparency. Non-climbing managers also can work toward this through community engagement.
- Climber initiative can help preserve long-term access. Yosemite’s Wilderness Management and Climbing Program Manager Jesse McGahey provides an example: “In an area that doesn’t have much climbing, or a climbing ranger or manager, it’s in the interest of climbers to get one. At the Summit, Scott Justham and Jeff Starosta of the BLM Bishop Field office spoke about how there’s a lack of interest in climbing issues in their area. The Buttermilk boulders are getting hammered by social trails and overuse, for example, and no one is taking the lead to get something professionally done. Climbers may really want a trail crew—but if a ranger does not step up to take care of those impacts, it may take organization from within the community. If you don’t, and the agency or unit comes across these negative impacts, they might close the area. Be proactive: slowly reducing impacts saves access.”
Photo Courtesy Amy Ansari
- Red Rock National Conservation Area, where we spent a day for the Summit, has some of the most complex manager-climber relations. A Wilderness Plan is under development now and could have a profound impact on how all federal agencies deal with fixed anchors in designated Wilderness (such as Yosemite, Black Canyon and Rocky Mountain National Parks). It is imperative that climbers respect current regulations to maximize the chances of the best possible climber-friendly rules going forward.
- Plans like the two mentioned above are only useful if able to be implemented in the field. When drafting plans, agencies must consider not just resources and user groups, but also staff and long-term ability to monitor their regulations in the field.
- While it was a great feat for the Access Fund to convene an unprecedented number of land managers in Vegas, those attending are the ones already invested in climbing management issues. There are hundreds more who have other management priorities at stake, even if climbing may take place in their park or forest. These other managers were not involved in the Summit discussions. It is the AAC’s hope that communication will help climbers better understand how to work with managers so that conversations about climbing rise to the surface, and so climbers’ voices are heard.
- Land managers are still looking for direction, comparisons, and new trends inside and outside their agencies. The more they work not just with climbers, but with each other, the more complete their understanding of their own management challenges and how to solve them. A new website birthed from the Summit, climbingmanagement.org
, aims to help managers share information and work together, across agencies, even when not convened in person.
- And when it comes to the Summit’s greater purpose, Maura Longden, experienced climbing management specialist for the Park Service, may have summed it up best: “There’s not really an end product,” she said. “Figuring out what’s been effective, what hasn’t—that’s what’s most important. And I see that as a great strength of having these gatherings to get people together.”