Earlier this month, dozens of climbers convened on Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress on public lands issues. Dubbed "Climb the Hill," the event attracted people from around the country as well as a number of organizations and coalitions, including the American Alpine Club and the Access Fund, in an effort to both persuade and inspire lawmakers to get on the side of preserving the nation’s recreational resources.
Participants broke up into groups representing specific regions or states and pitched targeted messages to their respective representatives and senators. The climbers also met with land managers from the Park Service and other agencies. The event wrapped up with an evening reception in the Russell Senate Building which featured talks and presentations—delivered to a standing-room-only crowd—by Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Sasha DiGiulian, and several other professional climbers.
It was the third year running that climbers have gone to Washington, D.C. to speak up for the interests of outdoor enthusiasts. Maria Povec, policy director of the American Alpine Club (AAC), organized the first event in 2016, showing up on the Hill with the board of the AAC and a few notable climbers. They were well received, and the event has grown each year since. This year Povec thinks the stakes are higher than in years past.
“Right now we’re facing the worst threats to public lands that we’ve ever seen,” she says.
According to Povec, several western state legislatures are proposing significant transfers of federally-managed public lands to their respective states, which can then sell off or develop them without public input. In Congress, bills have recently been floated by Republicans that would sell or otherwise relinquish control over vast swaths of federal land throughout the West. She also cites recent bills aimed at accelerating energy development and logging on public lands, one of which passed the House last year.
“So there are a lot of things happening right now that our community needs to be at the table for and needs to be able to push back against,” she says.
Asked what gives climbers the clout to effectively counter big-money interests, Povec answers that climbers come to the table with charisma and an aspirational message that members of Congress find appealing.
Tommy Caldwell, who attended Climb the Hill for the third year in a row, recounts walking into the office of Senator Michael Bennet (Democrat, Colorado) and seeing the senator holding up a copy of Caldwell’s book.
“It was cool to show up as an athlete and have the senators wanting to make an impression,” says Caldwell. Even more engaged and enthusiastic were the staffers he encountered.
“A lot of times you meet the staffers in these offices and they are climbers,” he says. “They’re all in their twenties and thirties, you know, a lot of the younger population is climbing these days.”
Caldwell says that the opportunity for these Beltway-bound climbers to meet and talk shop with icons of the sport makes for memorable experiences—the kind of person-to-person connections and goodwill often needed to build support for a cause. “That’s sort of the secret ingredient—it’s more about the staffers, in a way.”
But it wasn’t all rubbing shoulders and telling stories. Nationwide, outdoor recreation creates 7.6 million jobs and accounts for $887 billion in consumer spending each year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Povec met with Representative Bruce Poliquin, a Republican serving Maine’s rural congressional district, which has suffered a long, slow decline of its logging and paper-mill industries. Povec and others convinced Poliquin to sign on to the House Outdoor Recreation Caucus.
“To walk into a member of Congress’ office who represents a rural district, who represents a place where there aren’t a lot of jobs or opportunities and to be able to say, ‘Look at this economy in your state that is only growing. Nurture this industry and your district or your state is going to be much better positioned.’ . . . That’s a really compelling argument for folks who really want what’s best for their state,” she says.
Since retiring from competitive climbing four years ago, Sasha DiGiulian has focused on climbing outdoors, refashioning herself to some extent as an alpine and adventure climber. As such, protecting public land has become an issue close to her heart.
Talking about her climbing trips to other countries, she says, “What I feel proud of, coming from the U.S., is our land and our spaces and our national parks. That is what makes our country so amazing.” She says this message lands with Washington lawmakers no less than it would with any American.
Asked what concrete accomplishments the climbers achieved this year, DiGiulian says that making change in Washington is more abstract and piecemeal.
“Of course it’s going to be hard to trace the exact impact that we had, but I think it’s super important that you show up. If you want anything to happen you have to be there fighting for it,” she says.
In fact, climbers and other recreation and conservation advocacy groups have successfully opposed some of the recent efforts to shrink or sell off federally-owned land. According to Povec, two bills aimed at doing just that have subsequently been withdrawn by their Republican sponsors after facing stiff pushback.
DiGiulian and Caldwell both stress the importance of climbers everywhere getting involved and building on the relationships Climb the Hill attendees have made in Congress. DiGiulian emphasizes how important and effective it is for members of Congress to hear from their constituents and notes that the AAC and Access Fund both have talking points on their websites for people who want to contact their representatives. Caldwell adds that it’s important to support organizations doing the day-to-day work of conservation and advocacy.
“Join your local advocacy group,” he says. “The reason Climb the Hill is happening right now is because there’s a membership base that can actually support something like that.”
Asked what interesting or humorous things happened in D.C. this year, DiGiulian thinks for a moment.
“Alex Honnold wore a suit,” she remembers. “He looked good.”