Not Just Dirtbags: The Economic Impact of Climbers in the Red River Gorge, Explained

New research is helping to change the perception of climbers and grow economic opportunities near Eastern Kentucky's Red River Gorge.
By Ula Chrobak ,

Photo: Elodie Sarraco, Courtesy Access Fund

In April 2016, sociologist James Maples, of Eastern Kentucky University, presented his preliminary findings on climber spending in the Red River Gorge to a room full of leaders in Lee County’s tourism businesses, county executives, and climbers. Midway through his lecture, Maples realized that the business owners and officials might not have any experience with climbers. He asked: “How many of you have met a climber?”

None had. So Maples asked the climbers in the room to stand up and introduce themselves. Rick Bost, engineer. Paul Vidal, computer programmer. Kate Vidal, manufacturing purchaser. Brian Clark, professor. The officials were surprised that climbers had showed up, and by their professional-level careers. After the meeting, climbers and community members stayed and talked for over an hour.

Maples’ study of spending in the Red, published this spring in Journal of Appalachian Studies, highlighted the surprising contribution of climbers—3.8 million dollars annually. Not only do climbers bring in much-needed money to the area, the study revealed they prefer to spend it on local businesses. Maples’ research might help change negative perceptions of climbers, and improve access in the area.

The six eastern Kentucky counties of the Red—Estill, Lee, Menifee, Owsley, Powell and Wolfe—are some of the poorest in the nation, related to a steady decline in coal and manufacturing jobs over the past three decades. In recent years, the state has encouraged the tourism industry to fill this gap, and Maples was curious how climbers contribute. “Climbing is a beautiful form of tourism,” he says. “It doesn't require building tons of new roads, doesn't require creating any kind of infrastructure as long as you've got access to the crags.”

But residents in the area largely thought climbers spent little and that they weren’t part of the community—that they were “dirtbags,” Maples observed in his study. One local resident told Maples that climbers “don’t do anything but party all the time.”

So Maples set out to see who these climbers were and how much they spent. In 2015, he surveyed 727 climbers in the Red. The climbers described how often they visited and estimated how much they spent on various categories while in the area, like lodging, food, gas, and gear. They also rated, on a scale of 1 to 10, what types of development they would like to see.

In total, climbers spent $3.8 million, with the most money going to gas and food from restaurants.

This money moves through the economy. After a climber buys a pizza, for example, the restaurant uses the money to restock its shelves and pay employees. Then, in what’s called induced effects, the restaurant employees spend some of their earnings in the community. In this way, the initial purchase, especially when spent locally, leads to more spending in the area.

The climbers also created about 41 full-time jobs and contributed over $200 thousand to both state and federal taxes.

Coal mining still generates a total of about $936 million in the area, and employs 1,231 people per 2014 numbers by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“[The money] may not seem like a ton in a place like Chicago, but that’s a lot of bank here,” said Maples. Access Fund Southeast Regional Director Zachary Lesch-Huie agrees: In rural towns in the southeastern US, where jobs in industries like coal and timber have declined, climbing represents an important source of income.

Climbing contributes far more than officials expected. Seth Wheat, the state’s director of tourism development, said that, especially in western Kentucky, people were “really surprised by the numbers that rock climbers did raise.”

The news of climbers’ spending was the “talk of the neighborhood,” says David Terrill, who grew up in the area and owns the campground Land of the Arches, where the vast majority of visitors are climbers. “When the local people heard [how much climbers spend], it kind of opened their eyes—a lot of them didn’t have a clue.”

“It’s a dependable income, I can pretty much tell how many [climbers] are going to show up at any given period,” says Terrill. He also hosts the festival Rocktoberfest, and expects some 1,000 climbers to come for the festival and about 200 to stay at Land of the Arches.

Wheat adds that the survey showed that climbers’ interests align with the community’s. When asked what type of development they’d like to see, climbers rated local restaurants the highest. Live music, festivals, and natural grocery stores were also favorable. Liquor stores were in the middle of the scale, while chain grocers and restaurants had low support.

“We try to encourage authentic development,” says Wheat. “I’m not necessarily interested in going and having a bunch of strip malls and fast food chain restaurants. I don’t think a lot of the towns I work in are interested in that either.”

Since Maples released his results in 2016, he’s heard from realtors and business owners, asking how to attract more climbers. Maples’ study “contains information that’s helpful to local businesses to market themselves better to climbers,” says Access Fund’s Lesch-Huie.

Moving forward, there needs to be more ways to spend money in the area, says Maples, noting that there are few locally-owned grocers and restaurants—the famed Miguel’s Pizza is one these sparse spending opportunities. In comparison, climbers in the Linville Gorge in North Carolina spend more money because they are near tourism-oriented cities like Asheville. “It’s like the difference between trying to spend money in the middle of the desert and spending money in Vegas,” says Maples.

But to bring in more money, there also needs to be more climbers and more crags, says Maples. To open more areas, he cautions, climbers need to show that they can be good land stewards. He’s now studying climbers’ awareness of Leave No Trace principles. If the studies show that climbers are good stewards, it might help gain access to currently off-limits areas.

Wheat, who works with many outdoor recreation groups including mountain bikers and horseback riders, says “climbers are one of the better organized and capable of user groups … the Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition has always been an organization that was able to get things done on their own.”

“I've always had a lot of respect for them and always valued their impact,” says Wheat. “Now [using Maples’ study], it’s easier for me to make that case to other people.”

Maples plans to do more economic impact and stewardship surveys of climbers throughout the southeast, and might eventually study national destinations elsewhere.

Wheat supports this, and says the Red River Gorge study can serve as a “baseline” for future assessments. “We can do [the study] again and see whether or not we really have made strides,” Wheat says. “And I think we will see that we will have.”

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