How Climbers Helped Save Portland's Madrone Wall From Quarrying

By Brooke Jackson ,

Brooke Jackson

Less than 20 miles southeast of Portland hides a treasure trove of rock amongst swaying madrone trees: the 1,000-foot-long, 80-foot-tall Madrone Wall, with 100-plus sport, trad, and mixed lines from 5.7 to 5.12 on 660,000-year-old igneous basalt. The Clackamas River bubbles below, while farmland and forest stretch to the horizon. It’s a perfect spot for a day trip or after-work cragging. However, the Madrone Wall was also closed for the past 20 years under the threat of development, including quarrying, a serious blow to a city full of avid climbers who have minimal high-quality rock nearby. Says Keith Dallenbach, a Portland native who returned to the area in 1997, “Climbing at Madrone Wall for the first time on a weekday after work [in 1997] confirmed why I moved back home.”

In 1937, Clackamas County purchased the 44 acres of farmland surrounding the Madrone Wall for $2,000 from Anna S. Robertson and opened access to the public. Climbing started in the 1970s, with mixed and crack routes. The late 1980s and early ‘90s saw the most classic lines established, with Wayne Wallace and Robert McGown’s stout 5.11d sport route Where the Wild Things Roam and Wallace’s Shining Wall—both done in 1989—and Tim Olson and McGown’s 1990 Red Sun Rising, a 5.10b trad line. Local climbers informally maintained the area, and all was going well until autumn 1997 when the county closed the wall. The county wished to pursue a permit for a hard-rock quarry, which would involve blowing up the cliff to make crushed aggregate.

Shortly thereafter, Dallenbach and other locals formed the Madrone Wall Preservation Committee (MWPC). Over the next 20 years, Dallenbach, current MWPC President Kellie Rice, and past MWPC President Ian Caldwell fought the county’s decision. The team handed out flyers around Portland and nearby Damascus to alert citizens of the quarry plans, fundraised for research studies, and filed a Freedom of Information Act for public documents about the county commissioners’ plans. Further, when a commissioner appraised the property at $10 million, the MWPC raised funds to bring in an outside appraiser, who valued the property at a few hundred thousand. Next, the MWPC partnered with Clackamas County to fund a joint study of the quarry’s economic value. Bob Whelan, an economic geologist from the consulting firm ECONorthwest, discovered that a hard-rock quarry was not economically feasible due to the site’s small size (<44 acres), of which only half was suitable for quarrying. The county accepted this study and dropped their plans, but began to consider selling the property either for a private quarry, housing, or logging—despite the MWPC’s ongoing objections. Finally, in 2006–‘07, the county acquiesced and the site was evaluated as a park.

Brooke Jackson

The county created a checklist of nearly three dozen prerequisites for reopening the Madrone Wall, including installation of parking, access roads, and public restrooms. Finding the funding for these improvements, which cost over $100,000, was a challenge. The Mazamas, Access Fund, American Alpine Club, REI, and Patagonia added to Clackamas County Parks’ funds, with the Access Fund and Mazamas helping with call-to-action emails that brought in over 500 pro-climbing, pro-public-park communications. Additionally, two private donors and Clackamas County Tourism and Cultural Affairs established large capital-matching grants. Other local businesses and organizations as well as Oregon politicians like U.S. senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, provided support.

The MWPC then partnered with the Oregon Army National Guard for a vital piece of the development. Each summer as a training exercise, the guard assists with pro bono public projects for two weeks. In August 2016, with capital funding established, the Guard created the quarter-mile aggregate access road and parking for 20 vehicles. “Working with the Oregon Army National Guard was one of the most enjoyable aspects in two decades of advocacy,” says Dallenbach. “They were so gung ho.” That November, the MWPC, the Mazamas, Trailkeepers of Oregon, Portland Mountain Rescue, and 120 volunteers spent 6 days and 750 hours to build 500 yards of new trails and install 270 rock steps.

On October 21, 2017, Madrone Wall Park opened its gates. Dallenbach and his family were among the first to hike the newly established trails. With public access granted once again, climbers can now appreciate a short approach to quality rock and classic lines while hanging in the shade of swaying madrone trees. Meanwhile, the climbing community remains invested in the area. The Portland local Micah Klesick received funding from the American Safe Climbing Association and replaced nearly 300 bolts, anchors, and rap rings. Klesick also developed Madrone & Carver Cliffs, an updated guidebook on the Rakkup app. Additional local climbers like Nate Ball and Alex Sklar continue to work on rebolting, while the MWPC will soon become the Friends of Madrone Wall Park, which will work for park advocacy and stewardship.

Dallenbach says this success story was thanks to “not one person, but many.” With metro areas expanding worldwide, it’s more important than ever to preserve local crags and green spaces like Madrone. As the MWPC promoted on its site, “In the last 20 years, the Metro region (of Portland) has lost an average of over 2300 acres of open space each year … It was imperative that this site be protected from rapid future development and preserved for future generations.” 

Access Wins and Red Flags

The Access Fund (AF) has been lobbying for access since 1991. We’ve teamed up with them to present key victories and threats. Visit accessfund.org for more.

Big Wins

  • Private landowners, county officials, states, and nonprofits are seeing the economic and health benefits of climbing and are actively seeking to open their properties to the public. Examples include The Rock Domain in RRG, Mad River Gorge in Ohio, and Old Wauhatchie Boulders in Chattanooga. Studies have shown the benefits to local economies.
  • AF and Climbing Resource Group of Vermont (CRAG-VT) partnered to buy Bolton Dome, a schist area featuring high-quality crack and sport climbs. The crag is slated to open this fall.

Red Flags

  • The Trump Administration released troubling new policies for BLM lands, home to ~12 percent of US climbing. The policies fast-track energy development and make environmental reviews and stakeholder input optional. The most immediate threat is to Bears Ears (Indian Creek, Harts Draw, Valley of the Gods, Texas/Arch Canyon), much of which is no longer protected by the National Monument status (pending AF’s lawsuit).
  • Budget cuts may loom for the federal funding program the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF has been used to protect many areas—e.g., Sam’s Throne and Index.

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