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“It’s Just a Small Turd…” Why Climber Stewards Are Coming to Crags Near You

The Access Fund is hiring seasonal stewards to help minimize climbing’s environmental and cultural impacts in Indian Creek. It’s a model that will soon go national. 

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An unfortunate truth? As climbing’s popularity increases, so does its environmental impact.

To help minimize this impact, and to get out in front of the access issues it can create, the Access Fund is piloting a Climber Steward program in Indian Creek. The stewards will serve as information resources for visiting climbers and help spread awareness about how to minimize their impact during their stay.

40% of Indian Creek climbers visit once a year or less. 20% are first time visitors. Photo: Aaron Black/Getty Images

Wait! I thought access to Indian Creek was good!

Defined broadly, access to Indian Creek is great, says Ty Tyler, Stewardship Director at the Access Fund. Climbers have long-standing relationships with the Bureau of Land Management and the Nature Conservancy (which manages Dugout Ranch) and it’s very unlikely that we will straight up lose access to Scarface anytime soon. But not all forms of access are created equal. Down the line it’s not inconceivable that you’d have to pay an entrance fee or get a camping permit or make a reservation to climb.

That’s the scenario the Access Fund is trying to avoid, says Tyler. “The basic fact of access probably isn’t going to change. But what that access looks and feels like could. And this could radically change the experience people have at Indian Creek.”

Currently, a big part of Indian Creek’s allure is its rugged character. It’s a remote crag, relatively uncrowded compared to places like Yosemite or Rocky Mountain National Park, and many climbers go to there to feel unmanaged and away from it all. They don’t want their experience shaped by permits and bureaucratic rules.

“It’s pretty simple,” Tyler says. “The less impact climbers have now, the less management they may see tomorrow. We’re implementing the Climber Steward program in order to teach climbers how to minimize their impact, and gain a greater appreciation for the place, hopefully leading to a diminished chance of heavier future management.”

Scarface, 5.11a Photo: Canvan Images/Getty Images

How do the stewards fit in?

Perhaps the single biggest problem when it comes to managing climbing’s environmental and social impacts is something Tyler calls “the mentorship gap.” 

“There are something approximately seven million active climbers in the United States right now, and not all of them have had access to education about good crag etiquette and limiting environmental impacts.”

Providing this education is especially challenging at destination crags like Indian Creek, where the number of visitors unfamiliar with crag-specific best practices far outnumber the locals who have that information.

“That’s not to say that climbers aren’t educating themselves,” Tyler says. “Most of us have a general concept of what we should and shouldn’t do at climbing areas. But things get complicated when particular environments require us to learn new behaviors and best practices that may not be the same as our home areas. It’s difficult to find out what those may be.”

In desert climbing areas like Indian Creek, for instance, there are unique concerns that climbers from other environments aren’t necessarily trained to look out for. Most climbers know not to tamper with petroglyphs, but our intuitive respect for nature doesn’t necessarily clue us in to the fragility of the desert’s cryptobiotic soils, which are slow-growing and easily destroyed by feet or cars or crashpads.

A good place to pitch a tent? Think again. That is a cryptobiotic soil crust. Photo: John Elk/Getty Images

Nor does every visitor intuitively understand that, you can’t just bury your waste and forget about—not if you care about your impact—because the dry desert soil lacks the bacteria required to break down feces. When you bury it, it just shrivels up and sits there… and sits there… and sits there. 

No one wants that, Ty says. “Which is why it’s important that visitors to Indian Creek learn that there are specific best practices here. The Climber Stewards will spearhead those education efforts. They’ll be on the ground connecting with climbers and dispensing information about how to minimize our footprint and about current conditions in that specific place at that specific time. If there are raptor closures, they’ll know and share that information. If it’s been raining for the last few days, softening the rock, they’ll know and share about that.”

A petroglyph at nearby Newspaper Rock. Photo: pedrosala/Getty Images

Increased popularity means more individual responsibility

As climbing’s popularity grows, experienced climbers—climber’s who’ve been doing what they do for years or decades—need to continually upgrade their impact mitigation strategies, which may mean becoming more rigorous than they have needed to be in the past.

It’s a hard ask. But practices that are not obviously detrimental when conducted by only a few climbers can prove unsustainable when conducted by many. Like what? Like pulling up just past the edge of the parking lot so your friends can squeeze their cars in next to yours. Like burying your waste instead of packing it out. Like walking around off trail.

None of these things are categorically bad or wrong. But in fragile places like Indian Creek, we need to rethink the way we rationalize our decisions. Instead of thinking, “It’s just a small turd, and I’ll bury it,” we should ask ourselves what the place would look and feel like if tens of thousands of other people made the same decision using the same rationale. 

One cat hole a day, not really a problem. But a thousand cat holes a day?

It started in California—now it’s coming to crags near you

Climber Stewards are not a new phenomenon. The system was pioneered by enterprising local climbers in Yosemite and Joshua Tree, where the sheer number of visitors made it difficult for land managers and rangers to connect with climbers in an educational capacity.

“We can’t credit Yosemite and J-tree enough for their leadership in first envisioning and then designing the Climber Steward programs ,” Tyler says. “What the Access Fund is doing is taking their great idea—an idea that has proven remarkably successful—and applying it to other climbing areas where education is needed.”

Crowds in Yosemite National Park distract land managers from climber-specific education efforts. Photo: jjwithers/Getty Images

The stewards at Indian Creek are a pilot program that the Access Fund eventually hopes to deploy across the country.

“The Access Fund has about 130 local climbing organization partners—local advocacy organizations like the Salt Lake Climber’s Alliance, the Friends of Indian Creek—and they all need support to educate visiting climbers,” Tyler says. “And meanwhile land managers are struggling with the same thing. They’re seeing climbing’s popularity skyrocket, and they’re wondering how to address the education needs for these visitors. The stewards are part of our answer.”

What will the stewards actually do?

The stewards will be paid seasonal employees, serving ten-week terms, and the core of their job will be educational—to serve as founts of wisdom for visiting climbers. By circulating through the crags and campgrounds, serving coffee and trading belays, they’ll work to educate climbers about Indian Creek’s unique environmental conditions and cultural history while simultaneously providing information about how to minimize impact.

Stewards will also work closely with the Bureau of Land Management, providing information to the land managers about climber activities, which can help the BLM manage the land more effectively. Stewards will also work in support of biologists, archeologists, and botanists, as needed.

Sound like a sweet gig to you? You can find more information on the job application here. 

Applications for the Fall 2021 Season are due on September 15th.

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Steve Potter is a digital editor at Climbing Magazine. He began climbing in Rumney, New Hampshire, in 2004, and has since then mangled most of his fingers. Steve holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, and splits time between New Mexico and Western Massachusetts.