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Over the last 32 years, the Access Fund has helped local climbing groups make 90 successful land acquisitions across the country, protecting tens of thousands of acres of threatened climbing destinations, including sections of the Red River Gorge, KY; Rumney, NH; Shelf Road, CO; Castleton Tower, UT; Index, WA; Donner Summit, CA; and many, many more. If you are a North American climber, it is likely that you have climbed on land that has been purchased and protected by the Access Fund.
“From the very beginning, Access Fund knew that a part of the work was going to be focused on buying climbing areas on private land,” said Chris Winter, executive director of the Access Fund. “It’s always been a big part of what we’ve done and what climbers have done as a community.”
Much of the rock climbing in the United States is located on private land. For access to remain open to recreationists, a positive relationship and rapport between climbers and land managers is critical. While this cohesion certainly exists all across the country, there are often incentives for landowners to close access to climbers or sell their property to non-climbing-friendly entities. Sometimes this is the result of a generational shift: the landowner passes away and their family no longer wants the responsibility of the land. And sometimes it’s the result of unwanted liability: rock climbing is dangerous, and some landowners fear being sued over accidents that occur on their property.
This second scenario recently played out at a small crag called Medicine Wall, outside San Antonio, TX. Following an accident in 2015, the landowner put a firm stop to the climbing; they stripped all bolts from the 50 routes there and began to strictly enforce the no-trespassing laws. With scant other outdoor climbing opportunities in this urban area, the loss of Medicine Wall was a severe blow to the local community. It sat totally dormant for years, until the Texas Climbers Coalition was able to purchase the property along with the help of the Access Fund. The bolts have since been replaced, the climbing restored, and the land open to the public for outdoor recreation.
“When a piece of property that folks have climbed on goes up for sale, that is a high risk moment for climbers,” Winter said. “That property can quickly get bought up by developers or land managers who are not climbing-friendly.”
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When a parcel of land gets put on the market and the future of the climbing there is in question, it is often the case that the local climbing association does not have the tools or monetary resources to act fast and purchase that land. This is where the Access Fund steps in. For three decades the Access Fund has been brokering these deals, either purchasing the land outright or loaning the money to climbing organizations to buy their beloved crags at low interest rates. These areas are then put into the hands of the local climbing community.
“We don’t like to actually be the landowner,” Winter said. “If we owned 30 different crags across the country that’d be like owning 30 houses—it would be really hard to take care of all those places effectively. We like to pass them off to the local climbing organization. You all should own these crags, you know best, it’s in your backyard.”
Back in the 2000s, the Access Fund started a revolving loan fund. They preemptively raised over a million dollars to have on standby as a loan to climbing organizations in the event that a climbing destination goes up for sale and a rapid critical response is necessary. As that money is paid back, it is returned to the revolving loan fund and is ready to assist the next threatened crag.
The revolving loan fund was first utilized to purchase and protect the Lower Town Wall in Index, WA, in 2009. The landowners wanted to turn Lower Town Wall into a quarry for monetary gain—they essentially planning to dynamite one of the premier granite crags in America—and a rapid response was necessary
“That would have been an unbelievable loss,” said Winter. “To think that City Park and Godzilla and some of those classic routes could have just been obliterated, blown up and turned into roadbed or something like that is just unbelievable.”
Backed by the revolving loan fund and the know-how of the Access Fund, the Washington Climbers Coalition was able to purchase Lower Town Wall, thereby saving a cherished crag from becoming a gravel pit.
According to Winter, buying private land and giving it back to the community is the most effective way to protect climbing access in America. However, protection on private land is not always guaranteed, as we have seen play out in Unaweep Canyon, CO over the last few months.
Unaweep is a long, sweeping canyon on Colorado’s Western Slope that is home to thousands of sandstone boulders and granite cliffs. Access Fund purchased parcels of land in Unaweep in 1991—one of their very first land acquisitions—and transferred it to the Western Colorado Climbers Coalition. While the land is under ownership of the WCCC, the Access Fund still holds conservation easements over those parcels: legal agreements that permanently limit the uses of the land in order to protect conservation values.
“We like to hold onto conservation easements as an added layer of protection over that property,” Winter said.
For 30 years climbers and other recreationists have been happily enjoying the huge granite cliffs and sprawling vistas of Unaweep—undisturbed—until this summer when Xcel Energy released plans for a massive development through the heart of the canyon. Their plans included building energy infrastructure on private property.
“We looked at those maps and thought, ‘Huh, that’s kinda close to the climbing,’” Winter said. “We laid down those plans that we saw over maps of our conservation easements and saw that their plans were going right through the property where we hold easements that say there shall be no utilities there. That is to be conserved for scenic values and recreation.”
But how can an energy company circumvent a conservation easement held on private land that has stood for 30 years?
Through the power of eminent domain, the government can condemn and expropriate private land for public use, essentially forcing the landowner to sell out. The federal government has a history of using this power to allow publicly traded energy companies to build infrastructure on private land; the Keystone Pipeline and Dakota Access pipeline are two examples of this.
This was Xcel’s intention in Unaweep.
Fortunately, on November 2, Xcel withdrew its plans for development in Unaweep. Their exact reasons for stepping down are uncertain, but it is possible that it was due to pushback from the climbing community, recreation advocates, local businesses, and local government, who hold a vision for the future of Unaweep that differs from Xcel’s. It is possible that Xcel reconfigures their plans and returns down the road, but for now Unaweep is safe from development.
“The work to protect and save the land is almost never done,” Winter said. “There is always something else and you never know what it’s going to be. We have to remain vigilant, everything is always in the process of being saved. It is hard to permanently protect places. Certainly acquisition and buying land is one of the most durable tools we have, but even then we still have to be vigilant to protect and defend the land.”