February 20, 2014

Remembering Mark Hesse

Mark-Hesse-PresentationThis week we have been reflecting on our friend Mark Hesse, longtime climber, conservationist, volunteer, and wilderness educator, who died from unknown causes in a climbing gym in Boulder last month. And we wanted to take a moment to honor him.

Mark dedicated his life to outdoor education and land stewardship. If you’ve ever walked up a trail or a set of stone steps at a climbing area in Utah or Colorado, chances are you have witnessed Mark’s legacy firsthand. Mark had been working on a climbing area stewardship manual for the Access Fund and was actively involved in launching a Front Range trail crew with the Boulder Climbing Community at the time of his passing.

After a long and successful career with Outward Bound, Mark created the American Mountain Foundation and ran it from 1989 to 1998. That organization morphed into the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, which he ran until 2009. Both nonprofits were leaders in the stewardship of climbing areas, building extensive trail networks in Indian Creek and Castle Valley, Utah; Shelf Road, Colorado; and on Colorado 14ers and other high peaks. In 2012, Mark founded Wildscapes Planning and Design, a company focused on trail building and restoration. Mark was the recipient of many awards, including the American Alpine Club’s David Brower Conservation Award in 1995. In 2005 and 2007, he received the Bob Marshall Award for Individual Champion of Wilderness Stewardship presented by the US Forest Service. He climbed and traveled all over the world and made many first ascents on several continents. In 1976, Mark made the first ascent of the southeast face of Mt. Asgard on Baffin Island. In 1982, he soloed the south face of Denali via the Scott-Haston Route. In 1986, he did the alpinestyle first ascent of the northeast buttress of Kangtega (22,241 feet) in Nepal. As recently as 2006, Mark completed a new route on a 20,000-foot peak in Peru.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Mark was still an active climber and trail builder. Even after decades of rugged trail labor, he still had a youthful enthusiasm for the work, and was somewhat notorious for quickly picking all the choice rocks at a worksite for himself. He was incredibly generous with his time and expertise, and truly devoted himself to making the places he loved better for everyone to enjoy.

Mark was a devoted husband and father and is survived by his wife and two grown daughters. All of us here at the Access Fund feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Mark. He will be dearly missed.

~ Steve Matous Executive Director, Outward Bound USA & Former Executive Director, Access Fund
~ Brady Robinson Executive Director, Access Fund

January 16, 2014

Introducing the 2014 New Conservation Team Crew

The Access Fund is thrilled to introduce our new Conservation Team crew for the 2013 tour—Mike Morin and Amanda Peterson.

Mike and Amanda
Mike and Amanda are a husband/wife team who share a passion for stewardship and climbing. A native of Maine, Mike brings experience in trail building and design as well as working with climbers and land managers to build partnerships and complete stewardship projects that protect the environment and improve access to local crags. Amanda is a Coloradan whose love for education and the outdoors led her to work in environmental education. When she’s not working she can be found at local crags, climbing and honing her photography skills. Amanda frequently volunteers her time to build trail at her local climbing areas and enjoys working with youth as a volunteer climbing educator.

Mike and Amanda are excited to hit the road as the 2014 Conservation Team, with stops throughout the lower 48. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to share our passion for stewardship and lend a hand at a lot of different locations across the US,” says Mike.  Amanda adds, “One of the best ways to protect access is to be a good steward of the environment.” They are also psyched to sample the climbing in the areas that they will be visiting and have added a few more volumes to their guidebook collection in preparation for their travels. Along their route, Mike and Amanda will be stopping at climbing gyms to meet local climbers, host education trainings, and pass along information about protecting the environment and our climbing areas!

Mike and Amanda will be headed to the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City later this month to share the Conservation Team story with the outdoor industry. They will then return to Boulder for some training before hitting the road at the beginning of February. Their first official conservation stop on the tour will be Moe’s Valley, Utah, where they’ll work with local volunteers to improve three different landing zones around popular boulders. From there they will make a stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico for a gym visit before heading to Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma to continue the work that Eddie and Claire started on last year’s Conservation Team tour.

Please show Mike and Amanda some love if you see their new Jeep Cherokee roll into town to improve your local climbing area!

December 18, 2013

Top 10 Climbing Access Victories of 2013

As the New Year approaches, we invite you to look back with us on some important climbing access victories from 2013. This work, and much more, was made possible by thousands of members, volunteers, and climbing advocates across the country. Thank you for your amazing support throughout the year!

  1. Access preserved at 163 climbing areas across the country, working in partnership with local climbing organizations, volunteers, activists, and land managers. *See below for a full list.
  2. Conservation Team stewards 28 climbing areas, across 22 states, engaging 786 volunteers on their 10 month tour to sustain our nation’s climbing areas. The team also built 13,200 feet of new trail, closed 3,000 feet of social trails, built 20 stone staircases, installed 45 drainage ditches, cleaned 5 cliffs of graffiti, built 16 retaining walls, and cleared 9 areas of trash.
  3. Miller Fork climbing area purchased in partnership with Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition, protecting 309 acres and creating a brand new climbing destination in the Red.
  4. 1 million dollars in grant funding has been put back into local climbing communities through the Climbing Preservation Grants Program since 1991.
  5. NPS legitimizes wilderness climbing with the release of Director’s Order #41, which clarifies the agency’s policy for the management of Wilderness climbing, including the placement, removal, and replacement of fixed anchors. This has been a 20 year effort by Access Fund.
  6. 9 climbing areas opened across the country, including Summit Rock in California; Gold Butte in Colorado, Sandstone in Minnesota, Miller Fork in Kentucky, Jamestown in Arkansas, Signal Mountain in Tennessee; and Torne Valley, Thacher State Park, and Dicke Barre in New York.
  7. 170 hours furthering climber interests in Washington, DC through the Access Fund Climbing Policy & Advocacy program, which works to protect climbing access on our nation’s public lands by educating law makers and keeping climbers’ interests front and center.
  8. First-ever Educate for Access summit brought climbers, educators, gym owners, and athletes together to form strategy around reaching young climbers and helping them become the next generation of climbing area stewards.
  9. Oak Flat legislation defeated again—the 13th defeat of the land exchange that would trade away the popular Oak Flat, AZ climbing area to a mining company, destroying it.
  10. 7 new Local Climbing Organizations formed in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Missouri, and Ohio that will work to keep local climbing areas open and protected.

These victories, and many more, were made possible because of YOUR support.

Please consider making a special, tax deductible, end-of-year donation to the Access Fund. Your contribution will help us continue to expand the work of the Access Fund and protect America’s climbing into 2014 and beyond.

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Did you know that Access Fund recently received a 4-star rating from Charity Navigator? Learn more.

*Acadia National Park, ME; Alapocas Run State Park, DE; Allenspur, MT; Arrow Canyon, NV; Asheboro Boulders, NC; Auburn Quarry, CA; Beacon Rock, WA; Big Rock, CA; Big South Fork, TN/KY; Bishop/Buttermilks, CA; Black Rock, HI; Black Wall, CA; Blue Ridge Parkway, NC; Blue Rock, WV; Boulder Canyon, CO; Bubba City, WV; Callahan, OR; Capitol Reef, UT; Castle Crags, CA; Castle Rock, WA; Castle Rocks BLM, ID; Cedar Mountain, WY; Chapel Ledges, MA; Childbirth, CO; Chimney Rock State Park, NC; Chippewa Creek, OH; Christmas Tree Pass, NV; Clear Creek, CO; Clifton Crags, ME; Coll's Cove, PA; Contender Wall, CO; Curt Gowdy State Park, WY; Cuyahoga National Park, OH; Daniel Boone National Forest, KY; Deep Creek, TN; Denny Cove, TN; Dicke Barre, NY; Dierkes, ID; Dominguez-Escalante, CO; Echo Cliffs, CA; Eldorado State Park, CO; Emigrant Lake, OR; Enchanted Rock, TX; Equinox, WA; Farley Ledge, MA; Flagstaff, AZ; Foster Falls, TN; Garth Rocks, UT; Gold Butte, CO; Goldbar, WA; Golden Cliffs, CO; Governor Stables, PA; Grand Teton National Park, WY; Granite Dells, AZ; Grayson Highlands State Park, VA; Gunks, NY; Handley Rock, CA; Hawksbill, NC; Haycock Mt, PA; High Point, TN; Holy Boulders, IL; Homestead, AZ; Horseshoe Canyon, AR; Horsetooth, CO; Hospital Boulders, AL; Hueco, TX; Ice Cream Parlor, UT; Icicle Creek, WA; Ilchester, MD; Index, WA; Indian Creek, UT; Inyo National Forest, CA; Jailhouse, CA; Jamestown, AR; Joe's Valley, UT; Johnny & Alex, Red River Gorge, KY; Joshua Tree National Park, CA; Kootenai Canyon, MT; Lake Tahoe, NV/CA; Leda, TN; Little Presque Isle, MI; Lory State Park, CO; Lovers Leap, CA; Manchester Wall, VA; Meadow River, WV; Menagerie, OR; Miller Fork, KY; Mississippi Palisades, MS; Moe's Valley, UT; Mt Baker Snoqualmie, WA; Mt Rushmore, SD; Mt. Charleston, NV; Mt. Lemmon/Cochise, AZ; Muir Valley, KY; Needles, CA; North Cascades National Park, WA; North Fork Valley, WV; North Table Mountain, CO; Northern Idaho crag, ID; Oak Flat, AZ; Obed, TN; Olympics, WA; Ouray Ice Park, NV; Painted Bluff, AL; Palisades Park, AL; Palisades, SD; Pere Marquette, IL; Pictured Rocks, IA; Pinnacles National Park, CA; Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest, NC; Pocatello, ID; Pool Wall, CO; Poudre Canyon, CO; Quartz Mt, OK; Ragged Mountain, CT; Red River Gorge Crag, KY; Red Rocks, NV; Rock Woods, MO; Rumbling Bald, NC; Rumney, NH; Ruth Lake, UT; San Juan Mountains, CO; Sand Rock, AL; Sandstone, MN; Seismic Wall, TX; Sequioa National Forest, CA; Sequioa National Park, CA; Shenandoah National Park, VA; Sierra National Forest, CA; Signal Mountain, TN; Sinks Canyon State Park, WY; Skeletal Remains, SD; Skylight Ouray, CO; Society Turn, CO; Sourlands, NJ; South Platte, CO; Steele, AL; Stone Fort/Little Rock City, TN; Summit Rock, CA; Sunset/Chickmauga National Historic Park, TN; Swan Falls, ID; Taylor Falls, MN; Tensleep, WY; Thacher State Park, NY; The Little Crag, CO; Thunder Ridge, CO; Torn Valley, NY; Unaweep Canyon, CO; Vantage, WA; West Rock, CT; Wet Mountain, CO; Whippoorwill, NRG, WV; Whipps Ledges, OH; Whistler Canyon, WA; White Rocks, VA; Whitsides, NC; Wichita Wildlife Refuge, OK; Williamson River Cliffs, OR; Yosemite National Park, CA; Zion National Park, UT; and two climbing areas that must remain confidential at this time.


December 11, 2013

Educate for Access

It’s probably safe to assume that at one point or another you’ve arrived at a climbing area and found music blaring, bits of tape on the ground, tick marks, social trails all over the place, or a group of 15 climbers taking up an entire area with their gear thrown about. More and more, we’ve been hearing the same sentiments: “What’s going on at our climbing areas?” and “What does the Access Fund plan to do about climber education?”


Climber education is a broad topic--covering safety, route development, stewardship, and etiquette. Education, especially stewardship and etiquette, has always been a core part of our mission--we’ve been producing and distributing materials for over 20 years. However, with the needs of the climbing community growing, we knew it was time for us to step up. We took a huge step forward at our 2-day Educate for Access summit this past November in the Gunks. The summit clearly brought to light that climber education needs focused, relevant, regionally specific and nationally recognized leadership.


Ed summit 1

We had 46 influencers from across the nation join the conversation, including climbing gym owners, land managers, professional guides, leaders from local climbing organizations, education professionals, and even a few pro-climbers. Gathered together under the same roof, we shared presentations on the current conditions at our climbing areas, who the current climbing population really is, where they are coming from, what it actually means to modify someone’s behavior, and the types of education techniques currently in use.


Ed summit 4


With 12 informative presentations, over two days, it’s easy to see some commonalities and strong themes repeat themselves. With the ever-growing industry and popularity of indoor climbing, gyms are an ideal space to reach more climbers; climbing gyms are the common link almost all climbers share. The Access Fund sees indoor facilities as a great starting point for education, and we will work to strengthen relationships between climbing gyms, local climbing organizations, and land managers, as well as develop specific messages for transitioning climbers.


Ed summit 2


The explosion in climbing facilities is a crucial link in the education chain, as young and impressionable climbers will play a crucial role in keeping our climbing areas open and preserving the climbing environment in the future. Climbers, spanning the ages of 11-25, possess the greatest potential for positive change. Not only do these climbers crave social acceptance, but they also crave leadership and structured messages. If they begin to hear about the “right” behaviors now, they’ll want to carry them into the future. Dialogue throughout the summit highlighted the simple fact that younger climbers want to do the right thing, they just haven’t been told or experienced what that is.


The Educate for Access summit was only the first step in addressing new educational needs that can improve stewardship and protection of our climbing areas. The summit gave us a much better understanding of the challenges and opportunities, and connected us to a greater community of partners who are facing the same challenges and are passionate about finding solutions. In the coming months, we’ll be rolling out new tactics to grow and strengthen our education programs.

Take a look at this article from our friends at Rock and Ice for more information on the changing demographics of climbers in the US.

Ed summit 3

November 18, 2013

Conservation Team Helps Pinnacles Climbers at Inaugural Appreciation Days

When we’re packing up to leave a project, folks always ask where we’re headed next. Pinnacles National Park didn’t register with most folks, although a few would smile knowingly and say, “Ahhh, The Pinns”.We were excited to hit the road and discover the central California gem that earns almost as much pride from veteran climbers as the neighboring granite domes of Yosemite.

When we arrived at The Pinns, Larry Arthur of Mountain Tools—the mastermind behind Pinnacles’ inaugural Climber Appreciation Days—oriented us with the Park. As his stories flowed, we came to understand the Park’s place in history—and in climber’s hearts.


Pinnacles National Park (previously a Monument) boasts a climbing history longer than our combined ages. In 1933, the first prominent pinnacles were summited at Condor Crags, beginning a trend of ascents that starred climbing legends like Roper, Bridwell, Bates, and others. A mild winter climate and proximity to bigger climbing destinations makes Pinnacles the perfect place for ambitious climbers to hone skills and train for loftier goals. And as the popularity of climbing skyrocketed in subsequent decades, The Pinns became a favorite backyard playground for Bay Area climbers and the communities lining the Central Coast and San Joaquin Valley.

There are now nearly 900 identified routes in the Park. These span spectacular remnant monoliths, talus caves, spires, and sheer-walled canyons of an ancient volcanic field. Most routes are easily accessible and moderate in grade—many are bolted, but most are trad, and some others mixed. Less than bomber rock quality lends to adventurous climbing and uneven landings.

It is precisely this rock type, area history, route variety, and proximity to urban areas that prompted the need for an Appreciation weekend and ambitious Adopt a Crag event. Over 65 volunteers turned out for 3 days of work. With a sponsored BBQ by Paradox Sports, loads of swag, and committed folks from the National Park Service, Bay Area Mountain Rescue, Sanctuary Rock Gym, the American Alpine Club, and other local organizations, it was an epic first year event! If it weren’t for the advanced planning of Jamie Bouknight—the Park’s passionate trails manager—and Larry Arthur, we might have had more work capacity than we knew what to do with. Instead we accomplished more than anyone had hoped.

LogsFriday morning began with a modest crew hiking loads of wooden fence railing and tools from the eastside parking area up to popular Discovery Wall. After this ample warm up, the real work started: closing eroded short-cut trails, installing fence posts for restoration areas, and brushing and buffing trails. We instructed volunteers in the art of post-holing, vegetation removal, and hiding restoration areas with natural visual barriers. We worked well into the afternoon, leaving just enough time for the most energetic to get a few routes in!

The next day saw an impressive number of new volunteers. Jamie, Ty, and I broke into several groups over two areas—Ty and Jamie protected degraded areas with fabric fencing and trail realignment at Teaching Rock, while I employed volunteer leaders to help complete wooden fence installation, trail closures, and protect eroding hill slopes at Discovery Wall. Everyone was amped and super productive, ticking off each project in record time. With plenty of climber-power and hours to spare, Ty was even able put in a much-needed retaining wall where groups gather to belay and chill in the shade. It was a long, dusty day and we left satisfied with our efforts. Reconvening at camp, volunteers were treated to a feast of burgers and beer, raffle prizes, storytelling and camaraderie.


A rare third day of work on Sunday resulted in more trail alignment and retaining features at another popular crag —Tourist Trap. The amount of work completed over the weekend was phenomenal! Volunteers demonstrated once again how many [strong] hands make light hard work. We left feeling inspired by a community united in their shared passion for Pinnacles, and thrilled to be a part of the first of many Pinnacles Climber Appreciation Days. Join us next year for Round 2!


September 20, 2013

Park Like a Champ


August 26, 2013

Land & Water Conservation Fund Helps Conserve Climbing Opportunities

“On belay!” A climber shouts and pulls the rope tight as his partner starts climbing below. Five hundred feet below on the valley floor, the town of Index, Washington bustles with weekend activity as paddlers, hikers, climbers, and tourists explore the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Signs welcome tourists to the National Forest, yet what the average visitor does not see is a matrix of private and public lands. Thanks to forward thinking conservationists, much of the land and water we hike, climb, and paddle on is protected. Forest Service roads, once built for the sole purpose of timber harvest, now serve as the main arteries into these wild places.

Skykomish N Fk Index aerial NE 02-26-05
As climbers top out on the Upper Town Wall of Index, the Wild Sky Wilderness drapes the backdrop of forested slopes and mountains. When this Wilderness was first proposed, over 2,000 acres of private land were within its boundaries. In the last decade, groups such as the Wilderness Land Trust and Forterra have purchased approximately a third of these private lands and prioritized them for conservation. These transactions have relied on the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a federal funding program that allocates fees from oil and gas towards the acquisition of critical lands for open space and recreation purposes. Without the LWCF, new logging roads could be cut through old growth, recreational access closed off, and viewscapes important to the tourism economy compromised. 

When the Republican budget recently zeroed out funding for Land & Water Conservation Fund, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stood up to defend the economic and public benefits of this important program. Jewell, former CEO of Seattle-based REI, understands the value of recreation and conservation and how they go hand in hand.

In Northern California, Shasta-Trinity National Forest and Wilderness Land Trust are partnering with recreationalists and Access Fund to obtain LWCF funding. This acquisition project will protect a critical inholding, adjacent to one of the first-ever federally designated Wilderness areas, from potential development. The inholding also provides ample opportunities for multi-pitch traditional rock climbing, ice climbing, backcountry skiing, and hiking. Acquisitions like this are a win-win for climbing access and Wilderness protection. Without the support for LWCF, these opportunities would likely slip by.

Budget cuts and alternative priorities threaten the LWCF every fiscal year. The federal land agencies that protect and maintain nearly a third of our public lands continue to face cuts that impact conservation and recreation. Common sense projects such as trail work to reduce erosion and provide sustainable climbing access compete for scarce funding. Roads that access our trailheads, crags, and peaks fall into disrepair with little to no funding for improvements.

Despite these challenges, Access Fund and its partners continue to push for solutions, provide expert trail crews, support critical acquisitions, and advocate for access.  Without Interior Secretary Jewell’s strong defense of the LWCF, climbers and conservationists alike would lose opportunities to protect the outdoor places we love with future generations.

Climbers scaling the Index Town Walls, escarpments of Castle Crags, or quartzite walls of Harper’s Ferry can thank these conservation-recreation partnerships and leaders like Sally Jewell.

Get tied in to share your voice and join the Access Fund in protecting the places we climb.

July 29, 2013

What the New NPS Wilderness Climbing Policy Means for Climbers & Bolting

For decades, the future legality of fixed anchor use in Wilderness areas remained uncertain. Some national parks and forests banned new bolt placements, and a few land managers even removed commonly used rappel anchors and proposed the wide-scale removal of existing climbs. The threat of a national ban on bolts in Wilderness areas has always lingered, with the potential for significant climbing restrictions at places like Yosemite, Black Canyon, Canyonlands, and Red Rocks.

Would parks decide to ban all new bolts? Do they have the authority to remove anchors they consider an unacceptable impact to Wilderness character? And what about the thousands of existing anchors out there that need maintenance? Because land management agencies had no national guidance to assist local planners and managers, each local park and national forest was left to interpret the Wilderness Act—as it pertains to fixed anchors—on its own, and with wildly varying results.


Last month the National Park Service issued Director’s Order #41, finally clarified the agency’s policy for the management of Wilderness climbing, including the placement (and replacement/removal) of fixed anchors. Keep reading for an overview of what this policy will mean for climbers.

New Rules Require Prior Authorization
The good news: gone is the longstanding threat that NPS officials could ban all bolts and fixed pitons as illegal “installations” under the Wilderness Act. However, it is important to understand that climbers must now have prior authorization to install new bolts in NPS managed Wilderness (the use of existing bolts is not affected), and it is your responsibility to know whether you are in a Wilderness area. Parks may grant prior authorization on a case-by-case basis or “programmatically” approve (for example, by zone) fixed anchor placements through a park plan. Always check with your park first to be certain of the rules in place. If a park does not have a plan that includes fixed anchor authorizations, DO #41 directs that climbers may approach park officials for case-by-case “interim” authorizations via permit or other specific approval.

Nailing Routes and Leave No Trace Ethics
Direct aid “nailing” routes, such as on El Capitan, that require removable pitons are not governed by this policy, which defines “fixed anchor” as a bolt or permanent piton. However, DO #41 addresses all Wilderness climbing impacts, not just fixed anchors. And if frequent removable piton use results in cumulative impacts that are considered unacceptable” (an impact standard that applies to all Wilderness users, not only climbers), parks may restrict or otherwise manage the use of removable pitons. Thus, clean climbing should be the norm in Wilderness, and climbers should use Leave No Trace ethics.


Bolt Replacements
The new DO #41 policy states that the replacement of fixed anchors in NPS Wilderness “may” require prior authorization, so climbers currently do not need an authorization to replace anchors requiring maintenance (unless existing local rules apply; check with your park). If authorization is required to replace fixed anchors, the onus is on the NPS to publicize the requirement through a park plan or by issuing notification of a site specific restriction.

Bolt-Intensive Routes
The NPS policy states that bolt-intensive “sport climbs” are incompatible with Wilderness and in every case using power drills is prohibited. The new NPS policy also states that maintaining Wilderness character requires that climbers accept a higher level of risk in Wilderness areas and exhibit a respect for the resource and a “willingness to accept self-restraint in demanding access to it.” This means that bolting for convenience or to develop bolt-intensive face climbs is not an acceptable Wilderness activity.

The Bottom Line
This new policy ensures that climbers will not face a nationwide ban on fixed anchors in NPS managed Wilderness. This is good news for climbers! The vast majority of climbers are not likely to experience a significant change under this policy because it will not lead to the rampant removal of existing routes and anchors or a proliferation of bolted climbs in Wilderness, as some have suggested. Most climbers are not in the habit of placing fixed anchors at all, and this segment of the community can rest assured that they will have plenty of Wilderness climbing routes to enjoy for many years to come.

For those who place new fixed anchors, DO #41 does dictate a new management approach in that the placement of new fixed anchors in NPS Wilderness requires prior authorization in all cases. In some parks, authorization may require less red tape than in others—especially if parks have Wilderness climbing policies outlined in a plan already. But other parks may need to develop management plans that provide for new fixed anchor authorizations. Either way, if you need to place new rappel anchors or a few bolts to connect naturally protected terrain on a new route, contact your local park first to ask how this new Director’s Order affects the local management policies and procedures. Remember, this policy applies only to new fixed anchor placements in National Park Service Wilderness areas. You can use existing bolts everywhere that climbing is allowed.

More Information
The Access Fund will continue working with the NPS and the land management agencies to ensure that this new policy is workable for both climbers and land managers. For more information, read the full version of this article in the Summer 13 Vertical Times, read the entire Director’s Order #41 on the Access Fund website, or email jason@accessfund.org

June 13, 2013

Wrestling with Liability: Encouraging Climbing on Private Land

Original article by Laura Snider in Winter 09 Vertical Times; summarized and updated by Joe Sambataro

Rick Weber likes to cruise around his 400-acre verdant Kentucky spread, walking the seven-plus miles of sandstone cliffs in Muir Valley to see what the climbers are up toor maybe to catch a belay himself.

Rick and his wife Liz are retired now, and Muir Valley is their nest egg. To lose it in a legal battle over liability, sued over a climbing accident, for example, would be devastating. When the pair bought the property in 2003, they knew they wanted to open it up to fellow climbers, but they needed to make sure they were protected as well. After doing some homework, chatting with the Access Fund, and reading up on state law, Rick was convinced that they could open up their private land under the protection of Kentucky’s recreational use statute. Muir valley climber

“Yes, we’re concerned,” Rick said. “But we’re told that we have a reasonably safe legal position.… We could batten down the hatches and not stick our neck out, but then you don’t get the benefit of sticking your neck out.”

The Webers––being climbers themselves and having bought Muir Valley specifically for its tempting ribbon of sandstone cliffs––are rare in the arena of private landowners who wrestle with whether, and how, to allow climbing on their properties. But the type of land-use statutes that enable the Webers to host 40,000 climber visits a year (and still sleep at night) are not rare. All 50 states have recreational use statues, which are meant to encourage recreation on private lands by shielding the property owners from liability. But these laws vary both in their level of protection and the types of recreation they cover, and the ways that landowners, or their lawyers, interpret these statutes is even more varied.

A diversified approach to managing risks is important. Insurance, management agreements, and leases are just a few additional tools where the Access Fund can lend a hand to landowners and local climbing organizations.  But recreational use statutes are the main building block of liability protection.

Recreational use statutes
In the 1950s, states began to pass laws designed to encourage private landowners to open their properties to hunters, anglers, and other recreationalists by limiting the landowner’s liability. Now, all 50 states have these laws, called recreational use statutes. Not all of the statutes are the same, and they don’t all offer the same level of protection, but they do have general commonalities:

  • Recreational users: Many states list a few types of recreationalists as examples, but the list is usually not inclusive. Some states specifically name rock climbing, but in most states, rock climbing would fit under the general definition of recreation.
  • Fees: In most states, landowners are only protected if they do not charge a fee, although in some cases, fees to cover maintenance or property taxes are allowed.
  • Duty to keep safe: None of the states specifically requires landowners to keep their properties safe for anyone who might use the land to recreate, but in some cases, a “duty to keep safe” isn’t mentioned at all, leaving it more open to interpretation.
  • Duty to warn: Again, none of the states specifically requires landowners to warn people about hazardous conditions, natural features, or activities on their properties.
  • Assurance of safety: In most states, the law says that opening your lands to others does not mean that you’re vouching for the safety of the land or the activity.

Make sure that you check out your own state’s statutes. This is a good starting point. Seek qualified legal counsel in your local jurisdiction.

The ebb and flow of liability protection
Prior to 2005, Illinois’ recreational use statute defined recreation as “any activity undertaken for conservation, resource management, exercise, education, relaxation, or pleasure on land owned by another.” The state legislature changed the law to define recreation as the “entry onto the land of another to conduct hunting or recreational shooting.” In this change to the law, hunting and recreational shootings are not examples; they summed up the entire legal definition of recreation in the state of Illinois for the purpose of the statute.

Eric and Kathy Ulner, who own the Draper’s Bluff climbing area in southern Illinois, discovered this change in 2009 and issued an open letter to the climbing community, expressing that they would need to close their property to climbing access due in part to loss of liability protection.

Draper's Bluff
The Access Fund collaborated with the Illinois Climbers Association to advocate for returning the statute to its original level of protection. After seven years of work by a broad coalition of partners, the bill recently passed both the state House and Senate. Landowners in Illinois can breathe a little easier now that this bill sits before the Governor for signing.

In 2012, local climbers and Access Fund lobbied to add climbing to New Hampshire’s recreational use statute. With the help of a supportive state senator, the bill passed and New Hampshire joined the list of states that specifically name rock climbing in their statute, along with Alabama, Colorado, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.  “This is an important piece of legislation for climbers,” says Erik Eisele, Access Fund NH regional coordinator. “It makes it much more likely that a landowner would consider public access to climbing.” 

New tools to boost liability protection
Recreational use statutes and related state laws are only one kind of risk management that landowners can employ. There are other strategies, including waivers, signage, and agreements that can help to mitigate risk. The Access Fund recently gained new capabilities to partner with landowners and local climbing organizations by entering into written agreements that outline stewardship roles and liability protection. Through Access Fund’s liability insurance policy, jointly held agreements can provide additional insured status to both the landowner and local climbing organization involved. Such an agreement may take the form of a recreational lease, access easement, or management agreement that outlines how all the parties will work together to support and manage public use.

Working with local partners, this additional layer of liability protection played a key role in securing access at two crags in 2012—Auburn Quarry in Northern California and Bubba City in the New River Gorge of West Virginia.

The Access Fund works with partners on both a local and national level to advocate for these forms of liability protections across the nation, and to strengthen them where possible. Learn more about the wide array of risk management tools at www.accessfund.org/landownersupport and contact us to explore how a partnership can help open climbing access in your local area. 

May 28, 2013

Castle under Siege

The area that most of us know as ‘Castle Rocks’ in southern Idaho is a jigsaw puzzle of land management jurisdictions, known collectively as the Castle Rocks Interagency Recreation Area. The bulk of the land in the Castle Rocks Interagency Recreation Area is managed by the State of Idaho as Castle Rocks State Park, and another chunk is managed by the US Forest Service. The climbing in both of these jurisdictions is open.

However, last month the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced plans to permanently ban rock climbing on its 400 acre portion (about 17% of the 2,300 total acres) of Castle Rocks. While the land in question is only a relatively small portion of greater Castle Rocks, the proposed closure is still of great concern to the climbing community. It is estimated that about 40 existing routes, hundreds of potential lines, and countless boulder problems find themselves on the chopping block now that the BLM climbing ban has come to fruition.

The BLM climbing access saga started in early 2003, when the Idaho Parks and Recreation Department, the BLM, USFS, Access Fund, and leading climbing representatives in the area convened to draft a comprehensive climbing management plan that would govern climbing activity throughout all of Castle Rocks Interagency Recreation Area, with a primary intent to protect cultural resources. Shortly after the plan was written, it was adopted by the State of Idaho for use in Castle Rocks State Park, the chunk of land that contains the majority of climbing resources.

The BLM, however, did not approve the management plan (even though they played a large role in the planning and deliberation processes), but instead implemented a “temporary” closure in May 2003, which prohibited climbing, placement of fixed anchors, and camping.

The BLM claimed that the closure was needed to evaluate the potential adverse impacts to known historic and cultural resources in Castle Rocks, which are of importance to local Native American tribes. (It should be noted that this “temporary” closure has been extended every year through 2012). In May 2009, six years after the “temporary” closure was implemented, the BLM finally opened the issue up to public comment, proposing three management alternatives ranging from adoption of the climbing management plan (which would allow climbing as long as it didn’t disturb cultural resources) to a full climbing ban. The BLM stated its preferred alternative was to adopt the climbing management plan.

During the planning process, BLM archaeologists surveyed the cultural resources in their 400 acre tract, concluding that most were in excellent condition and even going so far as to say that “many of the archaeological resources have been undisturbed by contemporary human activities”. As a requirement of the planning process, the BLM also needed to obtain an official finding that climbing would have “no significant impact” on these cultural resources from the Idaho State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO). However, when the SHPO issued a letter requesting more information from the BLM to be able to complete the assessment, the BLM never responded, citing a lack of manpower.  

In March 2010, the BLM chose to permanently ban climbing, citing SHPO’s inability to provide a finding of no significant impact as the basis for the ban—a finding that SHPO could not issue because the BLM never responded to their request for additional information.

Along with its decision to ban climbing, the BLM published a map showing the location of the cultural resources in relation to the climbing resources. Ironically, this map demonstrated that the majority of climbing locations are well-removed from the cultural resource sites, making it hard to cite the potential adverse effects to these cultural resources as a reason for the climbing ban, given the geographic separation. (This map has since been removed from the BLM’s website to keep the specific locations of sensitive cultural resources confidential. The BLM asked Access Fund to keep the map confidential, and we have honored their request.) This map, coupled with the fact that the BLM’s own archaeologists had already stated that these cultural resources were undisturbed by human impacts (climbing had been happening here since at least the 1960’s) makes this climbing ban difficult to justify.

Fast forward to April 17, 2013—the BLM notified the public of its intent to officially implement its March 2010 decision to: (1) close the BLM managed lands in the Castle Rocks area to staging, traditional climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering; (2) prohibit overnight camping and the construction of new trails; and (3) remove bolts from existing bolted climbing routes from BLM-managed lands. The Access Fund, Boise Climbers Alliance, Eastern Idaho Climbers Coalition, and American Alpine Club have formally protested the decision and are awaiting the BLM’s response.

The Access Fund supports reasonable and legitimate closures that protect natural and cultural resources, but this particular ban is unjustified and unnecessary. The Castle Rocks climbing management plan (that the BLM itself helped to develop in 2003) has already proven to be successful for managing climbing and cultural resources at Castle Rocks State Park. Similar climbing management plans have proven successful for several other BLM offices across the country (Shelf Road in CO, Red Rocks in NV, and Indian Creek, Moab/Castle Valley and San Rafael Swell in UT), demonstrating that climbing and cultural resources can co-exist when properly managed. There should be no reason why Castle Rocks cannot be managed in much the same way.

The Access Fund hopes to be able to work with the BLM’s Burley Field Office and the local Native American tribes to establish climbing management policies that protect the historic cultural resources, while still allowing for legitimate recreational uses of this public land.