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The Volunteers

Submitted by j_ung on 2009-03-13 | Last Modified on 2009-03-19

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by J. Young

By J. Young

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Torrent Falls, Red River Gorge, host of the AF’s 2009 Land Conservation Summit.

I have never been much of a volunteer, but the guy next to me personifies service. I’m cruising I-64 with Gene Kistler, who along with his wife Maura and business partner Kenny Parker, are the heart and soul of access and advocacy at the New River Gorge. We’re returning from a weekend at the Red River Gorge, where the Access Fund hosted its 2009 Land Conservation Summit. Representatives of local climbing organizations from far and wide showed to share stories, brainstorm ideas and learn the basics of land acquisition from people who have been there and done that.

We pass the four-hour drive by talking about the weekend. I guess we’re pretty lucky, Gene and I. We live in area in which, relatively speaking, access comes easy.

“I count our blessings when I hear other people talk about access issues,” says Gene. “It’s really just become a question of how well we’re taking advantage of opportunities and not sitting on our laurels.” He rambles on about the possibilities of securing land at trailheads for various climbing areas in and around the New River Gorge. Summersville Lake comes up, as does the Meadow River. “These are things we can do,” he continues, “because we don’t have to waste time arguing about whether or not climbing should even be allowed.”

He’s alluding to the variety of different stories we heard from other parts of the country. If I’m struck by any one thing from this weekend, it is the degree of diversity between our situation at the New and what climbers in other places, say Austin, Texas, go through to climb. We have mostly NPS property at the New, and while crossing private property to get into it may not always be a foregone conclusion, climbing once you’re there is 100% legal. In Texas, a land owner can fill you full of lead for climbing over his fence, and it’s all on the up and up.

The Central Texas Mountaineers have approached access issues by brokering deals between private land owners and public agencies. Gary Ellis, President of CTM cites the popular limestone cragging of Reimer’s Ranch as an example. “Bolting started taking place without the Reimers even knowing,” says Ellis. “Then it was either close the place down and not allow anybody access or work with climbers and come up with some solution. Over the years we became really good friends with them, to the point of which, when they were getting toward retirement, they wanted to sell the land to somebody who would preserve it. That’s when Travis County stepped in.”

Brokering deals may become the preferred solution to private-land access issues, but it certainly isn’t the only one, nor is it the sexiest. The Southeastern Climbers Coalition, for example, straight-up buys crags and owns them. “The SCC owns four climbing areas,” says its Treasurer, Brad McLeod. “We have a new area under contract, which we hope to close by June, 2009. That’ll be five… and two that we lease.”

“I think that it’s been said before,” continues McLeod. “Climber owned. Climber managed. It’s a beautiful thing. Our kids will inherit this land, and climbing will be there 100 years from now.”

Someplace on I-64, Gene confirms that others feel the same way. “I asked [CCC President] Anthony Love – they have USFS land all around Laurel Knob – wouldn’t getting the land to them be the best thing long term? And Anthony said, ‘Yeah, ideally it would be, but we don’t trust the agency right now.’”

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Gene Kistler (President, NRAC) and Anthony Love (President CCC).

The very place we came from, the Red, is a patchwork of climbing areas owned and managed by a whole slew of private people and public agencies. Some of them are friendly to climbers, like Rick and Liz Weber who own Muir Valley. Some of them are not. Thanks to oil development in the area, much of the land has split mineral rights, which means climbers often have to deal with two owners for one crag. It’s an access nightmare, and yet the Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition has stepped up and kept the vast majority of these areas open. Lo and behold, eastern Kentucky is on the cutting edge of climbing access. Even the RRGCC owns land out there – the Pendergrass-Murray Preserve.

Morgain Sprague is the Vice President of the RRGCC; she is also an attorney who works directly with the Kentucky State Legislature. Sprague worked her fingers to the bone on new legislation for which she has high hopes. “It allows a land owner to contract with a state agency or a subsidiary, so that the state can manage the land for recreational purposes,” says Sprague. The law also places the liability onus on state agencies, not private land owners, but the owner still maintains his or her rights as such.

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Access Fund Executive Director, Brady Robinson.

Of course, differences are only half of the access picture. If I’m struck by a second thing from this weekend, it’s the similarities we share. For one thing, if the crag conservancy effort grows by as much as we all seem to hope it will, LCOs, many of which overlap geographically, will have to compete actively for donation dollars.

In fact, AF Executive Director, Brady Robinson, believes that’s already the case, but while he understands the potential for competition, he doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. “I believe there are a lot of resources out there,” says Robinson. “I don’t think that the Access Fund and LCOs have tapped the resources out or honestly even come close.” He acknowledges the pitfalls, however. “I think if we start playing as though we’re in it to win it for ourselves, instead of just to get the most gains for the climbing community, we’re making a mistake. This is not about the AF. It’s not about the LCOs. It’s about keeping climbing areas open in this country. You know, the Access Fund – we need to do the right thing by the LCOs. If it’s totally uncoordinated, then we do have problems.”

Earlier in the weekend, Robinson expressed his expectations for the Summit. “I hope everybody leaves fired up, feeling energized. I hope people leave having a really good idea what their options are, and also knowing that, okay, if it’s time to go for it and actually acquire some property, we can do that and the Access Fund’s going to be there to help us. Ultimately, there’s some best-practice sharing, but I think the networking and getting people psyched up is just as important.”

I tap the brake to avoid a ticket as we race past an idle police car. A psyched up Gene says, “It seems like we’re in a time in our area when we need to kind of kick it to the next level.” Speaking of Summersville Lake, he muses, “Maybe we need to just go up there and get an easement across private land to get to Army-Corp property. That way people don’t have to sell their land, and you get permission to do something that’s really not that big a deal.”

I look over at him and realize with a start that I was dead wrong about us being lucky. In this car, it’s only me who’s lucky. Gene, et al, worked for it. They were there from the beginning talking to the Park Service, cleaning up road-side dumps, building trails and organizing climbers long before I ever showed up. It is thanks to their efforts and those of their contemporaries that I have a litany of wide-open crags from which to choose, and most of the money we raise can now go to anchor replacement. I’m just resting comfortably on the foundation they built. Gene in particular has served on the Board of the Access Fund, and is the current President and Treasurer of the New River Alliance of Climbers. He’s been part of many more non-profit efforts, but it would be like reciting the book of Genesis to list them all. On his refrigerator, there’s a magnet that says, “Stop me before I volunteer again.”

I guess I’ll get up off my laurels.

Tags: access fund

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6 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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5 out of 5 stars Excellent acticle. People need to be aware of the issues in their area and do what they can to progress it and preserve it. Its though living in an access stressed area like we do in S.Ontario. I wish we had a well organized group like the Access Fund up here in Canada.
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5 out of 5 stars Ditto granite grrl. Good stuff. Props to Brady and AF for fostering the communication between folks. It's super important for groups to know who is doing what, how they are doing it and who to call for 'back-up.' Special thanks to all the folks who went and have been puttin' in their time.
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5 out of 5 stars Great article. I give money to the SCC every chance I get - it just feels good to know, even though I'm probably moving out of the southeast in the near future, that these crags will always be there for me to come back and visit. Boat Rock, Jamestown, King's Bluff, Steele, Yellow Bluff.... all of these crags are climber-owned and not open to the whims of some government agency that can change its mind at the drop of a hat.

It's really pretty amazing, and I give mad props to the guys in the SCC who pull it off, and the climbers down here who always throw down for access. The rate at which money was raised to buy Yellow Bluff was simply astounding - a bunch of dirtbags came together to raise tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of a few weeks. Southeastern climbers rock!
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5 out of 5 stars Good stuff as usual Jay! Sorry I missed the summit. The trend towards crag acquisition is the most exciting thing to happen in climbing for awhile. Owning a cliff is alot more newsworthy than a 5.14 ascent.
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On behalf of the RRGCC I would like to thank the Access Fund for putting on this event and especially the AF staff involved, Amy Ansari, Brady Robinson, and Joe Sambatoro. Thanks also go to our AF Regional Coordinator, Paul Vidal and to Amy Tackett and Tania Allen for providing local logistics and support. And finally thanks to Dr. Bob Matheny for donating the use Torrent Falls so we could easily mix in a little climbing with our meeting sessions.

I know that the RRGCC came out of the meeting energized and pumped with ideas that we are putting into action. Volunteering to promote climbing access can be more than just showing up for a trail day. For anyone reading this comment I would encourage you to find out what talents you have that might benefit your LCO and then step up to the plate to help.
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On the west coast, California in particular, more Access Fund sponsored work:

In spite of a threatening forecast nine volunteers showed up for what is believed to be a first adopt-a-crag day at Tahquitz Rock, where the volunteers and a forest ranger, Andy Smith, did trail maintenance. The hard working group made the trail a little easier going and much more obvious to both those going up and down with the hope that climbers will stick to this route and avoid the other routes. Andy will put in a small 4 X 4 post on the Ernie Maxwell trail to mark the start of the climbers' trail. We had a great group and got the work done much more quickly than Andy expected and I wish to thank all of them. It was a first time at an adopt-a-crag event for most of the group, but they were enthusiastic about the work and ready to help again, when their backs recover.

Climbers, please stick to this trail in accessing the climbs on northwest, west, and south sides of Tahquitz so that erosion damage can be minimized. And encourage your friends to do likewise.

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