20 Years, 20 Milestones: Access Fund Celebrates 20th Anniversary

Date: 3/18/2011

In celebration of our 20th anniversary, we invite you to look back with us on 20 great milestones that have helped shape the course of the Access Fund and climbing in America.1. AF declares that it will support all forms of climbing

In 1990, the Access Committee within the American Alpine Club recognized that a dedicated organization was needed in order to effectively keep climbing areas open and protected. In the midst of the ethics debates, bolting restrictions, and areas being closed to climbing, the access problems were getting so big that a dedicated staff was needed to deal with them on multiple fronts. The

3. AF begins a tradition of land acquisition

In 1991, the Access Fund, working in collaboration with local climbers, purchased several rock formations from a private landowner in Unaweep Canyon near Grand Junction, CO. The acquisition provided strategic public access to adjacent BLM lands and protected a stunning 400-foot granite wall. The Unaweep acquisition kicked off a tradition of Access Fund land conservation efforts, leading to a total of 41 acquisitions supported in the last 20 years.

4. AF launches grants program

Early Access Funders launched the Climbing Preservation Grants Program in 1991 to provide money to organizations taking on projects designed to identify and work on the root causes of local climbing access and conservation issues. To date, the program has awarded 234 grants, across 35 states, totaling $891,426.

5. AF builds a legacy of climber activism in Washington, D.C.

The early access advocates formed the Access Fund in the early 90s, in part, because they were fighting efforts to prohibit bolting all over the country and they needed to go directly to the top. “I mean, you were just getting killed by a thousand cuts, to be fighting an anti-bolting thing. It was one Forest Service place after another, and then the Park Service … We needed to start dealing with the people who made the rules back in Washington, D.C.,” says Menocal. And so the Access Fund’s legacy of advocating for climbers in Washington, D.C., was born, and advocacy still remains critical to the mission today.

6. Jim Angell’s trail building crusade

In the mid-90s, founding Access Fund board member and master trail builder Jim Angell hit the road on a national trail building campaign. Jim taught many land managers how to build trails and mitigate climbers’ greatest environmental impact. Many of the trails we still hike today to reach our favorite crags—from the Gunks to Yosemite—have stood the test of time thanks to Jim’s work. “Jim’s trail work was one of the first real demonstrations to land managers that a well-designed climber access trail could minimize the most significant climber impact on public lands: social trails and erosion,” says founding board member Rick Accomazzo.

7. AF takes on controversial topic of climbing and cultural resource protection

In 1995, the Access Fund worked with the National Park Service and the Plains tribes to strike a compromise between climber access and the wishes of Native Americans at Devils Tower. An agreement was reached on a voluntary climbing closure of the tower during the month of June, when the majority of spiritual ceremonies are held. In the last 15 years, climbing has only grown in popularity, and land managers across the nation have been grappling to an increasing degree with how to protect cultural resources and still allow climbing. The Access Fund has worked on this issue at dozens of other areas across the country, including Indian Creek, Hueco Tanks, Red Rocks, Bishop, Joshua Tree, and others.

8. AF takes the lead on climbing management to protect cliff nesting raptors
In the mid-90s, land managers had no scientific studies related to climbing and its impact on nesting raptors, leading to substantial discrepancies in climbing restrictions across the country. Recognizing that the impact of climbers on nesting areas was due special consideration, the Access Fund consulted with biologists to identify the needs of nesting raptors and, in 1997, published Raptors & Climbers: Guidance for Managing Technical Climbing to Protect Raptor Nest Sites. This research has provided a foundation for negotiating dozens of climbing closures around the country.

9. AF takes on fixed anchors in wilderness

In 1997, the United States Forest Service (USFS) issued an outright ban on fixed anchors in wilderness, declaring them illegal. The Access Fund challenged the ban, and in 1998 an advisory committee was formed to find consensus on how to move forward. The Access Fund, as well as other advocates and leaders in the outdoor industry and other federal land managers, took part in this negotiated rulemaking process. The majority agreed on a basic framework for managing fixed anchors in wilderness: bolts, while a necessary tool for climbing, should be rare in wilderness; power drills are prohibited; bolt-intensive sport climbs are not compatible in wilderness; and prior authorization may be required for bolting. Eleven years later, no national policy has been implemented that dictates the use of fixed anchors in wilderness. However, the framework still guides federal land managers on the implementation of fixed anchor policies at the local level.

10. AF sues the federal government

In 1999, the Access Fund brought a lawsuit against the National Park Service to challenge a climbing ban on the Twin Sisters formation at City of Rocks in Idaho, arguing the fact that the park’s own studies showed no impacts from climbing. In 2005, the Access Fund sued the federal government a second time, going all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to challenge the U.S. Forest Service climbing ban at Cave Rock in Nevada. Once again, the Forest Service’s own studies showed no significant impacts from climbing, and the Access Fund argued that the ban violated the U.S. Constitution because it favored the religious preferences of the Washoe Tribe over everyone else’s privileges to access public land. While the Access Fund lost both lawsuits, its efforts forced federal land managers to do a better job of justifying closures. The land management agencies are well aware of the lawsuits that the Access Fund has filed, and they know how far climbers are willing to go to protect their rights to access public land. We’ve seen better decision making as a result.

11. Launch of the Adopt a Crag program

In 2000, the Access Fund officially launched the Adopt a Crag program to unite local climbing communities with land managers to conserve climbing areas.Historically, climbers have had a high standard of environmental awareness and stewardship. And the Access Fund clearly saw that climber stewardship had a great impact on positive relationships with land managers. Having just celebrated its own 10th anniversary, Adopt a Crag remains the Access Fund’s signature stewardship program, drawing an average of 4,000 volunteers a year to take care of the places we climb.

12. AF establishes best practices for climbing management planning

As the sport of climbing continued to grow exponentially, the Access Fund saw land managers across the country developing management plans that would have significant effects on future access. In 2001, the Access Fund published Climbing Management: A Guide to Climbing Issues and the Development of a Climbing Management Plan to educate and assist land managers on climbing management strategies that provide for climbing access while protecting resource values. In addition to this guide for land managers, the Access Fund provides guidance on draft climbing management plans around the country and hosts national climbing management summits to bring land managers together to share best practices.

13. AF takes on recreation fees
In 2001, Congress passed the controversial Recreation Fee Demonstration Program, which imposed fees on certain recreational users of federal lands. This was not an entrance fee but a use fee for simply walking, paddling, climbing, fishing, or biking on public lands. The Access Fund opposed the implementation of use fees to access wilderness and backcountry areas where significant administrative support is neither required nor desired by visitors, arguing that there should be no “pay-to-play” where “playing” costs virtually nothing. America’s national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas, and open spaces are the heritage of every citizen and access to these lands should be equally available to all. The Access Fund continues to challenge recreation fees when they unfairly target climbers.

14. AF invests in grassroots network of local climbing organizationsWhen a local climbing access issue occurs, the best line of defense is almost always the local climbers who are familiar with the area and the issues. That is why, in 2004, the Access Fund worked to encourage, organize, and support local climbers to join together into local climbing organizations, offering one-on-one guidance, educational resources, stewardship programs, and grants to help get these local organizations up and running. Today, the grassroots network is stronger than ever, with over 90 dedicated local climbing organizations making victories happen all across the country.

15. AF helps found the Outdoor Alliance
In 2006, six of the largest human-powered recreation interest groups in the country—Access Fund, American Hiking Society, International Mountain Bicycling Association, American Whitewater, American Canoe Association, and Winter Wildlands Alliance—formed a coalition to work on issues of mutual interest. The Access Fund found that the motorized recreation community often spoke on behalf of all outdoor users. Though climbers are not necessarily at odds with the motorized recreation community, our interests and priorities are distinct. “Forming the Outdoor Alliance did more than any other single thing to elevate the profile of the climbing community in D.C.,” says Policy Director Jason Keith.

16. Launch of TeamWorks initiative
In 2008, the Access Fund launched the TeamWorks program to help young gym climbers make the transition to responsible outdoor climbers and stewards. As the popularity of climbing continued to grow in the mid-2000s, indoor climbing gyms gave kids the opportunity to experience climbing in a relatively risk-free environment. This trend began spawning generations of talented young climbers, grown strong and bold inside the gym, who eventually turned to climbing outdoors—many of them without the ethic of outdoor responsibility. TeamWorks is a youth stewardship competition that challenges young climbers to host and participate in Adopt a Crag stewardship events, giving them the opportunity to work side by side with more seasoned outdoor enthusiasts and learn how climbers, the environment, and access are all connected.

17. Launch of the Access Fund Land Conservation Campaign
Over the years, the Access Fund has seen more private climbing areas changing hands, some of them lost to cash-ready developers. In 2009, the Access Fund Land Conservation Campaign was launched as the firstever multimillion-dollar revolving loan program that provides local climbing organizations with the short-term financing and transaction expertise to act quickly to save threatened climbing areas. As a revolving loan program, money is loaned out, repaid, and then reinvested, allowing the Access Fund to recycle dollars to protect more climbing areas over time. In the past two years, the AFLCC has helped protect or enhance access at seven climbing areas in Washington, Alabama, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Kentucky, California, and West Virginia.

18. AF signs MOUs with all three major federal land management agencies
In 2009, the Access Fund held memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with all three federal land management agencies for the first time. Working to formalize these agreements for half a decade, the Access Fund signed its first MOU with the U.S. Forest Service in 2005, followed by the Bureau of Land Management in 2006, and the National Park Service in 2009. These MOUs are significant because they acknowledge the relationship that the Access Fund and the climbing community have with federal land managers. They help secure a “seat at the table” for climbers in discussions surrounding local and national policies that affect climbing.

19. AF becomes a nationally recognized member of the Land Trust Alliance
In 2010, the Access Fund Land Foundation (a separate entity set up to hold property and provide liability protection) was dissolved and all holdings were transferred to the Access Fund. This simplified organizational model sped up land transactions and maximized the effectiveness of the Access Fund’s private land protection efforts. This change also enabled the Access Fund to steward properties in compliance with Land Trust Standards and Practices. “We have stepped up our commitment to stewarding the climbing areas we’ve helped secure, as well as positioned ourselves to better protect threatened resources,” says Access Director Joe Sambataro.

20. AF grows to a $1 million organization with over 10,000 members
We’ve come a long way. In 1991, when the Access Committee of the American Alpine Club broke away to form the Access Fund, the organization consisted of a handful of committed activists and $10,000 from Yvon Chouinard. Over the years, other climbers saw the importance of what the Access Fund was trying to do and signed up to sponsor our work. Slowly but surely, individual climbers and companies in the climbing industry began to open their wallets, allowing the Access Fund to expand its work. Today the Access Fund is a thriving organization with a $1 million annual budget and is over 10,000 members strong, working to keep climbing areas open and conserve the climbing environment.

Here’s to a memorable 20 years, and 20 more to come!