Energy Development Threatens Climbing in Unaweep Canyon

GRAND JUNCTION, CO — Colorado’s Unaweep Canyon—home to exceptional sandstone and granite climbing—is in the crosshairs of a massive new energy development project proposed by Xcel Energy, the state’s largest power provider. The proposal includes two large reservoirs and supporting infrastructure running approximately 20 miles from the reservoir site to the nearby town of Whitewater. If construction moves forward as proposed, both the reservoirs and supporting utilities could significantly impact climbing in Unaweep Canyon.

Unaweep Canyon. Ancestral lands of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute). © Joe Sambataro.

Unaweep Canyon is a unique place. It’s the only two-mouthed canyon in the world, containing more than 2,000 routes and boulder problems. In 1991, Access Fund began purchasing threatened areas in Unaweep Canyon. In 2008 and 2014, Access Fund worked with Western Colorado Climbers’ Coalition (WCCC) to purchase additional areas under threat. All of these walls are now owned by WCCC and protected by a conservation easement.

“In terms of climbing, Unaweep is home to a sea of sandstone boulders and sweeping granite walls, a unique combination in the Mountain West. The climbing feels remote and adventurous and the setting is just spectacular,” says Rich Connors of WCCC. “We certainly support Xcel’s renewable energy goals, but the cost to the local environment, the climbing community, and the local community at large are too high.”

A conceptual map released by Xcel shows the approximate locations of the two reservoirs and a path for water and electrical utilities to connect the reservoirs to the town of Whitewater, just south of Grand Junction. The utilities, as drawn, would cross through numerous climbing areas, including three parcels owned by WCCC and protected under a conservation easement by Access Fund.

“When we look at the map, it’s clear that the utilities would overlap with our conservation easement,” says Brian Tickle, Access Fund’s national acquisitions director. “The purpose of the conservation easement is to prevent those climbing areas from ever being developed or allowing utilities to cross over the land.”

Access Fund and WCCC have been in communication with Xcel Energy and have alerted them to the presence of the conservation easement. Xcel has agreed to work with Access Fund and WCCC regarding any impact to the protected climbing areas. At present, Xcel is awaiting approval from federal regulators to begin the feasibility study for the project. It’s during this phase that Xcel will take into consideration all of the features of the Unaweep Canyon, including the various land-use restrictions that exist.

“The scale and potential impacts of this project certainly set off alarms,” Connors says. “WCCC and Access Fund will continue working with the local climbing community and residents of Unaweep Canyon to address their valid concerns.” Sign up for advocacy news and action alerts below to stay up to date on the latest developments.

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