Conservation Teams Isolating in the Field

When the three Access Fund-Jeep Conservation Teams headed out on their nationwide tour this February, no one expected a global pandemic to strike, locking down nearly every U.S. community.

The three Conservation Teams and their Jeep Cherokee Trailhawks at Homestead, Arizona, ancestral lands of Hohokam, just before taking off on tour in February.

Each February, thanks to a longstanding partnership with Jeep, Access Fund deploys its three Conservation Team crews across the country to tackle the important job of restoring our climbing areas, many of which are deteriorating under increased use from our growing climbing community. These three teams each comprise two expert trail-builders/conservationists—young folks who take on the back-breaking work of trail restoration. Each team of two commits to a year of life on the road, typically giving up their housing rentals in various corners of the country, along with the creature comforts of home, to live out of their Jeep Cherokees and tents and fulfill the mission of restoring climbing areas.

Isolated in the Field

As the COVID-19 situation evolved in the first week of March, Access Fund canceled all of the Conservation Teams’ group and community events. As more and more shelter-in-place orders were issued, we consulted with the crew members and decided to lock each team in at their current location to keep them safe and prevent any potential spread of the virus. Each team made the decision that was best for their situation, with all of them choosing to remain isolated in the field. Without housing to return to, the alternative would have required each team member to make a lengthy journey to shelter with family or friends across the country, increasing the likelihood of exposure and transmission.

All three teams are healthy and in isolation—that means no volunteers, no climbing, no in-person interactions.

Luckily, all three teams are sheltering in places where extensive restoration work is needed, and they are still able to work while in isolation. We feel incredibly lucky that we’re able to keep these teams working and gainfully employed during this difficult time. And we are proud of them for leading by example and not climbing.

Conservation Team East Sheltered in Hoover, Alabama

Throughout the first several weeks of the pandemic, the East team was sheltered in place in Hoover, Alabama, where they were working to restore Moss Rock Preserve at the time of the lockdown. The team secured a remote camp spot at a local park, where they were able to isolate. They closed all work sites to visitors and moved projects to less visited areas to keep distances even greater, while still allowing the local public to recreate. The City of Hoover communicated with visitors on the crew’s behalf and also provided critical support, including personal protective equipment and hand-washing supplies.

Like all of us, the crew did need to visit the local grocery store about once each week to maintain their food supply. The biggest hurdle for these two was a more frequent need to purchase ice to keep their food fresh. Their Yeti does an amazing job, but the warmer temps in Alabama were still a challenge. Luckily, the area they were camping in had easy access to water, showers, and weather protection, and they enjoyed their downtime together reading and relaxing.

The Conservation Team East crew working at Moss Rock in Alabama, ancestral lands of Mvskoke (Muscogee / Creek).

Conservation Teams West and National Sheltered at Indian Creek, UT

Both the National team and the West team are sheltered in place at Indian Creek in Monticello, Utah, where they were working to stabilize approach trails out of the parking lot at Supercrack when the lockdowns hit. The four crew members are still working to stabilize the approach trail to Battle of the Bulge and Chocolate Corner, and will be moving on to Scarface after that. They have an isolated campsite secured, and they are proceeding with extra safety measures. Their tools are cached at the work site, in their trailer. As is the case for all of us, they do need to resupply food and basic necessities from time to time. This means trips into town—specifically Moab or Blanding—before they return to their isolated camp. We’re in regular contact with them and are in touch with the Bureau of Land Management, Friends of Indian Creek, and the Dugout Ranch family, who understand and support their work efforts.

The crews’ ability to stay isolated, make infrequent trips to town, earn a living, and continue to protect the desert environment of Bears Ears all guided Access Fund’s decision to lock them down in the field. In their downtime, they go on short hikes, read, and enjoy each other’s comradery. We expect them to wrap up the Indian Creek phase of their work in late May, at which point we’ll reassess their situation.

Continual Monitoring of Health and Safety

Access Fund continues to strive for a balanced approach during these challenging times—carefully weighing the crews’ health and safety with the desire to keep them gainfully employed, all while doing our part to flatten the curve. In these specific cases, and with some careful adjustments to work practices, the restoration work these teams are doing is able to happen in concert with those goals. Access Fund is continually evaluating these factors to ensure the health and safety of the teams and the communities they are sheltered in.

The National & West teams will continue their isolated partnership as they transition from Indian Creek in Utah to Fun Rock in Washington, where they will be working with a small team from the US Forest Service on critical stabilization efforts of the staging areas and terraces at the base of Fun Rock and its satellite crags. The East team is currently transitioning to North Carolina where they’ll continue the work they started at Buckeye Knob last year. This project presents an ideal opportunity for the team to work on property owned by Carolina Climbers Coalition while still following social distance guidelines and isolation protocols, with easy camping and small group project work.

Special thanks to Jeep for supporting our Conservation Teams and helping keep them safe.

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