Advocate Spotlight: James Maples

Though James Maples, who holds a doctorate in sociology, isn’t a climber himself, he’s still an integral member of the climbing community. As an associate professor at Eastern Kentucky University and director of the EKU Division for Regional Economic Assessment and Modeling, James focuses on Appalachian studies and economic impact research. This combination of interests was the impetus for James to conduct his first study in 2015 on the economic impact of climbing at Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

James in the Red River Gorge, KY. Ancestral lands of the 𐓏𐒰𐓓𐒰𐓓𐒷 𐒼𐓂𐓊𐒻 𐓆𐒻𐒿𐒷 𐓀𐒰^𐓓𐒰^(Osage), ᏣᎳᎫᏪᏘᏱ Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East), S’atsoyaha (Yuchi), Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee), Hopewell, and Adena.

Since then, James has written several articles and a book on climbers and the economic impact of climbing at crags and boulder fields across the country. His latest economic impact report is for Bishop, California, and he just finished an interesting book titled, Rock Climbing in Kentucky's Red River Gorge: An Oral History of Community, Resources, and Tourism. He has also started a new YouTube video series on climbing history and climbing studies. James has presented at multiple Access Fund advocacy summit conferences and is a deeply appreciated member of the climbing community for his thoughtful consideration of climbers and passion for understanding the quantifiable benefits of rock climbing to rural Appalachia and across the United States.

5 Questions for James N. Maples

What does it mean to you to be a climbing advocate?
It’s a humbling experience to be recognized for my work. As a scientist, my job is to be neutral and listen to what the data have to say. In that sense, climbers are really the ones who have made my work possible. Answering all those surveys, doing interviews, answering my endless questions over email and text, that’s truly what makes all this happen. Working with climbers has easily been the highlight of my career. Hearing their stories and writing about them in my work has been life-altering for me. It has also demonstrated to me the importance of our extraordinary public lands.

What facet of climbing advocacy do you think deserves more research in the future?
Certainly, there’s still a lot to be studied about climbing’s economic impact and how climbers can change (and be changed) by the economies at their home crags. My colleague Michael Bradley and I have established a lot of valuable information in this area over the last few years, and we look forward to continuing to expand that work into other areas.

I think it is very important that we continue to study how climbers impact the crag environment, however. That’s going to be the future. We don’t have to look too hard to find climbing communities that have lost climbing privileges due to impacts on both public and private lands. We know from research by folks like Ryan Sharp and Brian Clark that climbers generally know Leave No Trace (LNT) principles, and we know they generally apply those principles while climbing. Looking forward, we need to assess efforts to reduce these impacts, such as LNT programs, and find ways to ensure that climbers are getting solid, climbing-centric information about limiting their impacts. We also need to continue empowering climbers to be educators and mentors in their communities to help make sure all these new post-Olympics climbers understand LNT principles and value using them while climbing.

What insights can climbing advocates take away from your research to better serve their communities?
I hope that my work has helped climbing communities understand climbing has a positive economic impact, particularly in transitional rural economies like the Red River Gorge and New River Gorge. Perhaps the bigger thing, though, is to help climbers reflect on what it means to be a partner to communities and public lands. In my book on the Red’s climbing history, the last chapter is really written for local climbing organizations (LCOs) and their executive boards. That chapter goes through the Red’s history era by era to point out where and how climbers can be better partners to local residents and public land managers while learning from past mistakes. Being a partner takes work. It isn’t automatic. LCOs are just one part of that story, too. Individual climbers are representatives of their communities at all times, so I hope that reading this book and that last chapter can help alleviate some issues down the line.

I know that community leaders have been excited to learn more about the climbers hanging out in their backyards and downtowns. They frequently want to partner and collaborate with climbers for mutual benefit. Climbers are doing great work supporting these communities, from coding camps to offering professional services in underserved regions.

What surprises/challenges/excites you the most about your research?
I think most surprising was the now oft-repeated finding that climbers are well-educated professionals. Climbers knew that themselves, but there weren’t a lot of studies out there demonstrating it with data. When I first started working in the Red River Gorge, I was surprised to meet so many climbers who were also accountants, engineers, nurses, scientists, researchers, and so forth. The survey results from that study really hammered home this finding: Climbers are, on average, well-educated professionals. That finding has been replicated across the nation, too, in several studies since then.

I think my most exciting moment was working with the climbing community in piecing together the Red River Gorge’s early climbing history. I was fortunate to track down some of the earliest climbers there from the late ’60s and early ’70s and interview them—folks like Ron Stokley, Dieter Britz, Bill Rogers, Otto Mock, Frank Becker, and Tom and Ellen Seibert, to name just a few. Learning their stories in their own words has been a continually moving experience for me. It has given me a greater appreciation for my own life and my finite time on this planet. It makes me think of something RRGCC [Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition] co-founder Shannon Stuart-Smith told me: “We all get our time under the sun, so we have to choose what we do with that time.” Because of that, I’ve recently refocused my life goals and priorities, and I’ll always have climbers to thank for that new perspective.

Who is another climbing advocate or researcher whose work is really inspiring you right now?
I am continually impressed by the work of Jillian Rickly, who holds a doctorate in geography. Jillian is a climber who spent many a day at Miguel’s Pizza while she was finishing up her Ph.D. at Indiana. Her work broadly explores tourism and experiences. I strongly suggest looking up her studies, particularly “Lifestyle Mobilities: A Politics of Lifestyle Rock Climbing,” which talks about Miguel’s and the post-RocTrip Red River Gorge climbing community.

Nominate an Advocate

When you were reading about James's advocacy work, did someone spring to mind that deserves the same kind of spotlight? Drop us a line with the button below to get them recognized 👇