An Existential Crisis

Dan Guest Blogger Dan Nordstrom, CEO of Outdoor Research & Former AF Board President

In 2007, the Access Fund had a dilemma. Though we were nearing our 20th anniversary, we were also facing a bit of an existential crisis.

Climbers had come to rely on the Access Fund to be there when a climbing area was threatened with any kind of closure. Whether the access restriction was related to raptors or real estate developers, climbers assumed the Access Fund would take on the bad guys when they came knocking. But what most climbers didn’t know was that there was no “fund,” despite our name.

The Access Fund had come to realize that it just didn’t have the resources to buy endangered crags as a way to protect them. We had done a few transactions in earlier days and ended up owning three climbing areas. We learned the hard way that owning land meant you get to manage it forever. The small Access Fund staff in Boulder, which was trying to cover issues all over the country, found itself spending time negotiating for trash pickup and toilet cleaning, not to mention meeting with hysterical neighbors angry at random visitors who left behind a trail of empty beer cans. Pull quote 2

An even bigger dilemma was trying to raise enough money from donors to have cash ready when push came to shove at a threatened crag. It turned out that most people are understandably more concerned about crags near them than places they’ve never heard of and perhaps won’t ever see.

So, it was somewhat understandable when I first joined the board in 2000 to hear, “We don’t buy land anymore.” The Access Fund had tried, but the tools available at the time didn’t scale into a solution that could address the entire United States. While we did offer land-use expertise and legal advice for local climbers who called to ask for help when their crag was in jeopardy, inevitably the local climbing organizations began to feel like they were on their own and questioned our ability to help with more than just good advice.

It was a frustrating situation. After all, if you’re called the Access Fund, it’s not unreasonable for your members to expect an actual bank account ready to go when needed. A breakthrough idea emerged at a casual lunch with a friend who was the NW region vice president of the Trust for Public Land (TPL). The TPL is very successful at using sophisticated financing techniques to leverage relatively small amounts of money to save big areas.

The model the TPL developed is elegant. The core idea is that it has cash ready to go when an opportunity to protect a prize property arises. When property comes into play, there is almost always a developer ready with cash on hand. The landowner has the choice of capturing a sure thing now or giving the local conservation community time to rally together, raise the money, and create a long-term stewardship plan, which usually takes a year or more.

In most situations, the cash talks and the developer wins. To be a credible alternative, the conservation community needs to have money in the bank and be ready to write a check on a moment’s notice.

The TPL model is to partner with a local group that can, given time, raise money and become the long-term steward for the property. The TPL puts up the initial cash to secure the property, and then a local land trust or possibly a government agency pays back the TPL funds and takes over. The TPL then has the same amount of money back, ready to go to war again. Over time, the TPL folks figured that its revolving funds were saving $18 worth of property for every $1 donated.

As my friend described the TPL’s approach during that lunch, a light bulb went off—the same thing could work for the Access Fund. Donors could feel good that their contribution would not go to one crag and remain stuck there forever. Instead, every dollar they contributed could be used over and over, at crags all over the U.S. The Access Fund could step in front of the developer, engineer the deal, and make the up-front payment. Then, the locals could have time to do their thing and raise the money to pay back the loan. Once the local players were organized, Access Fund staff wouldn’t have to worry about managing the property and could focus on the next opportunity.

It didn’t take much for the Access Fund board to get behind the concept. It gave us the opportunity to get back in the business that we always knew we should be in: saving threatened crags. And so we launched our first major capital campaign.

It got a little more interesting when we asked for our first big donations in the fall of 2008, right in the middle of a global economic meltdown. But climbers like a challenge, right? It was kind of like spending a year getting ready for a big expedition and then having the weather forecast turn to shit on the drive to the airport. Turn around and go home? Nah, let’s see what happens!

I’m super proud to have been part of the launch of the Access Fund Land Conservation Campaign (AFLCC), which has helped save hundreds of acres of climbing in its first three years. And I’m pleased to see the current Access Fund staff “ring the bell” on the fundraising initiative. Having raised over $1.6 million, we’ve got the war chest we need to fight the fight and win the battles to save our crags and keep climbers climbing.