Conservation Teams Transform Fragile Climbing Areas into Sustainable Crags

“Most climbing areas in this country were developed quietly, by an adventurous few, in a time when the sport was relatively obscure and climber impacts barely existed,” Access Fund Stewardship Director Ty Tyler says. “The majority were not designed as actual recreation sites, with infrastructure to contain the impact and protect the environment.”

That wasn’t a problem when the cliffs and boulders saw fewer visitors, but climbing resources are limited, valuable, and fragile—it doesn't take too many more people out on the land to degrade both the environment and the climbing experience. The number of climbers in the United States has increased dramatically, and our climbing areas are starting to look more than a little worse for the wear.

That's where the Access Fund Conservation Team program comes in.

A Conservation Team crew distributes tools to volunteers for a trail day at Deep Creek in Tennessee. Ancestral lands of Cherokee and Yuchi.

A Legacy in the Making

Many of the impacts at climbing areas can be minimized with proper planning and infrastructure that is designed to manage visitors and protect the environment. The Conservation Teams are focused on building out this infrastructure—things like sustainable trails, approved parking areas, toilets, reinforced belay and pad areas, and educational signage. All of these investments help to concentrate climbers and their associated impacts onto well-built infrastructure that is designed to protect the surrounding environment.

This belay area at Fun Rock in Washington was supported by a set of rotting timbers, installed decades ago, which were collapsing and destabilizing the hillside. These new stone steps reinforce the hillside, protect the trees, and give climbers a sustainable area to belay without damaging the surrounding environment. Ancestral lands of Okanagan and Nlaka'pamux.

Since the program’s inception, Conservation Team crews have completed over a thousand projects to steward and restore climbing areas in nearly every state, mobilizing and training nearly 10,000 volunteers and climbing advocates along the way—showing land managers that climbers are responsible users and demonstrating effective strategies to protect the land.

“Working with Access Fund’s Conservation Teams has been an exemplary collaboration,” says Zachary Winters, U.S. Forest Service Climbing Ranger at Fun Rock. “The most gratifying part has been observing each crew member and volunteer take ownership in stewarding these extraordinary climbing resources. The final product is one we are all incredibly proud of: restored social trails, logical approach design, and sustainable trail structures. Climbing at Washington Pass can remain an example of minimum-impact recreation in the National Forest.”

Cultivating the Next Generation of Stewards

Conservation Team crews are some of the hardest working members of the Access Fund team, dedicating their backs and brains to the difficult work of restoring climbing areas and making them sustainable for current and future generations.

“The Conservation Team was instrumental in getting our Washington Climbers Conservation Initiative off the ground in 2016,” says Washington Climbers Coalition Board Member Jeremy Park. “The level of knowledge in stewarding climbing areas simply can't be found any place else.”

Conservation Team crews worked at the base of Thin Air Buttress of Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire for several weeks, removing rotten timber structures and replacing them with a sustainable stone staircase that will last. Ancestral lands of Wabanaki Confederacy, Abenaki/Abénaquis, and Pequawket. © Cait Bourgault

Most teams come into the program with basic trail building experience and receive on-the-job training specific to climbing area conservation. This is highly technical and labor-intensive work, but comes with great reward.

“Working as a Conservation Team crew member allowed me to embrace the challenges—physical, technical, and personal—of doing trail work and stewardship projects full time, with new volunteers and partners in a new environment almost every week,” says Amanda Peterson, who spent three years as a crew member of the Access Fund Conservation Team. “It was incredibly rewarding to facilitate the sharing of ideas, and empower passionate volunteers with the skills and leadership to care for their local climbing areas.”

A large part of Access Fund’s strategy is for Conservation Team crews to train local volunteers and advocates, many of whom volunteer through their local climbing organizations (LCOs), on the basic skills needed to care for their climbing areas long after the professionals have left.

“Conservation Team crews are true heroes in protecting America’s climbing, but they simply can’t do this work alone. These two-person teams could never move the literal tons of stone and materials necessary to keep our climbing areas stabilized,” says Tyler. “Training local volunteers and community leaders is a critical component of ensuring long-term sustainability of our climbing areas.”

A Conservation Team crew member demonstrates a technique for creating the foundation for a stone retaining wall structure in Ten Sleep Canyon. Ancestral lands of Crow, Cheyenne, and Sioux. © Kris Ugarriza

Crags of Tomorrow

As climbing continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, so will the need for large-scale infrastructure projects at climbing areas. The time has come to think more holistically about crag stewardship and development. It’s about more than developing routes and picking up some trash—it includes everything from appropriate parking and trailhead facilities to sustainable approach trails and staging areas, waste management solutions, and more. The Conservation Teams will continue to lead this work, supporting the community as we strive together to make climbing areas sustainable for decades to come.

Access Fund is always working to expand the Conservation Team program to put another crew on the road to lead and inspire the growing population of climbers to care for the places they love. You can help with this effort by making a donation today at www.accessfund.org/donate.

Visitors at City of Rocks in Idaho express their appreciation for the Conservation Team’s work. Ancestral lands of Shoshone-Bannock.

Our Heroes

The Access Fund Conservation Team program is made possible through the generous support of supporting sponsors REI Co-op, La Sportiva, onX, YETI, and GSI Outdoor.