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An Auspicious Infancy: The Earliest Days of the Access Fund


Submitted by j_ung on 2008-12-22 | Last Modified on 2009-01-11

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by J. Young


Click here to join the Access Fund!

This is the first in our two-part interview miniseries with past and present leaders of the Access Fund. Click here for Part 2.

By J. Young

Rockclimbing Article Image1_large
Armando Menocal on the first ascent of “Flyin' Hyena,” (5.12b/7b), Cuba’s longest climb. © Craig Luebben/cubaclimbing.com

Somebody once posted on Rockclimbing.com that he wouldn’t support the Access Fund because of a controversial stance it took on an issue that was close to home for him. I think that’s a little like saying you won’t eat again, because you once found a worm in an apple. Ripples of the AF’s actions can be felt at nearly every crag in the Union and if you climb on federal land, well, they have an even bigger role there. You might not agree with everything it has ever done, but if you’re a climber, I’m certain you can find something in the history of the Access Fund you like.

But then, not knowing enough about the AF might be more the rule than the exception. I began climbing in 1986, but I’m certain I never heard of it before, say, the mid nineties. If you think that’s shameful, consider this: The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that 1.6 million people in the USA have climbed at some point in time. Of those, the AF estimates that 500k have done more than hop drunkenly upon the nearest carnival wall, and that probably 200k of us climb regularly or semi-regularly. And yet, the AF’s roll of current members is just in the neighborhood of 10-15 thousand people. I can only wonder how many of the 200k have never heard of the Access Fund or, worse, know of it but still haven’t made an effort to support it. And of the rest of us who do support it – do we really understand everything it does on our behalf? Even if you are one of the few who truly have a more complete image of the Access Fund and what it does for us, I challenge you to look deeper. There’s more to learn.

This is the first in a two-part interview series with past and present leaders of the Access Fund. I spoke at length with Armando Menocal, who, along with Jim Angel, founded the Access Committee of the American Alpine Club in 1985. He had much to say about the often humble beginnings of this auspicious organization.

Jay: Tell me about the birth of the idea of the Access Fund. What was the impetus to actually get this thing rolling?

Armando: Well… in the mid eighties, we were starting to have access problems. Land managers saw an explosion of climbing. In part it was the beginning of the sport climbing movement, and suddenly, they thought they were being overwhelmed by climbing. The combined effect of more climbers, and especially more new climbing areas, caused a lot of land managers to attempt to put the brakes on climbing. Suddenly you had somebody with a county park, who just thought people had picnics and played ball – all of a sudden there was “a crag” there, and there were tons of people climbing there. They didn’t know what climbing was, they’d never regulated climbing… and there started being closures. I’d been active in some of these in CA, so the American Alpine Club asked me to start an Access and Conservation Committee – really an Access Committee to confront these issues. So I started it…

Jay: Who were some of the folks on that early committee?

Armando: The earliest were me and a guy named Jim Angel – just two of us. The first thing he did was plan an act of civil disobedience up at Mt. St. Helens. Jim had been playing it by the book, and they refused to reopen Mt. St. Helens to climbing after the big crater explosion. Mt. St. Helens was completely closed even though the explosion was long past. But, once the folks at the Alpine Club heard that its Access Committee was thinking of such a thing, they withdrew their support. So, basically, the Access Committee stopped. That was the first two years.

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Menocal on the first pitch of “Cuba Libre” (5.12a/7a+), one of the first climbs done in the Viñales Valley, Cuba. April, 1999. © Craig Luebben/cubaclimbing.com

Jay: What was the act of civil disobedience?

Armando: Jim wrote a letter to the Forest Service, telling them that on a mid-summer day – he gave them the date, it was like six to eight months later – he was going to climb Mt. St. Helens. They had been involved in a planning process for two or three years, and it’d been all finished, but they would not open the mountain to climbing. They were just being bureaucrats dragging their heels. And so to provoke them into either finally arresting him and drawing attention to it or getting them to issue the decision, he just told them, “I am going to climb that mountain,” and he sent copies to all the local newspapers. And it worked! By summer, they issued the plan.

Jim Angel is one of those really hard-working guys who was there from ’85 to about ’95, and he was also the Access Fund’s major trail builder in the nineties. Jim passed away then. He was one of those guys who was really responsible for the early years – a great person.

And I agree with Jim! He’d done everything right, and they wouldn’t do it. But it scared the American Alpine Club, and we stopped. And then two years later Jim McCarthy became president of the American Alpine Club, and he said, “You do whatever you need to, and we’ll back you 100%.” And that’s really when the Access Committee started – when Jim McCarthy became president of the American Alpine Club. Jim Angel and I then added people, the main ones being myself and him and Randy Vogel, a fella by the name of Mike Jimmerson down in Arizona, who was a real workhorse, Rick Accomazzo in Colorado, and a few people back east as well. We were basically about a dozen folks who would come together every once in a while. We’d meet like once or twice a year. At first it was a very slow process. Mostly it was just all of us talking about the problems we had. We got to the point where we actually needed to have our own staff, so every year we’d do something that was “The Call.” And the The Call was a call to Yvon Chouinard. And Yvon would always say, “How much?” And I’d say something like $10 thousand dollars. And he’d send it.

Jay: That’s amazing!

Armando: In the early years, the first three or four years, were funded 100% by Yvon Chounard, zero by the American Alpine Club. So anyway, that’s how we got started – we were the Access Committee of the American Alpine Club. After Jim McCarthy was no longer president, the [access] problems were getting so big and there was so much stuff, and I was spending so much of my time as the Chair of the Committee just dealing with the AAC, that we decided the better thing to do was form a separate organization. And that’s what we did in 1990.

Jay: Was that separation done with the good graces of the AAC? I mean, were they were on board for this?

Armando: No. It was a painful separation. But, at the end, the AAC voted to kind of let us go. We had raised some of our own money by The Call, and by that time people were giving us money. And they made the decision to let us keep it. If the AAC had wanted to make it ugly they could have fought to get that money back, but they didn’t. All I’m saying is, for the people involved it was painful and hard. ‘Cause you had people in the AAC who really supported us and they wanted us to stay, and they didn’t like us leaving. And, there were people who, frankly, didn’t like us, ‘cause we were activists and they didn’t like some of the strong positions.

Jay, in the 1980s, because of sport climbing, there was a huge amount of debates in the climbing community, dealing with everything from rap bolting, hang dogging, etc. And one of the key decisions that the Access Committee made, which continued with the Access Fund, was that we would not get involved with ethics. We would not say, “Okay, we’ll defend people who put up routes ground up, but we won’t defend people who do it rap bolting.” There were many people, both within the AAC and outside the AAC, who were lining up on either side of those issues. There were people who were lobbying government agencies to get them involved, so rap bolting would be prohibited in one place. And the Access Committee said, “No, we will not do that. We will defend climbing in all its forms.”

If the climbing community, within itself wanted to say, as a matter of ethics, people shouldn’t rap bolt in a certain area, that’s fine. But land managers and the government should not get involved in ethical debates. And that one of the things that made us very controversial within the AAC. That was one of the early decisions we made. I’ve always credited Randy [Vogel] with helping us make that decision. He was very important in that. And it’s still the Access Fund policy to this day. We don’t take sides in ethical debates. We defend climbing in all its forms.

Jay: If I’m on the board of the AAC around that time, when you guys in the Access Committee are thinking of splitting off and I’m against it, what are some of my protests?

Armando: I would say there were probably two major disagreements within the AAC. One was over the ethical question, because there were people there that didn’t think we should fight government agencies if they were going to prohibit rap bolting or if they were going to prohibit power drills being used to place routes. Some people even went so far, like Royal Robbins at the time, to say we shouldn’t defend the placement of bolts at all.

And then the second thing was that we were advocates. We were arguing with and taking on the government. And there was a large body within the AAC that thought that was not their role. Their job was to support, but not argue with government agencies. But a lot of us were out of the 60s and 70s, and that wasn’t our way at all!

Very clearly, the Access Fund started as an advocacy organization. That was the main thing we did. One of the reasons we formed the Access Fund [from the Committee] was because we were fighting efforts to prohibit bolting, whether it was power drill or hand drill, all over the country, and we needed a national organization. I mean you were just getting killed by a thousand cuts, to be fighting an anti-bolting thing. It was just one Forest Service place after another, and then the Park Service… We needed to start dealing with the source – the people who made the rules back in Washington, DC. We knew we needed to have a nationwide organization to deal with the advocacy issues. And to this day, the primary focus of the advocacy part of the Access Fund, which I still think is the major thing we do, is nationwide, because most of the problems are nationwide.

Jay: Today, is the state of access in America where you thought it would be in 1990 when the Access Fund split off? How are things different now from what you thought it would be like?

Armando: Well, I thought some of these issues would be put to rest. But otherwise I would say it’s about where I would have wanted it to be. I think if you look on the positive side of the ledger, no major climbing area in America is closed. The way I tend to break them down is nationwide areas, where folks go from all over the country to climb, like Yosemite, Joshua Tree, the Gunks…

Jay: Major destinations…

Armando: Right! And regional areas – places that are really important for a region… I guess I wouldn’t put West Virginia climbing areas or Red Rocks – those have become nationwide. But Red Rocks was a regional area for a long time. And then there are local areas. There are some local areas that are closed. But I don’t even think you can say there are any regional or national destination areas that are closed.

Climbing techniques are not affected or closed. You can still place a bolt anywhere in wilderness or non-wilderness in America with very few exceptions. Some places they have committees you have to go through. There are a few places we haven’t been able to get in line, like the Superstitions and the Sawtooth, but those are pretty small in comparison. Big-wall climbing, which would have been shut down entirely with an anti-fixed-anchor rule in wilderness is still alive and well. So, if you look at it that way in the big picture, we’re where we would want to be.

On the down side, is that some of these issues have not finally been put to rest. Bolting… it has been really hard to get the federal agencies to finally put that issue to rest. It is mostly to rest, but not enough that it’s totally off the radar. And we have to keep putting energy into doing that. The number of times that myself – and now Jason Keith has gone back to Washington – talked to people in the federal government at all three major agencies, BLM, Forest Service and Park Service, would take up a year or more of somebody’s time. And as long as you don’t put it to rest, you have to keep dealing with it, because some individual forest – and it happens every now and then – some local ranger will decide that he’s going to ban bolts. It still happens. And then we have to jump on it and deal with it, and stuff like that, until there’s a clear rule. We finally got the BLM to issue a nationwide policy, and we’re dealing with that now.

Maybe with the new administration… What’s happened is the last eight years in Washington – nobody has been willing to issue a new regulation in wilderness. And it’s not that ours is that big a deal, but if you bring up something that has “wilderness regulation,” in it the fear is that everything from the mining interest on one side to the conservationists on the other will jump on it. Maybe with the new administration...We’ll see. That’s the down side, is that we haven’t been able to deal with it.

Jay: In the years-long development of the Access Fund to where it is right now, what are some of the pleasant surprises that have popped up?

Armando: Well, to me the biggest surprise – it shouldn’t be, but it still is to me – is to watch what was for some of us in the 80s and 90s our real passion to keep climbing areas open get taken up by one generation after another. The people that run the Access Fund now are one, two or three generations removed from the first group that started it. And I guess I remain surprised every time I see an entirely new bunch of people – who had nothing to do with us historically – step up and start really taking on the challenge… and re-forming the organization and taking it to a new place. It just keeps happening again and again. It’s pretty exciting to see. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I still am.

I’ve tended to divide the Access Fund’s work into three areas. One is the advocacy role – arguing to keep areas open, and some of that involves everything from litigation to letter-writing campaigns – all the tools that advocates use. And the second thing is building local organizations that then become the front-line forces, dealing with closures. The third one is actually acquisitions. We’re trying to build that.

The way I look at is those are like our three main tools that we use to achieve the same thing, which is to keep climbing areas open and protect them. Some people think of the Access Fund and they’ll think acquisitions. Some people think of the AF and they think of our work building and supporting local climbing organizations. And they sometimes try to pigeonhole us. Which are we? It doesn’t work with my framework, because to me they’re just tools. Sometimes the right answer is to create a local climbing organization to deal with an issue. Sometimes you need an advocacy approach. And sometimes you need to go in there with acquisitions and other sorts of development. But they’re just tools. They’re not what define us.

----------------

The ongoing fight for climbing access in America is on the brink of profound change, all while some of the same old struggles of 20 years ago remain prominent and, in many respects, unresolved. I also talked at length with current Access Fund Executive Director, Brady Robinson, about those issues and the future of access in America. You can read his interview here.

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15 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

 sonso45
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 2008-12-22
5 out of 5 stars Very good interview, Jay. I agree that we should all get aboard the Access Fund bandwagon. It helps everyone of us whether we like it or not.
 brianinslc
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 2008-12-23
Great write up! Pretty interesting stuff.

Thanks!
 reg
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 2008-12-23
4 out of 5 stars good job jay
 Gmburns2000
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 2008-12-23
4 out of 5 stars Informative. Thanks.
 epoch
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 2008-12-23
5 out of 5 stars Great article! It's true that a majority of climbers don't know or understand the hard work and history that has gone into securing these resources for climbers. Sure, it's a singular organization but it is also the top-level organization in America.

Solid read!
 j_ung
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 2008-12-24
Thanks, thanks... After talking with even more folks, I think this may become a bit bigger than two parts. We'll see. Anyway, stay tuned for Brady's interview.
 k.l.k
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 2008-12-24
Best article I've seen on this site. I thought you did a good job with the interview. I'd have liked more depth, but then you'd lose readers.

I worry the format will keep a lot of folks from reading it-- the combination of font and quantity of text is going to lead a lot of folks to just skim the pictures. Can you do the typical glossy trick of abstracting key quotes and embedding them as images in big font? Then you could at least pick punchlines for the post-literate.
 j_ung
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 2008-12-24
I might be able to, but probably not today. I've got to knock off and do the holiday thing. I'll look into it in a day or so -- thanks for the suggestion!
 htotsu
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 2008-12-27
5 out of 5 stars Interesting and informative. Very well done. More like this, please.
 j_ung
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 2008-12-27
LOTS more. :)
 hugepedro
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 2008-12-29
Enjoyed the article! I learned how to construct trails from Jim "There will be no steps in my trail!" Angel, may he rest in peace.
 j_ung
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 2008-12-30
I'm holding off just a little for Brady's interview. I think the Holidays affected traffic to this one and I'd like to keep it front and center for a bit.
 cccman
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 2009-01-05
18 years of history? This is worthy of a book.
 a-one
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 2009-01-08
hugepedro,
That was Jim, no steps, ever. Always claimed the NPS couldn't build a trail w/o steps, but he never would. Jim was opinionated and commitment - just the bulldog you want on your side. But can't recall him w/o a smile or a line that would deflate our most heated arguments.
Thanks for that remembrance.
Armando

 ldsclimber
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 2010-10-28
Inspiring to read!!

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