The Access Fund: Foresight and Follow-Through
by J. Young
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This is the second in our two-part interview miniseries with past and present leaders of the Access Fund. Click here for Part 1.
You’re about to read an interview in which Brady Robinson, the Access Fund’s current Executive Director, discusses the many parts and pieces that comprise the whole of what the Access Fund does. However, what I hope you glean from this is not that the Access Fund is an advocate, or a fundraiser, or a community organizer, but that its chief role in climbing over the last two decades has been one of foresight. Indeed, throughout its history the Access Fund has made decision after decision, many of which have influenced the very face of climbing in America. How might climbing look today if the Access Committee of the American Alpine Club had decided they would not defend all styles of climbing? What might the face of climbing be if they had let fixed anchors be banned entirely in wilderness areas? What if the Access Fund had not seen the value in building up and connecting local organizations?
The what-ifs are enough to set my mind all a-boggle, but even more so are similar questions applied to today’s issues. I mentioned at the end of the previous article, the interview with Access-Fund founder, Armando Menocal, that climbing access is on the brink of profound change. You’ll find hints of that here.
Jay: Let’s just dive into the biggest, meatiest part of this right now. What are the main areas of function of the Access Fund? I know there’s some advocacy, you guys do some lobbying, there some acquisitions going on... there’s obviously fundraising…
Brady: Well, we’ve got the public policy program (let’s start there). Jason Keith, who’s been our policy director for going on 7 years now, is actually preparing for a trip to Washington DC right now. His job is to be looking out for major, national issues. A lot of these things it’s hard to put your finger on. They’re small victories that happen over the course of years that make for big, big changes. But they happen over such a long period of time, sometimes it’s hard for the average climber to really appreciate it. Dealing with agencies – the Park Service, the Forest Service, the BLM – the kind of conversations we have with them doesn’t always make for riveting articles, but the results have a longer return.
That’s why articles like what you’re trying to do are great, and I think you said before, “What’s one of the challenges for the Access Fund?” One of them is just communicating to our membership what we’re working on, and how these things take time. If an access issue has the potential for setting a precedent, either good or bad, Jason Keith works on it. Or, if the access issue is on public lands and we need to get things moving and we can’t do it through local or regional contacts, we go straight to the top. We’ve got a part time lobbyist and Jason, who’s also very well connected. They can sometimes do an end run around a situation that’s hard to get things moving.
I don’t want to speak disparagingly about land managers. One of the challenges they face is that they’re all woefully underfunded, and they’re trying to balance a lot of things. Climbing doesn’t bubble up to the top of their priority lists, and that’s why it’s important for Jason to be out there bird-dogging these things on behalf of climbers.
We’ve also got sterwardship and conservation. That’s really Adopt-a-Crag. I would say that’s our signature event. I think we had 132 events in 2008. That’s 132 separate events in which volunteers got together and gave back – trash clean ups, trail days, what have you. It’s good for the climbing area, it gets people together and builds solidarity in the community – there’s nothing like swinging a mattock next to somebody all day for bonding. And, it builds pride in taking care of the place, which I think has benefits beyond just that one day. Also, land managers see that climbers as a user group are a positive force, and that it’s in their best interest to work with climbers, because we want to give back. That’s no small thing. That often times makes the difference between land managers wanting to work with us to keep things open and not.
Jay: But you guys don’t have staff at the Boulder office organizing 132 events…
Brady: No, absolutely not. We have a grass-roots coordinator – Amy Ansari – whose job it is to make the network of volunteers successful and help them with Adopt-a-Crags and other things. We wouldn’t be anything without our volunteer network. They’re the boots on the ground. We’re a staff of 10 with a relatively small budget.
Jay: Let’s talk a little about fundraising. What are the major avenues by which you guys raise money?
Brady: Well, we get a fair amount of support from corporations. But honestly the vast majority of what we get comes from individuals.
Jay: In terms of membership sales?
Brady: Yeah, membership. A lot of people give us $35 a year and then we’ve got some people who give us a hell of a lot more than that.
Jay: Do you mind me asking… what is the overall budget?
Brady: Our cash budget is right around a million bucks – a little under. And then we also get in-kind contributions. When Climbing Magazine puts an ad in, there’s a monetary value. We get three kinds of in-kind contributions: advertising, product and legal. There are a number of lawyers who have done an awful lot for us over the years. As you know, lawyers aren’t cheap.
Jay: How many members do you have?
Brady: Well, we’ve got about 15,000.
Jay: That’s almost… shameful.
Brady: Well, if you want to actually drill into it… How many of them are actually paid up? It’s a little over 10,000. So, yeah, exactly. We usually say we have about 15,000 members and affiliates. Depending on whose numbers you trust, the Outdoor Industry Association will tell you there’s about 1.6 million climbers in the country. If you talk to the industry people, they will tell you that the hardcore enthusiasts are probably around half a million or a little more. So, we have about 1-2% of the people who actually benefit from the work we do who are members.
Jay: Do you have your finger on the pulse at all of membership growth trends?
Brady: Yeah, we’re on target to grow about five percent this year. We’ve been growing like that – some good years, some bad years. Historically, when there’s a major national threat, people tend to come out. When the big scare about fixed anchors being banned in wilderness came out we found a lot of people joined. When we’re working silently and diligently on these national issues but there’s nothing in the mind of the public that’s really rising to surface, people don’t join up as much. If there’s a local group and they feel like an area is about to be taken away, then they see the value of the Access Fund more clearly.
That’s natural. That’s human nature. We are never going to get 100% or even close. But, could we be doing better than 2%? My goodness, I hope so.
Another thing we want to do is provide even more support to local climbing organizations and make them even more successful. And in the coming year or two, we have some things in the works that I hope will make a big difference for local climbing organizations.
Jay: Let’s switch gears. There’s obviously been a trend toward acquisitions in the climbing community. You see it a lot on the east coast, especially – Red River Gorge, North Carolina. You see it a lot, I guess, in the southeast. Why do you think the trend is going that way?
Brady: Let me take a step back. I worked for the North Carolina Outward Bound School for 12 years, before coming to the Access Fund, and I watched our course area get smaller and smaller and smaller. In fact we had to close one whole course area, because where once students had been allowed to hike and climb, now there are developments. We may see a little downturn in the encroachment with the economy, but don’t hold your breath. Development continues to encroach on private areas, where once people could come in and stay under the radar. In some of these places, that doesn’t work anymore.
Another thing is that local climbing organizations have gotten more sophisticated. The AF can’t claim responsibility for the all successes of those wonderful organizations in the east and southeast. There are a lot of people doing great work and they’re doing it on their own. But I think climbers have gotten a lot more organized and the Access Fund has been a big part of that. Across the country people have been realizing, if we don’t do something about this, nobody will and we won’t be able to go climbing there anymore. Hound Ears – now you can only climb there once a year legally. Laurel Knob – the houses were going to go right up against the base of that thing almost. There are countless examples.
I think that’s why it’s the trend. The Access Fund is absolutely going to be working to help local climbing organizations build their capacity to address those things. One of the things we’re doing to help them build that capacity is hosting an acquisition summit.
Jay: When is that?
Brady: March 6-8, in Kentucky, at Torrent Falls.
Jay: What’s your main goal for it?
Brady: We’ve been watching this whole acquisition phenomenon happen, and what we’re realizing is that, when it comes to funding, some of the local climbing organizations are competing with each other a little bit. They’re not necessarily talking to each other and collaborating – through no fault of their own. They barely have time to do it on their own, let alone travel and ask somebody else how to do it. So the whole purpose is to get all the people who are successful at it together and share best practices and get people fired up about it. But this isn’t going to be the Access Fund standing behind a podium telling everybody how these things work. It’s going to be a collaborative conference.
We were involved in acquisitions a long time ago, but while the Access Fund was good at acquiring land, we weren’t really great at managing it, so we stopped. But the Laurel Knob acquisition, which we contributed to financially, was really a kick in the pants for the Access Fund Board. They said, “We went out and built up local climbing organizations, and lo and behold there are a number of them out there acquiring properties and we could be doing more to make them successful.” This is really central to our work; we need to get back into that.
Jay: What do you think is the biggest national challenge right now for the Access Fund? You mentioned education and communication before. Is that it, or is there something else you see?
Brady: I could take this question a million ways, I guess, but I think it’s apathy. We have to continue working hard to get our community organized, to care and to be proactive. But you know, land development and shrinking budgets of agencies… it’s hard to put my finger on what the single biggest thing is.
Jay: Let’s switch gears again. What are some of the common misconceptions people have about the Access Fund? Do you bump up against anything more often then something else?
Brady: Overall, I think we have a lot more supporters than detractors out there, but there are some who might say we’ve been Colorado focused historically, and not nationally focused. That’s something that, as Executive Director, I’ve been really cognizant of. Even in the hiring choices we’ve made, we’ve been taking that into account. I came from the southeast. There’s somebody from Las Vegas. There are two people from the Midwest. We used to have somebody from LA. Now we have somebody from the northeast and another from the northwest. We’ve been making an effort to be geographically diverse and truly national.
I think another misconception people have is that we haven’t done anything in their back yard. A lot of the time people don’t really realize what we’ve done, and that’s something we need to improve upon. Most people don’t know that we bought all the property where the parking is for Rumney, one of the greatest sport-climbing cliffs in the northeast. That was all private land. We bought that, built a parking lot on it and sold it back to the Forest Service for a loss. And the vast majority of people who climb there have no clue that happened. That’s kind of our bad.
Jay: What else do the AF’s detractors say?
Brady: I think some people expect us to be able to wave a magic wand, and when we can’t just come in and save the day, some people get upset. We’re not like the fire department. When your house is burning, you call the fire department and get the Hell out of the way. We’re ten people and there are literally thousands of climbing areas at play in this country. $950k sounds like a lot of money, but when you take a look at the scope of what we’re trying to accomplish, we can’t do it all ourselves. We absolutely need the network of grassroots activists. I think some people get ticked off. They expect us to sweep in and fix things. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple.
I think the people who appreciate us the most are the activists who are fighting the battles, and who know we’ve got their backs.
Jay: The success du jour is probably Bridal Veil Falls. What was the Access Fund’s role there?
Brady: We’ve got a regional coordinator in the Telluride area by the name of Steve Johnson. He’s a local activist, lawyer, and he has been working on this for years – since the early 90s. I was talking to him earlier this year… we were starting to hear some inklings on Bridal Veil. He’s on our board now, but honestly, there wasn’t a whole lot of staff time spent on it in the last few years. It’s been mostly Steve just silently being there and pressuring and talking to people.
And then there was a breakthrough between the Idarado Mining Company and the Trust for Public Land. They had a big project in Telluride and a fringe benefit from their perspective was this waterfall. Partially because Steve Johnson has been there pressuring people on this for so long, the Trust for Public land saw fit to negotiate with Idarado to get an access license granted, and that’s why it opened up. It was just a protracted effort over a long time. That’s a great example of the grassroots volunteer network affecting change.
Jay: I’ve also been hearing little bits through the grapevine about Unaweep Canyon…
Brady: Yes, that’s one of the more current success stories. This is a local climbing area near Grand Junction, Colorado. It’s not a destination crag. Someone let us know that there was a property for sale there that had climbing on it. We talked to the locals and said, “We’re going to be at this climbing gym at this time, and if enough people show up and are interested, and if you all organize and form a group, we’re going to get behind it and support this acquisition." They got organized and formed the Western Colorado Climbers’ Coalition. They got their 501c3 tax status. They showed to us that they mean it. We got a lot of pledges that night, and the Access Fund said we’re in for $10k. Steve Johnson, the guy who’s been working on Bridal Veil Falls donated all the legal work for the acquisition, pro bono.
So basically the Access Fund showed up and said, “Do you care?” We told them how to organize. We put them in touch with one of our volunteers who’s been giving them legal advice. We met with the realtor. And, they’re off to the races. They’re going to close on the property, hopefully, within the next month. I’ve only been here for a little over a year. That was the first time I saw the power of the Access Fund from soup to nuts.
Jay: Is there anything else we haven’t covered that you want people to know?
Brady: If I could communicate anything to people, it’s this: If you climb outside, take a look around and see if there’s a local climbing organization. If there is, support that group. Go to the trail clean-up day. Get involved. Become informed about your local climbing area. Who owns it? Who manages it? What are the issues? Also, as a climber in the United States, I’d ask them to join the Access Fund. It’s not a huge financial burden. The cost of entry is $35. We’ll put that in the coffers and try to be even better at what we do.
What might the tomorrow of climbing access look like? It seems obvious that acquisition trend is ramping up, while the classic tactics of land-manager relations and grass-roots activism are still very much near the top of the AF’s bag of tricks. How many local climbing organizations will there be ten years from now, and how will they work together?
Maybe the more important question is this: what will your role be in the future of climbing access? I hate to get all slappy with the shame stick, but if you climb outside in America and still haven’t contributed either a dime or a minute of your time to the cause, then maybe you deserve a poke or two. As Brady mentioned, your efforts don’t necessarily have to concentrate on the huge picture. Your local stage is plenty big enough. If you’d like to begin right now, here’s an option. If I learned one thing on my own journey into the rich and varied history of this organization, it’s that there’s more to it than two measly articles. There’s a book worth. And while I’m probably not the right person to walk that particular path, my curiosity is sufficiently aroused that I believe there are more interviews worth sitting through, more stories yet to be told.
Not to belabor the point, but this was the second in a two-part series on the Access Fund. (If you haven’t read the first yet, I hope you will. I think you’ll find it interesting.)
2 Comments Add a Comment
|Great set of interviews. Thanks!|
|j_ung these are excellent. Thanks for acting on a great series of interviews. Climbing access is such a house of cards at times. These interviews provide all of us with the background history, updates on new issues and the depth of logisitics involved in getting/keeping places open for climbing. Keep it coming!|