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May 16, 2017

Top American Climbers Lobby Congress to Preserve National Monuments

The battle over public lands rages on.


Michael Levy

A recent Executive Order from President Trump calls for the review of 27 National Monuments and puts their future in jeopardy. But American climbers are speaking up. Last week, a handful of the bestfrom Tommy Caldwell to Alex Honnold, from Libby Sauter to Sasha DiGiulianwent to Washington, D.C. to take a stand.

After moves early in 2017 by the GOP-controlled Utah legislature and rhetoric from the Trump Administration foreshadowed a coming showdown over Bears Ears National Monument, a new Executive Order signed on April 26 further escalated the federal government’s efforts to dismantle protections of public land.  The outdoor recreation industry has taken decisive steps over the past several months intended to put pressure on lawmakers to reverse course. Its actions in response to this most recent development continue these efforts: On May 11, under the auspices of an initiative dubbed “Climb the Hill,” sponsored by the Access Fund and the American Alpine Club, a cohort of top American climbersincluding Tommy Caldwell, Libby Sauter, Alex Honnold and Caroline Gleichtraveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with Congressmen and women and voice their concerns about the new Executive Order.

The Executive Order puts millions of acres previously designated as public land in 27 different National Monuments at risk of losing that distinction and the protections afforded them by it. Pursuant to the order, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke will make recommendations to President Trump about whether to preserve each National Monument as is, remove its designation entirely, or adjust its borders as he sees fit.

American climbers Tommy Caldwell, Libby Sauter, Alex Honnold, Caroline Gleich, Sasha DiGiulian, Kai Lightner, Mikhail Martin, Quinn Brett and Shelma Jun joined around 40 other industry professionals and met with congresspeople from both parties at the Nation’s capital on May 11. The Outdoor Journal caught up with Caroline Gleich by phone and Libby Sauter by email, and also had a phone conversation with the Access Fund’s Executive Director, Brady Robinson. 

Alex Kosseff from the AMGA, jason Keith from the Access fund and Caroline Gleich preparing for a meeting at the U.S. Department of the Interior . Photo: Caroline Gleich.

Robinson said the goals of the event were two-fold: “One, to convey that climbing is important; that we’re not just a bunch of wackos and that we have views on some of the bigger issues of the day, including public lands issues. And two, to come away with better advocates speaking with the issues with more understanding than they would have otherwise. When you put people in a room, give them a briefing and send them out to advocate, they’ll learn and own those issues in a way they wouldn’t otherwise. After the event, we have articulate, passionate advocates to galvanize the community.”

In her email, Sauter, a prolific Yosemite climber and pediatric cardiac nurse, wrote that talking points varied depending on the previously articulated stances of the congressperson each Climb the Hill sub-delegation was meeting with, but general messaging focused around encouraging lawmakers to vote “in a pro-public land stance,” and expressing “support of the Antiquities Act as it currently stands as well as the existing borders of all National Monuments.”

Sauter said that reactions from lawmakers were mixed. “We heard it all. Some folks were very, very supportive and asking what more they could do to help the cause. Other offices would say ‘Yes, we agree public lands are a treasure. We just disagree on how they should be governed.’”

John Tanner, legislative director for Senator Orrin Hatch, Caroline Gleich and Jason Keith of the Access Fund. Photo: Caroline Gleich.

Ski-mountaineer Caroline Gleich, said she was heartened by inroads she had made since prior lobbying trips on behalf of the climate change movement. “Overall it was really positive,” she said. “One of my favorite moments from the trip was when we met with staffers from [Utah] Senator Orinn Hatch’s office. He’s incredibly right wing. I’d met with his same staffers before on an earlier trip and I thought that meeting was an absolute disaster. But one of the staffers started following me on Instagram after that trip, and so saw and followed all of my posts about fighting climate change.

“Change happens really slowly,” Gleich continued. “But I think it’s definitely happening, and events like these are a big part of the catalyst for that change.”

One of the first National Monuments to be reviewed by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is Bears Ears, in Utah. President Obama declared the area a National Monument on December 28, 2016, just before the end of his second term, thereby protecting roughly 1.3 million acres. As noted by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Obama’s action marked “the first time that a president has responded to a formal request from sovereign Native American Tribes to use the Antiquities Act to protect public lands and cultural resources.”

Approximately 100,000 archaeological sites lie within the 1.3 million protected acres, in addition to popular climbing and recreational areas like Indian Creek. Sauter said, “I’ve heard Indian Creek referred to as the single-pitch crack climbing Mecca, Mecca being the most important religious site to all Muslims. That’s how inspiring and important this place is to us as climbers.” Gleich echoed Sauter’s sentiments: “Bears Ears is like nowhere else on the planet. It’s just a mind-blowing landscape. When you combine that with the cultural resourcesthe petroglyphs on the walls, the remote wildernessit’s a transformative experience to spend time there.”

Sunset in Indian Creek. Photo: Libby Sauter.

While Climb the Hill was a one-weekend event, its objectives are ongoing. Sauter spelled out all the various avenues open for constituents to put pressure on their elected representatives. “Currently we are in the 15 day comment period for Bears Ears,” Sauter explained. “We were told that originally composed, anecdotal stories are the most effective. As well, handwritten letters and Twitter are great and underused means to convey your support. To increase our power, we need individuals to call, write, email and tweet at Secretary Zinke. Then they should call the D.C. and local offices of their senators and representatives and urge them to voice their support of public lands to Secretary Zinke in the form of public letters or statements. Local groups should compose letters explaining why national monuments matter to their organizations. Local businesses should do the same. We must send group and individual correspondence. And then we must share with our friends and family and ask them to do the same!”

“It’s going to take a lot of continued follow-up,” Gleich said. “We’ll have to continue coming to the table, speaking up and presenting our viewpoints. There is still a lot of work to do.” 

Robinson was quite happy with how Climb the Hill turned out. “I think this event was really valuable as a one-off, but I also think it will be more valuable over time as we continue to do things like this year after year into the future,” he said. “We’re not a flash in the pan. Climbers are here to stay and our opinions matter.” (Robinson was also excited about the welcome the climbers received: “How cool is it that Tim Kaine came out? Frankly, he was somewhat starstruck by Sasha.”)

Access Fund Executive Director Brady Robinson, Libby Sauter, Quinn Brett, Sasha DiGiulian, Kai Lightner and Alex Honnold with Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) (second from left). Photo: Courtesy of Libby Sauter.

To comment on the federal review of Bears Ears and other National Monuments, visit https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=DOI-2017-0002-0001 and leave a comment at the bottom.  Any comments pertaining to the review of Bears Ears must be submitted prior to May 26, while the deadline for comments relating to all other National Monuments is July 10.

Feature Image: (From left to right) Sasha DiGiulian, Caroline Gleich, Libby Sauter, Quinn Brett and Katie Boué after a Congressional hearing. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Gleich.


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Nov 12, 2018

Crag Caucus: Veterans and Politicians Rock Climb Together with American Alpine Club

The “Hill to Crag” event series connects veterans and legislators on rock climbing excursions to advocate for public lands. AAC Chairman and active-duty US Army Major Byron Harvison serves the beta.



Kela Fetters

Since its creation in 1902, climbing advocacy non-profit the American Alpine Club (AAC) has championed protection for the public lands that serve as unrivaled outdoor venues for climbers and other recreators. Their latest outreach program, the “Hill to Crag” initiative, offers lawmakers and their staff a chance to experience these public lands at iconic climbing spots across the nation. The excursions provision local elected officials with a fun day in a harness, a few sore muscles, and a heightened appreciation for public lands to parlay into protective legislature.

Golden, CO. Photo: Chad Vaughn

After the inaugural event in spring 2018, AAC’s Salt Lake Chapter Chair Byron Harvison saw the potential for veterans to contribute. Harvison, an Army Major and experienced climber, felt that veteran involvement could engender open dialogue. Conversations regarding public lands management can be polarizing; Harvison thinks politicians will respond positively to the testimonial of veterans. “Elected officials may be more inclined to hear what veterans have to say,” he says. Likewise, “discharged veterans oftentimes have a desire to continue to serve and this is a great opportunity.”

Golden, CO. Photo: Chad Vaughn

Harvison explains the Hill to Crag stratagem. “First, we talk about outdoor recreation as a way to deal with veteran-specific issues like PTSD, addiction, and depression following deployment,” he extolls. These dialogues are personal and poignant. Harvison focused on rock climbing after an intense deployment in Afghanistan, and he isn’t the only veteran to credit outdoor recreation with healing. “A lot of guys can say ‘Hey, getting outside saved my life’, and they are able to share those raw stories with these legislators,” he adds.

Harvison knows politicians are beholden to monetary interests and thus explicates the value of outdoor recreation on the local and national economy: “Nationally, outdoor recreation has surpassed the oil and gas industry in economic terms.” A recent government report estimates that outdoor recreation contributes $412 billion annually to the US GDP, and Harvison recognizes the potential for the industry to throw its weight around. “We are finding our voice and coming to realize how loud that voice can be,” he explains.

The crux of Harvison’s discourse is the indispensability of public lands protection. “All of these things—the mental health benefits and thriving outdoor economy—hinge on the availability of public lands to recreate on,” he summarizes.

Photo by Byron Harvison from the Golden, CO Hill to Crag event on October 12, 2018.

Chalk it up to smart strategy, productive dialogue, or a bit of crag magic, but the Hill to Crag events have already made an impact. The inaugural excursion in May of 2018 was testimony to the power of storytelling as pedagogy. Members of the AAC and climbing advocacy group the Access Fund brought Utah Congressman John Curtis to rock climbing mecca Joe’s Valley Boulders in Emery County, UT. Harvison explained to the lawmaker that “each climber contributes around $58 per night to the local economy of nearby Castle Dale.” Castle Dale, a tiny town of 3,500, hosts 19,000-25,000 climbers annually from around the world who are drawn to the area’s intricate sandstone boulders. Emery County faces the economic stagnation typical of a declining coal-mining community, but recreational tourism has considerable potential. “Climbing is a sustainable resource,” Harvison enthuses. “We were able to show Curtis the national and international appeal of our public lands.” In July of this year, Curtis proposed the Emery County Public Land Management Act, which would create a National Conservation Area out of the San Rafael Swell, designating over a half-million acres of the redrock desert parcel federally protected wilderness. The proposal juxtaposes nearly every piece of land-grab legislation to emerge from Utah in the past year and wagers on the economic potential of recreational tourism. Curtis’s proposition, on the heels of a Hill to Crag event, is radical in its embrace of public access instead of for-profit enterprise.

Photo by Dillon Parker from the Vedauwoo Recreation Area, WY Hill to Crag event on October 19, 2018.

Perhaps the AAC recognized the aptitude of rock climbing as a metaphor for public lands access when they launched the Hill to Crag program. Central to both climbing and public lands advocacy is an ethos of respect for natural resources and the responsible placing of protections, be them nuts and crams or legislature. The AAC will hold their final adventure of 2018 on November 16 in Chimney Rock State Park, North Carolina (pictured in cover photo). Harvison says that the program will launch spring events in Oregon and Montana and has plans for a route bolting clinic in Wyoming after a successful Hill to Crag climb in the state’s Vedauwoo Recreation Area last month. In concert with the Hill to Crag series, the American Alpine Club is also expanding veteran and active-duty military outreach with new discounted club membership options and targeted events.

Special thanks to US Army Major Byron Harvison, who was interviewed for this piece.

Cover photo by dconvertini via Flickr,

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