Indian Creek is an internationally renowned rock climbing destination and a go-to crag for many Moab climbers. The area, characterized by towering Wingate sandstone buttes fractured with thousands of “splitter” cracks that climbers love to scale, is also a management unit in the hotly disputed Bears Ears National Monument, as well as an area rich with cultural sites sacred to Indigenous tribes, the location of the Canyonlands Research Center, and the site of a working cattle ranch.
With visitation increasing, the recent new land designation, and area management likely under review in the near future, climbing advocacy group the Access Fund is partnering with the University of Utah to understand the needs and wants of Indian Creek climbers, to be better prepared to advocate for those items during future planning processes.
Bears Ears National Monument is jointly managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service. The BLM estimates that there were 125,911 visitors to the Indian Creek Unit of Bears Ears in fiscal year 2020. It’s unknown how many of those visitors are rock climbers—the area gives access to hiking, camping, scenic driving, 4wd trails, archaeological sites, and the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park—but rock climbers have discussed increasingly busy crags and camping areas in recent years.
The Access Fund joined with Dr. David Carter, assistant professor in the Political Science Department at University of Utah, to design an online survey to learn how Indian Creek climbers are experiencing the increased busyness and how they would like to see the area managed. Carter’s research also delves into how climbers exercise self-governance of climber behavior and ethics within the climbing community.
Survey of climber perspective
The Access Fund has worked with the BLM in the past to address rock climber issues, by facilitating conversations and contributing to projects like trail building and pit toilet installation.
Chris Winter, executive director of the Access Fund, said the organization will likely continue to give input and possibly support on those items as well as on others such as education and campgrounds.
Winter said that while the next major planning process for the Indian Creek Unit is not yet scheduled, the Access Fund wants to be ready with a solid understanding of what the climbing community wants when it’s time to give stakeholder input on management. The Access Fund referenced previous surveys and studies to frame questions about climber concerns, such as the availability and cost of camping, infrastructure like parking and toilet facilities, regulations concerning pets, and crowding at crags. Carter also has a background in researching the climbing community and offered insight in helping to frame the questions.
The survey is now closed and the results are being analyzed. That analysis will be shared immediately with the BLM and with The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit that owns the Canyonlands Research Center, and published on the Access Fund website.
“We’ve invested a lot of time and energy in trying to take care of Bears Ears and the Creek,” said Winter, noting that it is one of the nationwide nonprofit’s highest priority areas.
The BLM did announce on June 16 public comment periods for environmental assessments of two potential projects in the Indian Creek area. One project would improve and expand Hamburger Rock Campground, with more developed campsites, more space for vehicles, toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings. The campground currently offers 10 first-come, first-served sites for $15 a night, and is used by climbers as well as by off-road enthusiasts and other recreators.
The other assessment examines a climbing access trail stabilization project proposed by the Access Fund. That project would coordinate the rehabilitation and construction of trails and staging areas to make trails safer and more resistant to damage and erosion.
Comments on these proposals will be accepted until July 15, and can be submitted through the BLM’s eplanning websites, at https://go.usa.gov/x6nHb for Hamburger Rock or https://go.usa.gov/x6nHu for the trail stabilization project; or by mail to the BLM Monticello Field Office, Attn. Jason Byrd, 365 N Main St., Monticello, UT 84535.
Carter wrote his master’s thesis on research he conducted on climbers in Indian Creek, examining how government officials and user groups often share responsibility for mitigation of damage to open-access natural resources, using land management agencies, climber advocacy groups, and rock climbers in the Indian Creek area as a case study. (Carter now holds a PhD in Public Affairs.) He has worked with the Access Fund in the past, as well as several other climbing organizations, and currently sits on the board of the Salt Lake Climbers’ Alliance; he is a devoted rock climber himself.
In Carter’s work, he’s noted how rock climbers are relatively effective at self-governance as a culture.
“It’s such an organized user group relative to other user groups,” Carter said of climbers, noting that threats to climbing access are regarded seriously because climbing areas are a limited resource when compared to other outdoor recreation resources like hiking or biking trails. He also referenced studies that suggest that the cultures surrounding “lifestyle” sports, like climbing, surfing, or skateboarding, have a more powerful influence on their participants.
“It’s not just an activity, but it really is a lifestyle,” Carter said of climbing. “Some people shape their whole life around the pursuit of this activity.”
Another reason the climbing culture developed a powerful ability for self-governance, Carter said, is that it developed as a fringe activity in small communities. Climbers in an area knew each other and would confront each other if someone violated the established code of ethics. Carter said those small communities enforced the norms “the same way communities have always enforced community norms—through reputation and shaming and calling people out.”
If a climber, for example, placed bolts on a route that could be protected with traditional gear at a crag where that was considered “poor style” or against the locally established code of ethics, other local climbers would know who did it and respond.
Climbing has become increasingly mainstream over the last decades, causing the small, isolated cultures attached to specific climbing areas to dissipate. When Carter was interviewing Indian Creek climbers around 2010 for his first paper on the topic, he said,
“Some were lamenting the fact that there were so many people in the Creek and there were so many rules and they were putting in trails. They said, ‘It’s the wild wild west!’At one time it was, and it’s not anymore.” More users cause an increased impact on an area and generate a need for increased mitigation and management, usually through a combination of user group self-governance and government regulation.
Carter noted that while some positive aspects of climbing are lost with those small, unique communities becoming homogenized, there are also upsides to the sport becoming more mainstream.
“One of the things we gain as a climbing community is an opening up of climbing,” Carter said, noting that early climbers, particularly celebrated climbers in North America, were almost all white males. “Mainstreaming of climbing is a recognition that it was a pretty exclusive social space before, and it doesn’t have to be so and it shouldn’t be so.”
In the absence of those isolated, exclusive communities, local climbing organizations—like Friends of Indian Creek or the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, can take on some of the role of amplifying and encouraging the agreed-upon code of ethics in a particular area. The Access Fund strives to be both a reflection of and a guiding influence on climber culture and values.
Carter also noted that the tactic of shaming to maintain cultural norms within the group has become outsized and toxic in the age of the internet. In a recent incident in which a climber, mistakenly thinking ancient rock art was modern graffiti, bolted a route over a petroglyph panel in the Moab area, the Access Fund published a statement condemning the action. Soon after the incident, the Access Fund hosted a webinar to discuss climbing on lands sacred to Indigenous people and invited the man who bolted the routes, who was apologetic, to sit on the panel.
“When it happens on the internet, it becomes something else,” Carter said of the shaming approach to cultural self-governance. “People aren’t bound to the same conduct norms that they otherwise would be.”
What Carter would like to see in the place of a shaming culture in the climbing community is one of accountability. He referred to the backcountry skiing culture in the Wasatch Range. Skiers who accidentally trigger avalanches are encouraged to post video or information about the incident so that others can learn from it, he said.
“If all we do is shame somebody into oblivion, then when these mistakes happen, they’re not going to want to step forward and make them right, they’re going to try to hide,” said Carter.
However the climbing community moves forward with efforts to organize locally and self-regulate within the user group, it is still going to have to work with land management agencies and co-exist with other user groups, and that’s why the Access Fund continues to survey climbers and engage in the public planning process.
“We think of ourselves as the voice of the climbing community. We try to work really closely with the BLM as partners in taking care of that special place,” said Winter.