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Elite Rock Climbers Push for Public Lands Protection on Capitol Hill

In 62 separate meetings, athletes and advocates asked politicians to protect the great outdoors

By Tom McCarthy

Alex Honnold was stuck in traffic.

The world’s most renowned rock climber was due on Capitol Hill for a US Senate reception with other top climbers from around the country, who had descended en masse on Washington to lobby for greater protections for public lands.

photo of climberPhoto by tony puyol / Flickr Galvanized by the rollback of public lands by the Trump administration, organizers invited rock climbers to Washington for a day of meetings with members of Congress and agency heads.

Honnold, the subject of an upcoming film documenting his ropeless climb last year of the 3,000 ft El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, had run out for a quick meeting with the National Park Service. But then he hit Washington’s notorious rush hour.

“It’s taking Alex longer to get here from the Department of the Interior than it takes him to climb El Cap,” quipped Phil Powers, CEO of the American Alpine Club, which organized the climbers’ lobbying event with the not-for-profit Access Fund.

Galvanized by the rollback of public lands by the Trump administration, and empowered by the roaring growth of the outdoor recreation industry, organizers had invited the athletes to Washington for a day of meetings with members of Congress and agency heads.

In 62 separate meetings, 13 teams of athletes and advocates made their ask of politicians and regulators: protect public lands by supporting funding for things like land and water conservation, firefighting, research, and staffing. Resist future attempts to remove federal protections from public lands. And support the sensible acquisition of new public lands to preserve irreplaceable ecosystems.

While the outdoor industry has lobbied legislators along similar lines for years, the Trump administration’s decision last year to radically shrink Bears Ears national monument and halve the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument has sharpened focus on what is at stake.

“The political climate around outdoor recreation and public lands has changed dramatically in just the last year,” Brady Robinson, executive director of the Access Fund, told The Guardian.

So the call went out to California, Colorado, Washington state, Utah, New Hampshire and other outdoor playgrounds. And on Thursday, some of the biggest names in rock climbing turned up in a hearing room in the Russell Senate office building, which was suddenly filled with backpacks by Patagonia, North Face, Osprey, Burton, and Jansport, rather than briefcases.

photo of el capitanPhoto by djandyw.com aka nobody / FlickrAlex Honnold, the world’s most renowned rock climber, was among those who made the trip to Washington. Last year he made a ropeless 3,000-foot ascent of Yosemite's El Capitan.

There was Tommy Caldwell, whose 2015 ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall captured the national imagination. Lynn Hill, who made standard-shattering ascents for two decades at every level of the sport. Margo Hayes, who last year became the first woman to climb 5.15, the hardest known grade. And — maybe — Alex Honnold.

Hosting the group was Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state and the ranking member on the energy and natural resources committee, which oversees public lands. A climber herself, Cantwell is the primary sponsor of legislation to fund and permanently reauthorize the Land and Water conservation fund.

“What you saw is real-life enthusiasm, passion, and an understanding about the American outdoors that translates across the world,” Cantwell said of the climbers. “They communicated that.”

As the reception got under way, an American Alpine Club representative announced one win for the day: Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, had agreed to co-sign the Recreation not Red Tape Act to encourage outdoor recreation opportunities. A cheer went up.

A whopping 144.4 million Americans visit public lands for recreation each year, according to the advocacy groups, while annual revenue in the outdoor industry — which includes everything from fishing to hunting to water sports — has been pegged by the Outdoor Industry Association at $887 billion.

Those kinds of numbers have earned attention in the highest reaches of government, Cantwell told The Guardian.

“I started my morning with [interior] secretary [Ryan] Zinke and [agriculture] secretary [Sonny] Purdue, and the interior secretary started with the factoid about the outdoor economy being $880 billion, and I thought, ‘OK, we’re breaking through, because that’s something he’s really focused on’,” she said.

The shrinkage of Bears Ears happened with the overwhelming support of Republicans in Utah, but advocacy groups downplay the partisan divide over public lands.

“I have never seen wilderness truly be a partisan issue,” said Powers, of the American Alpine Club. “I think we’re in a tough political world right now, and I think both parties feel the need to align behind their platforms. But I don’t think, on a case-by-case basis, that it’s a partisan issue.

At the reception, the climbers presented slideshows to illustrate how the outdoors had shaped their lives. Caldwell showed a picture of himself in the mountains with his father, and then one of his five-year-old son. He talked about the importance of preserving outdoor spaces across generations.

“We’re all really lucky. We get to get outdoors, and that is a privilege,” said Majka Burhardt, a climber, film-maker, and activist. “We all would be better served to go and to reach out to get more people involved in the outdoors, because that’s how we’re going to keep growing the importance of the outdoors.”

At last, Honnold appeared, striding down a long Senate hallway, wearing a suit.

“As somebody who’s spent most of my adult life living out of a car, I find addressing a group like this deeply intimidating,” he told the overflow crowd. He explained that he had been climbing in Yosemite Valley, California, a day earlier, had flown in for the event and was heading back to the valley the next day.

“This meeting we just had with the park service was something I can’t imagine happening 10 years ago,” Honnold said. “It was really encouraging to hear the deputy director basically asking us how we can encourage climbing in the national parks.”

In reply to a question about the Trump administration’s hostility to public lands, Honnold said the administration did not represent the people.

“The American public is supportive of public lands,” he said. “The American people are very proud of our national parks. Just because the administration doesn’t support it doesn’t mean the public doesn’t support it.”

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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