Climber stewards wrap up season in Indian Creek

Indian Creek, just south of Canyonlands National Park, was busy this Thanksgiving.

The Wingate sandstone walls of the canyons in Indian Creek are ideal for crack climbing, a physically intense style of rock climbing that involves jamming appendages into a vertical crack and heaving oneself up the wall.

This fall, Johanna Cogen and Lauren Hebert educated hundreds of climbers on how to minimize their impacts in the area.

Cogen and Hebert are the first employees of the Climber Steward Program, a pilot run by Access Fund, a national nonprofit with the mission of keeping climbing areas open and conserving the climbing environment.

The program is in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, Friends of Indian Creek, and the Bureau of Land Management.

Hebert, who has climbed in Indian Creek for years and also works as a mountain guide and outdoor educator, said, “It’s so good that climbing is continually working to be more inclusive and more people are able to get involved.”

With increased visitation comes the potential of increased impacts. “There’s more visitors coming through this corridor than anywhere else within Bears Ears National Monument, and the majority of that is probably climbers,” said Jake Palma, BENM manager for the BLM, “…so that’s why the value of this program is so big.”

The stewards hosted “Climber Coffee” for 10 weekends this fall, rotating among three popular areas: Superbowl Campground, Supercrack parking lot, and Beef Basin Junction. They wrapped up their season this past weekend.

“We’re at well over 1,000 people at this point” said Ty Tyler, stewardship director at Access Fund referring to the number of visitors to the stewards’ tent. That was in November, with two weekends to go.

There was a lot to cover.

The Stewards had a “Jeopardy” style board under their tent to spur conversations, in addition to other resources provided by the BLM, and free coffee.

Visitors could ask and answer questions on cultural resources, Leave No Trace outdoor ethics, Indian Creek history, geology, and climbing etiquette.

If they answered a 300-level question right, visitors could get a free “wag bag.”

“You know, everyone’s taught early on, go dig a cat hole in the desert. That doesn’t totally work,” Tyler said.

“We’re trying to educate people about the best way to travel on this land, trying to stay on trail, walking on slick rock, not just on the talus slopes and staying in washes if you are not able to stay on trail,” said Cogen, who first climbed in Indian Creek while she was in college and has a background in outdoor education.

The stewards also educated visitors on how to approach the cultural resources of the area, which has ancestral significance for the Pueblo, Ute, and Navajo peoples.

“Climbing does have or can have impacts on a landscape in an area that is rich in cultural history,” said Palma. “There’s rock art. There’s ancestral Puebloan structures in the area. There’s paleontological resources in there.

“There’s all these sensitive things that are here that many of these climbers may not even realize are there in certain areas where they’re climbing until it’s pointed out to them.”

An Educational Bridge

“There’s definitely a feeling of the need for stewardship here,” said Cogen, “And this place has become a lot more popular in the last 10, 15 years or so and there’s a lot of impacts that come along with that.

“So just being that kind of educational bridge, to help inform people how we can act better and care for this place so that we can keep climbing here and it maintains its beauty and wow factor.”

“They’re not enforcement or anything like that. It’s soft education,” said Tyler.

Hebert sees that as a key aspect of the stewards’ role: “If we can spread this knowledge and do these things ourselves, then you don’t need outside enforcement or regulation of [Indian Creek] if we’re already doing some of the things.”

“We have park rangers out there, but they’re somewhat limited in in the contacts they can make,” said Jason Byrd, outdoor recreation manager for the BLM at the Monticello Field Office.

He later added, “I just think it’s really helpful and great to have an organization like the Access Fund that’s really willing to recognize how special those places are and then put themselves out there to try to partner with the land organizations and try to make an impact.”

BLM helped with the stewards’ educational materials and some specialists visited the tent this fall. They will be providing funding for the program starting in March, according to Byrd and Palma.

“The BLM has a lot on their plate,” said Kristen Redd, field station manager for the Canyonlands Research Center, a collaborative located on Dugout Ranch, a significant parcel of private land in the area owned by The Nature Conservancy. “What the Access Fund is doing is basically creating a bridge between the user group and the BLM, and helping facilitate that relationship.”

Camping impacts and impacts near cultural sites were her biggest concerns.

“It’s been a super successful program in terms of outreach,” Palma said.

There have been similar successful programs in Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Park, but this is the first program where the stewards are paid, according to Tyler. Access Fund has plans to expand the program to other climbing areas nationally.

Palma described the vision for the program this way: “we’re increasing education, lowering impacts, and maintaining that access for a user group.”

“Everyone who’s here has a common thread of the space calling to them, so it’s about taking care of it. And also everyone who wants to be here being able to be here,” Hebert said.

The stewards will be back in Indian Creek in March for the spring season.

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