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Public Lands and the Future of Advocacy: An Interview with Brady Robinson (Part I in an Interview Series)

Posted on: December 7, 2016


In Continental Divide, a 2016 book on the history of U.S. mountaineering, Hamilton College professor and climber Maurice Isserman wrote of how many Americans, as he does, "attach our dreams to mountains. Mountains, we hope, will bring us strength, purpose, unity, salvation. We go to the mountains on a quest that, at various times and places, has been national, spiritual, personal, or some combination of all three."

Today, although technical climbing remains a relatively small part of U.S. culture, what climbers see in the mountains and amid cliff ecosystems can also reflect broader trends in our society at large. The diminishing of glaciers testifies to climate change; the pollution from cities appears as haze in some desert canyons. The degree of conservation of wild lands—and the ability of all members of the public to experience them—can rise and fall with political decisions.

Recently, the Senate passed an act to count the outdoor recreation economy as part of the GDP. At the same time, the arrival of a new president and administration in January brings with it a sense of uncertainty about the future of environmental protection as a whole. On the campaign trail, the president-elect, Donald Trump, made promises, outlined in his "100 day action plan," to "lift the restrictions on the production of...energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal" and to "cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs." His energy plan includes an intention to "open onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands," which could lead to greater mining, oil and gas extraction in wild areas. To what extent he will attempt to implement all of these objectives and to what extent his policies may change remains unknown.

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In the year ahead, we plan to speak with a variety of climbing organizations, individual climbers and writers to hear their ideas about environmental issues, conservation advocacy and mountain culture in a shifting American landscape. For another vision of mountains and wild places in U.S. history see a book review by Alpinist's editor-in-chief, Katie Ives, of Lauret Savoy's Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape.

We begin this interview series with a conversation with Brady Robinson, the executive director of the Access Fund and founding board chair of the Outdoor Alliance. On November 16, 2016, the Access Fund, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to "to protect climbing access and the integrity of America's outdoor climbing areas," released a statement in response to the outcome of the presidential election, "What Will the Trump Administration Mean for Climbing?" which can be read here: accessfund.org/news-and-events/news/what-will-the-trump-administration-mean-for-climbing. We've since followed up with Brady to learn more about his thoughts on the larger future of conservation and public lands.

Alpinist: We were wondering what kinds of responsibilities you feel that climbers might have toward wild places, beyond just their desires to keep them open for climbing. Given climbers' sense of connection to the mountains and their awareness of change in the environment, do you think that climbers have special insights that can inform their conservation advocacy?

Brady Robinson: To love a place, you have to know it. And people who are passionate about these places and know them in a visceral sense tend to become the most dedicated advocates. One way to build durable support for conservation—and by durable I mean across presidential administrations, and also across the generations—is by helping to connect subsequent generations of people to the outdoors. Climbers can speak to the intrinsic value of public lands and, as you mentioned, can also be on the lookout for changes. When it comes to climate change, I personally think about the right and left Mendel Couloirs in the Sierra. I did these two ice routes in the 1990s; the experience of climbing them set the foundation for many of my later adventures in the Karakorum. And now, just twenty years later, the ice in the Mendel Couloirs is pretty much gone, and it's unclear when it's ever going to come back. The experience I had is unavailable now. And of course we know that the majority of the world's glaciers are receding. The Eiger and other formations are getting sketchier. It isn't just ice—some rock formations are now unstable and falling apart as they thaw. So yes, I think climbers are positioned to bear witness to some of this change. And that's the first step towards any kind of action.

Alpinist: Right now there are a lot of unknowns about the future of public lands. In the past, Donald Trump said he was against the transfer of public lands from the federal government to the states. On the other hand, he has also spoken more generally about his desire to decrease environmental regulations in favor of resource extraction in the U.S. And the Republican Party has made public-lands transfer part of their 2016 platform, a plan that raises concerns that these lands might be sold to private owners and no longer be protected or accessible. From the recent statement by the Access Fund, it sounds as though this is an issue that you will be watching closely in the months ahead.

Brady Robinson: It is, and the Outdoor Alliance has really been a leader on this matter. If you go to the website, ProtectOurPublicLand.org, you can see some word clouds that include the names of locations at risk in each state. This gives people an idea of what's at stake if public lands are sold off. Selling off public land sounds bad, but if people understand that specific places important to them are truly at risk, I believe we'll see more of an outcry. As climbers, it's important for us to acknowledge how many of these places we love are on public land.

Alpinist: Given that now, as many people have said, it's a particularly divisive time in American history, do you see ways that both the Access Fund and individual climbers across the political spectrum could find common ground in working together for environmental issues?

Brady Robinson: To create a vision for the future of public land management and conservation that can be shared with, rather than imposed upon, rural communities, we're going to have to learn to talk to and understand each other. If we haven't addressed the root causes of these battles, we're going to have to keep fighting them, and we're stuck in a zero sum game. Many environmentalists aren't willing to acknowledge that there are good people from many different walks of life (that is to say, not just rural white folks) who feel completely alienated by their movement. Diversity and inclusiveness is on the minds of many in the conservation and outdoor advocacy worlds; we clearly have a lot of work to do. I think we can create stories of a positive vision for public lands and work across divides—that sort of work takes years to accomplish. But it is the only way to address the fundamental issues that inform the conflicts and controversies we see surrounding public lands in the United States.

Alpinist: When climbers go on road trips, sometimes they're coming from cities and heading into rural areas, what can they do to facilitate more positive interactions with those communities?

Brady Robinson: Be friendly. That sounds simple but it's actually really important! When climbers show up in rural communities, we are ambassadors for our community of climbers and for many forms of outdoor recreation generally. We can show a curiosity for the lives and worldviews of the people we interact with and express a genuine appreciation for the place. Also, in as much as you can, make your purchases local. It doesn't take a whole lot of dollars to make an economic impact. Rather than loading up at Whole Foods, take a chance and see if you can make a go of it at the local grocer and liquor store.

Alpinist: Do you have other suggestions for things that individual climbers can do to make their voices heard in the immediate future?

Brady Robinson: People need to keep paying attention, following important issues through the news sources they trust, and supporting the organizations they believe in with time and dollars. Climbers should continue to give back, to be the most responsible users of the land they can be, participate in the democratic process, be ready to weigh in when the time comes. From what I've seen, climbers generally have a great reputation for doing all these things. Let's keep it up. If you're not happy with the way this election went, or any election for that matter, don't fantasize about moving to Canada—do something to give the world a nudge in the direction you'd like to see it move!

Brady Robinson Brady Robinson. [Photo] Nate Ptacek

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