Getting off the Fence About Letting Climbers on the Rocks
Anyone can look at the Cumberlands and see that it is a beautiful area filled with scenery that would be perfectly at home depicted in oil on canvas. Many people look out on this landscape and appreciate it for its beauty, the vibrant greens in the summer, the rushing waters and the picturesque mountains, while others look out and see hiking paths, kayaking waters and rock faces begging to be climbed. The Cumberlands offer an abundance of these resources, yet leaves the majority of them undeveloped.
Rock climbing has become one of the fastest growing sports in the country. Magazines like Dead Point and Rock and Ice have readerships from all across the world, and Dead Point in particular has recently run an article written by Kelly Brown that covered a popular climbing area in the Cumberlands. The article covered one of the most highly visited spots for climbers in Tennessee, the Obed Wild and Scenic River. Climbers found their way to the cliffs of this national park as far back as the late ‘70s. Climbing in the Obed started at what is known as Lilly Bluff and has since expanded out, along the Obed River and its tributary Clear Creek. Today it’s home to over 360 climbing routes.
Climbers sometimes get a negative image because the typically young, early 20’s to mid 30’s, demographic is seen as reckless and disinterested in maintaining the environment they use in their sport, and this tends to discourage people from letting climbers use their land. A group of local climbers decided to address this by creating the East Tennessee Climbers Coalition.
“The first thing we noticed was that there wasn’t a lot of education for climbers, so we made a code of ethics, posted it, and made it available to climbers,” Rick Bost, one of the founding members of the East Tennessee Climbers Coalition, said. “Then we started doing trail days.”
Trail days are days where climbers gather together and volunteer to work on maintaining the grounds they use for climbing. This is part of the ETCC’s effort to maintain the land and the relationships they have with the land owners. Trail days are sponsored by various local businesses and organizations including Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, the Little River Trading Company, the UT Outdoor Program, and River Sports. These companies provide funding and equipment as incentive for climbers to come out and help.
“One of the biggest concerns was the threat of access being closed. As individuals we felt like we couldn’t do anything about it.” - Rick Bost
This concern became very real when a land owner for one of the three properties that have to be crossed to get to the south clear climbing area made it known he didn’t want people on his property. This happened after the National Park Services purchased an easement from his land.
“He didn’t feel like he owned the property anymore, and he didn’t want anybody else using it,” Bost said. “The ETCC partnered with the Nature Conservancy, and the Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, to work with climbers to raise money in order to purchase eight acres of land from the land owner.”
The climbers were responsible for raising around $9,000 for the purchase and the deal was successful.
In 2005 Charles B Sims and Donald G. Hodges of the Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, did a study of the economic impact of climbers in the Obed. The study took place over on 96 days over a 12 month period from Nov. 1, 2002 to Oct. 31, 2003.
This study determined that climbers coming to the Obed have a direct economic impact of $146,000 per year, but only 38 percent of their expenditures occur within Morgan County. There is an annual consumer surplus of $360,000 as a result, where annual consumer surplus is defined as: the difference between what consumers are willing to pay for a good or service relative to its market price. A consumer surplus occurs when the consumer is willing to pay more for a given product than the current market price.
Concerns about parking, facilities, lines, regulations, and the lack of suitable campsites are present. Though there are 360 climbing routes available at the Obed at any one time only around one third of those routes are available because of the weather.
“If we had more opportunities for climbing, in places like Catoosa or Jamestown we could get more visitors and have a greater impact,” Bost said. “It could help increase the stability of the region. What we need is greater interaction with the population.
“Red river gorge in Kentucky provides around 3,100 climbing routes. Even with the same weather conditions they would have around 700 routes open at any given time.”
The Obed’s growth is limited by a bolting moratorium put into affect by the National Park Services. Area climbers entered into an agreement with the NPS that they would not bolt any climbing routes until the Park Service could determine the impact of bolting on the environment.
“The National Park Service said these studies take a long time, but we agreed to wait so long as they agreed to at least consider it,” Bost said. “We have a great deal of respect for the Park Service and believe that, as long as we honor our agreement, we can fully expect them to follow through on their side.”
The East Tennessee Climbers Coalition currently has four board members, Co-founders Rick Bost and John Nowell, Craig Lewis, and Jeff Longee.