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How to open a closed crag on private land

What can you do?

By Brad McLeod, SCC rep. --revised 11-12-07 mbmcleod@mindspring.com How do you open a closed crag on private land? The question has come up many times while sitting at the top of your local crag and looking across the valley and you spy another awesome looking cliffline. How do we get access to that crag owned by Mr. Farmer Brown? Closed crags on private land is the number one climbing access problem in the South. Many of our crags are locked away in private ownership without much of a chance to be liberated. Until now. Climbers around the deep South have drawn a line in the sand and rallied to open closed climbing areas on private land. Recent success stories of closed crags being opened back to the climbing public include Boat Rock (GA), Jamestown (AL), Castle Rock (TN), Laurel Knob (NC) and the Murray-Pendergrass tract (KY). These newly opened crags were formerly on private land and technically closed. Local climbing organizations (LCO's) like the Southeastern Climbers Coalition (SCC), the Carolina Climbers Coalition (CCC) and the Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition (RRGCC) have worked super hard to open up so that future generations of climbers can enjoy these precious areas.

So your sitting here reading this essay and wondering - "How can our little climbing group do what they did"? Read on my climbing friend and you will be on your way to opening the next (closed) crag in your neck of the woods.

The first thing you need to do is study the current access situation at the closed crag and see what is going on. Grab the back of an envelope and sit down at the kitchen table and write down what (the name of the crag, how many routes, how many acres), who (who owns the crag), what (what type of climbing) and why (why is it closed?). This will provide the starting point and framework for everything you do in the future when you try to open this crag. When you call your buddies to enlist their help or you talk to local gyms and shops or even the Access Fund about opening this area - these are the questions you will be asked.

If you know the landowner or have their phone number, then dont be shy, give them a call. Write a few questions on a the back of that same envelope like "Do you own Crag X?' and "Would it be OK if we climb on your land?" and "Why is it closed to climbing"?. When talking with a landowner it is best to ask a few good questions, but the most important thing to do is to listen. Just sit back and close your trap and listen to what the landowner needs. That's right; listen to their needs. From those needs and desires you can then figure out ways that you can become a solution to provide what they need. Listening to the needs of the landowner may be the single most significant thing you do in your quest to open the crag. By listening, you hear their concerns and respect their point of view (even if you disagree with it).

In a recent magazine interview with "Cowboys and Indians" (C&I) magazine, Bill Richardson, New Mexico Governor was asked. C&I magaine: You've been no nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times, mostly for your negotiating skills. What makes for a successful negotiation? Bill Richardson: You have to be able to listen, to respect the other point of view, to let the other side save face, and to get some personal respect for each other before you lanuch into major goals. And then you have to find what common goals there may be. You have to always have your object in mind, even if it's just to continue the negotiation.

Always be prepared for feedback, both from the climbing community and landowners. It is said that feedback is the "breakfast of champions". Gather together a group of climbers, local activist and people that have a good head on their shoulders. Sit down and create a focus group to talk about the issues facing the crag and how you all can work together to open this area and minimize problems. This focus group will provide a great sounding board to help focus on ideas and solutions and create a great working relationship for local climbers and citizens. Dont be afraind to ask for constructive criticism and always be in the hunt to find another way to skin a cat. Try to think out of the box and encourage others to push your group to do the same.

From that conversation you should try to answer several questions. What is the current situation at the closed crag? What are the issues that have made the landowner close the crag? There are several issues that may cause a landowner to close a crag (or never open it in the first place). These can include -

Impact to land
Peace and quiet

If liability is the main concern, send them a copy of the applicable Recreational Statutes for the state that the property is located in. Click here a full list of State Recreational Use Statutes Georgia, Talk to the owner about liability concerns and possible solutions. Sometimes an owner will read the State recreational statues digest the info and move on or some may say "So what, anyone can still sue me whether they think they can win or not". That is true, but as of this writing, no climber has brought a successful lawsuit against a private landowner for falling on their property. You may be able to buy insurance for your group but only if asked by the landowner. Liability waivers may be another option but are often a administrative bear and you would need to have someone to keep track of the waivers. A great option to easing landowners liability concerns would be to buy the land which would eliminate their liability risk. This sounds drastic but in many areas of the country, land is still cheap and it may be an actual viable option. Take a good look at this idea before you throw up your arms. The second would be to lease the land and provide insurance to cover climbing on their land.

If crowding or parking is a concern then sit down and talk with them about possibly limiting the amount of climbers and cars at the crag. Sketch out a spot for a new parking lot in an Out of site and out of mind will make everything go better. Better yet, take a good look at a USGS map or road map and look for ways to put parking in an "out of site, out of mind" area. Meaning that if you can put the parking in an area where other neighbors and the owner cant see you and you can hike out without being seen then you are often off of their radar screen and that will reduce many of their concerns (noise, crowding, visual impacts, etc.).

Often landowners are worried about impacts to their land which can include cutting of vegetation, scrubbing of holds, trampling of vegetation, moving of large rocks in landing zones, disturbing cattle, bolting, or climber trash left on the property. All of these issues can be addressed with the local climbing community by holding a trail day and cleanup to work on eroded trails, replant native vegetation, cleanup climber trash and debris left by others and get the word out that treading lightly on the land and packing out your trash. These are all great ways to keep your crag in good shape and open. Also, when climbers come to a trail day and cleanup, they are more apt to take ownership of an area and help take better care for an area. Before they may have walked by a powerbar wrapper on the side of the trail whereas now, they stoop down to pick up the trash and also catch that cigarette butt beside it. When you hold a local climber trail day think about things like trying to repair erosion to trails and trying to install native plants to mitigate for past or future impacts. Installing mulch in the landing zones of bouldering areas can also be an effective means of minimizing impacts and helping to keep vital top soil to stay on site and not get washed away from foot traffic and heavy rains.

If bolting is concern talk to local climbers and try to work out some issues. Insist that any hangers and bolt studs be camouflaged and any webbing be a neutral colors. Try to eliminate fixed draws if possible and make sure bright neon colors are taken down. If grid bolting is occurring get the climbing community together to talk about the issue and see if climbers will band together to curb the bolting until issues can be worked out with the landowner. Tread lightly and respect the ideas and rights of the landowner.

If an owner just wants peace and quiet and wants to be left alone then that is a tough nut to crack. Talk to the owner and local climbers about keeping quiet and low key in your area. This may be an issue that you have to prove to a landowner. Ask to be allowed to climb there on a trial period and then get feedback from the owner. Make sure there is a climber designated to be the go-between with the landowner and if noise and trash occur, then the owner can call someone to voice their concerns and work on the issue. Communication with the landowner and climber(s) is of utmost importance so that issues can be addressed rapidly. If you dismiss the landowner and dont return calls, dont be surprised when the owner doesnt renew your lease. Be proactive and keep the area in good shape and let other climbers know to respect the landowner.

OK; so now I have talked to the landowner and heard their concerns, now what do I do? You can do one of three things. You can ask to...
1). climb on the land
2). lease the land or
3). buy the land

Asking to climb is easy and you have a 50-50 chance of getting a yes. Always remember that if you dont ask, the answer is always no. Dont cave in to lame climbers who say "like wow, dude, dont ask the landowner as they may say no and we can't finish bolting our mega project line". That is absurd and extremely selfish and immature for a climber to think that they should be able to just bolt and climb on someones land without asking permission (I think it is called "poaching" in some parts of the country). Only a weed-head would respond with such a stupid statement. Be a real stand up person and ask first to enter someones land and climb. You will be surprised with the response as I have hadmore than one landowner praise our group for stepping up to ask first.

If you ask to climb on their land, then always be prepared to offer something in return. This can be a cleanup of the property and roadside area or anything that can show that you are of value to this deal. At Little Rock City bouldering area, the local climbers have a bi-annual trail day at the Montlake Golf Course. With one trail day, they cleanup the whole area and plant native ferns and shrubs. During the other trail day they pressure wash and paint the deck that the golfers use. They do what, you say? Yes; they provide value to the golfers by doing a chore that is important to them. The golfers see the climbers as value and want to keep them around. It is also a high visibility activity and many people know the great work they have done. My point is to bring value to the deal. Bring a bottle of their favorite liquor, an ice cold spiked watermelon, or bring them a hefty gift certificate to a local restuarant and most of all -- say thanks! People always want to fee appreciated. Go up to them and look them square in the face and tell them "We greatly appreciate you allowing our group to climb on your land". You will be surprised how few people do this and for the ones that do, they get a big smile from the landowner back.

So the owner is not really sold on allowing climbing and you have presented them with the State recreational statutes as a backup for their information. Talk to them about leasing and giving them some monetary return for allowing you to climb. This may conflict with the State Rec statutes so you will have to talk with a local attorney before you get too deep into this issue. Currently we lease the Castle Rock crag in Jasper, Tennessee and this approach has worked great. More details on this crag are further below.

If leasing is not an option then go to the third tool in your box. Ask them to sell the land. This is the last resort, but in some cases may should be the first. If you have a chance to buy a stellar crag for $6k an acre and you can buy the crag for $20k and will own it forever, then that may be a no-brainer. Talk it over with your local climbing organization and see if your group is ready to manage land and will have the funds to buy it.

But.... I don't know who owns the land? What do I do to find out who owns the land to see if we can climb. Research land ownership at the County Courthouse and write a letter to owner. Make sure you read through the deeds thoroughly to know exactly who owns the cliff and importantly who does not own the cliff. Many times you will hear an owner talk about what they own and wave their hands and say "all the way over to there". That is great info but in reality most owners dont know what they own and rarely know where their survey pins are unless it is a small tract of land. That is where the deeds are most important as they say exactly what land is owned and exactly where the pins are located. Read the deeds and you will know more than anyone in the room.

Is there a for sale sign on the property or is the owner only grudgingly talking to you about purchasing or leasing? If you are going to buy the cliffline and only a small amount of acreage you may have to pay above market value. If you are going to buy a large piece of land then you may be able to get the land at below or at market value.

If the owner wants to accept offer to purchase land, you will need a survey of land. Get a cost estimate from the surveying company and have them put in writing that they will contact you if the price will increase by 10% or more. Make sure the survey company puts pins in the ground when they do the actual survey work.

So your going to buy a crag. Where will you get the money? Here are some fundraising ideas. Donors - You can talk to climbers in the area that may have money and be interested in donating. Put together a business plan with information on who, what, where and why. Talk to as many climbers as you can and ask them "would you donate your hard earned money to this project".

You can solicit donors also by posting the business plan on the internet in a forum and asking for donors. Finding and tracking donors online is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to gather funds that you can find.

Put together a party at a local gym to raise funds. All you need are the basic ingredients of a place to have the party, a keg of beer and a cooler of cold drinks (soda, water, etc.) and a table of chips and dips. Throw in a cool slideshow from a local climber and a few slides of the new project and your set. This event will raise awareness for your project and also raise money to jump start the project.

BBQ and band at local climbing gym.
Local bouldering competition
Climbathon at local gym
Sell t-shirts and bumper stickers
Garage sale at local climbers home
Online drive to raise funds and awareness

Examples of closed crags on private land that have been opened by The SCC in recent years.

Boat Rock - Boat Rock is a small urban boulderfield located in southwest Atlanta, Georgia. This area has come under considerable pressure in recent years from residential subdivision construction. Boat Rock has a long history of climbing and held one of the first bouldering competitions in the U.S. back in 1985. Names like Robyn Ebersfield, Ron Kauk, Bob Cormany, Curtis Glass, Shannon Stegg, Rich Gottlieb and Jerry Roberts ring throughout the nearly mile long stretch of egg shaped granite boulders. The climbing at Boat Rock is very technical and takes a great deal of balance and foot work. A miscue can cost you flesh or shoe rubber. But the rewards far outweigh the risk as this area will literally "blow open your bouldering pallette" and definetly make you not only a better but more humble climber. There are lots of delicate slabs; but just when you think you’ve figured out Boat Rock, you come across a climb like the bulgey "Paint Can" which are sure to stretch your climbing imagination.

With all good things, there is a dark side. Within the past few years, the urban sprawl of Atlanta began to consume the once isolated bouldering area. Much of the "Back Side" has been recently subdivided into residential subdivision while the area around the lake is slated for high density commercial use. The SCC has continued to work with the developer to save the area around the lake and make it a park for the public. The local climbing community galvanized when the opportunity to purchase a forested tract along Boat Rock Road came up for sale. The newly purchased 7.8-acre tract is now open to the public and located on 1220 Boat Rock Road.

In 2005 a local climber donated 4.5 acres to help with expanding the park. In 2006 another local climbers purchased a house adjacent to Boat Rock and the boulders surrounding it (Easy Crack boulder). The EZ crack area is now open to climbing and the house is rented by climbers. Also in January 2007, the Woods Hill Boulders were leased (about 5 acres) from the Woods family which has opened up a new small sattelite bouldering area for the Boat Rock Preserve. In January of 2007, The SCC raised the final funds to pay off the mortgage on the 7.8 acre tract and Boat Rock is debt free. Check the SCC website at www.seclimbers.org for upcoming fundraising events like the annual Boat Rock bouldering competition.

One bright note with the recent efforts at Boat Rock is our environmental education project which brings young school kids to the area to learn about the geology and plant life and to do a little bit of climbing afterwards. To date we have had kids from Nesbitt Ferry Elementary School and The National Wildlife Federation to tour the area and learn about conservation and to enjoy the hiking trails and boulders. REI has generously donated funds in recent years to help this progam and to help ongoing maintenance of the park.

Our larger vision for Boat Rock is to create a 30 acre greenspace and park for all of the community to enjoy. The SCC has been contacting landowners to see if they will donate land to this project and has continued to work with the developer to work on access issues and try to get more land donated to the Boat Rock Preserve.

Jamestown - The Jamestown climbing area is comprised of nearly one mile of 80 to 100 foot tall sandstone climbing cliff located in northeastern Alabama. Situated above the town of Jamestown, this area has a long history of climbing dating back to 1977. The area was discovered by visiting climbers Rich Gottlieb and Chick Holtcamp, who were touring the Lookout Mountain area and climbing at nearby Yellow Creek. In time, Jack Chislet, Eric Zschiesche, John Vermont, Shannon Stegg, Gene Smith, Mark Cole, Rob Robinson and Chris Watford would all put up new routes on the sandstone cliffs called Jamestown. Today the area boasts many superb lines and a large concentration of 2 and 3 star routes.

Jamestown has been closed to the public since 1993 after a dispute with a local landowner. The cliff has sat relatively unused and almost forgotten until climbers revisited tax maps and contacted the owner about the possibility of leasing the area. Eventually talks led to the possibility of purchasing the land and a survey of the cliff was quickly commissioned.

The Southeastern Climbers Coalition (SCC) purchased the 3.14 acre tract (1,550 linear feet) on May 3, 2005. The Harvest Wall and Winter Wall at Jamestown have been open to climbing ever since.

Kings Bluff - Kings Bluff is located in Clarksville, Tennessee and was donated to The Southeastern Climbers Coalition in 2002. The limestone crag (9.78 acres) has over 160 routes traversing the Cumberland River (1,673.85 linear feet) and is now owned and maintained by the SCC.Primarily a sport climbing area, this area has routes ranging from 5.3 to 5.13 and will put your crimp strength to the test. The area was donated to the SCC by climbers who received a tax break for their generous donation. Local climbers at Kings Bluff sponsor an annual cookout to help raise funds to pay the taxes and upkeep of the cliffline.

Castle Rock - This area has been always owned by private landowners and has never really been opened. A few climbers snuck in over the years undetected and put up routes on the cliff area without the owners knowledge. In the fall of 2004, The Southeastern Climbers Coalition representatives Brad McLeod and Kirk Brode began negotiations with the landowners to open access to this area. A verbal committment was reached and a lease was signed during the winter of 2005. The SCC holds an annual trail day and cleanup of the crag that is sponsored by The Access Fund. Volunteers haul out truck loads of trash, work on the trail and repair rusted anchors and bolts.

For more information or questions on talking with private landowners please email Brad McLeod, SCC representative at mbmcleod@mindspring.com.

Check out the Access Fund for more materials by clicking here!

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Published on: 2006-03-06 (3819 reads)
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