~ An interview by Jay Young, 2009
I spoke at length with Armando Menocal, who, along with Jim Angel, founded the Access Committee of the American Alpine Club (AAC) in 1985. He had much to say about the often humble beginnings of this auspicious organization.
Jay: Tell me about the birth of the idea of the Access Fund. What was the impetus to actually get this thing rolling?
Armando: Well…in the mid-1980s, we were starting to have access problems across the country. In large part it was the beginning of the sport climbing movement. But as we learned from the National Park Service, there was an increase at trad areas as well. Many land managers suddenly felt overwhelmed by climbing. The combined effect of more climbers and more new climbing areas caused a lot of land managers to attempt to put the brakes on climbing. They didn’t know what climbing was, and they’d never regulated it. As a result, there started being closures. I’d been active in some of these issues in California, so the American Alpine Club asked me to start an Access and Conservation Committee to confront these issues. So I agreed…
Jay: Who were some of the folks on that early committee?
Armando: The earliest were me and a guy named Jim Angel, just two of us. The first thing he did was plan an act of civil disobedience up at Mt. St. Helens. Jim had been playing it by the book, and they refused to reopen Mt. St. Helens to climbing even after the big crater explosion was long past.
Jay: What was the act of civil disobedience?
Armando: Jim wrote a letter to the Forest Service telling them that on a mid-summer day—he gave them the date, which was like six to eight months out—he was going to climb Mt. St. Helens. They had been involved in a planning process for two or three years, and it’d been all finished, but they would not open the mountain to climbing. They were just being bureaucrats dragging their heels. And so to provoke them into either finally arresting him or getting them to issue the decision, he just told them, “I am going to climb that mountain.” And he sent copies to all the local newspapers. And it worked! By summer, they issued the plan.
This scared the American Alpine Club, so we stopped for nearly two years. Then Jim McCarthy became president of the AAC, and he said, “You do whatever you need to, and we’ll back you 100%.” And that’s really when the Access Committee started. Jim Angel and I added people: Randy Vogel; a fella by the name of Mike Jimmerson down in Arizona, who was a real workhorse; Rick Accomazzo in Colorado; and a few people back East as well. We were basically about a dozen folks who met like once or twice a year. At first it was a very slow process. Mostly it was just all of us talking about the problems we had. We got to the point where we actually needed to have our own staff, so every year we’d do something that was “The Call.” And The Call was a call to Yvon Chouinard. And Yvon would always say, “How much?” And I’d say something like $10 thousand dollars. And he’d send it.
Jay: That’s amazing!
Armando: In the early years, we were funded 100% by Yvon Chouinard. So anyway, that’s how we got started; we were the Access Committee of the American Alpine Club. After Jim McCarthy was no longer president, the [access] problems were getting so big and there was so much stuff and I was spending so much of my time as the chair of the committee that we decided the better thing to do was form a separate organization. And that’s what we did in 1990.
Jay: Was that separation done with the good graces of the AAC? I mean, were they on board for this?
Armando: For the people involved it was painful and hard. Because you had people in the AAC who really supported us and they wanted us to stay, and they didn’t like us leaving. And, there were people who, frankly, didn’t like us, ’cause we were activists and they didn’t like some of the strong positions.
Jay, in the 1980s, because of sport climbing, there was a huge amount of debates in the climbing community, dealing with everything from rap bolting, hang dogging, etc. And one of the key decisions that the Access Committee made, which continued with the Access Fund, was that we would not get involved with ethics. We would not say, “Okay, we’ll defend people who put up routes ground up, but we won’t defend people who do it rap bolting.” There were many people who were lining up on either side of those issues. There were people who were lobbying government agencies to get them involved, so rap bolting would be prohibited in one place. And the Access Committee said, “No, we will not do that. We will defend climbing in all its forms.”
If the climbing community, within itself wanted to say, as a matter of ethics, people shouldn’t rap bolt in a certain area, that’s fine. But land managers and the government should not get involved in ethical debates. And that is one of the things that made us very controversial. That was one of the early decisions we made. I’ve always credited Randy [Vogel] with helping us make that decision. He was very important in that. And it’s still the Access Fund policy to this day. We don’t take sides in ethical debates. We defend climbing in all its forms.
Jay: If I’m on the board of the AAC around that time, when you guys in the Access Committee are thinking of splitting off, and I’m against it, what are some of my protests?
Armando: I would say there were probably two major disagreements within the AAC. One was over the ethical question because there were people there that didn’t think we should fight government agencies if they were going to prohibit rap bolting, or if they were going to prohibit power drills being used to place routes. Some people even went so far to say we shouldn’t defend the placement of bolts at all.
And then the second thing was that we were activists. We were arguing with and taking on the government. And there was a large body within the AAC that thought that was not their role. Their job was to support, but not argue with government agencies. But a lot of us were out of the 60s and 70s, and that wasn’t our way at all!
Very clearly, the Access Fund started as an advocacy organization. That was the main thing we did. One of the reasons we formed the Access Fund [from the committee] was because we were fighting efforts to prohibit bolting, whether it was power drill or hand drill, all over the country, and we needed a national organization. I mean you were just getting killed by a thousand cuts, to be fighting an anti-bolting thing. It was just one Forest Service place after another, and then the Park Service… We needed to start dealing with the source—the people who made the rules back in Washington, DC. We knew we needed to have a nationwide organization to deal with the advocacy issues. And to this day, the primary focus of the advocacy part of the Access Fund, which I still think is the major thing we do, is nationwide, because most of the problems are nationwide.
Jay: Today, is the state of access in America where you thought it would be in almost two decades after the Access Fund split off? How are things different now from what you thought it would be like?
Armando: Well, I thought some of these issues would be put to rest. But otherwise I would say it’s about where I would have wanted it to be. I think if you look on the positive side of the ledger, no major climbing area in America is closed. There are some local areas that are closed, but I don’t even think you can say there are any regional destination areas that are closed.
You can still place a bolt anywhere in wilderness or non wilderness in America with very few exceptions. Some places they have committees you have to go through. There are a few places we haven’t been able to get in line, like the Superstitions and the Sawtooth, but those are pretty small in comparison. Big-wall climbing, which would have been shut down entirely with an anti-fixed anchor rule in wilderness is still alive and well. So, if you look at it that way, in the big picture, we’re where we would want to be.
On the downside, is that some of these issues have not been put to rest. Bolting…it has been really hard to get the federal agencies to finally put that issue to rest. And we have to keep putting energy into doing that. The number of times that I, and now Jason Keith, have gone back to Washington and talked to people in the federal government at all three major agencies—BLM, Forest Service, and Park Service—would take up a year or more of somebody’s time. And as long as you don’t put it to rest, you have to keep dealing with it, because some local ranger will decide that he’s going to ban bolts. It still happens.
Maybe with the new administration…
Jay: In the years-long development of the Access Fund to where it is right now, what are some of the pleasant surprises that have popped up?
Armando: Well, to me the biggest surprise, it shouldn’t be, but it still is to me, is to watch what was for some of us in the 80s and 90s our real passion to keep climbing areas open get taken up by one generation after another. The people that run the Access Fund now are one, two, or three generations removed from the first group that started it. And I guess I remain surprised every time I see an entirely new bunch of people—who had nothing to do with us historically—step up and start really taking on the challenge…and re-forming the organization and takingit to a new place. It just keeps happening again and again. It’s pretty exciting to see.
I’ve tended to divide the Access Fund’s work into three areas. One is the advocacy role—arguing to keep areas open, and some of that involves everything from litigation to letter-writing campaigns and all the tools that advocates use. And the second thing is building local organizations that then become the frontline forces dealing with closures. The third one is actually acquisitions. We’re trying to build that.
Some people think of the Access Fund and they’ll think acquisitions. Some people think of AF and they think of our work building and supporting local climbing organizations. And they sometimes try to pigeonhole us. Which are we? Sometimes the right answer is to create a local climbing organization to deal with an issue. Sometimes you need an advocacy approach. And sometimes you need to go in there with acquisitions and other sorts of development. But they’re just tools. They’re not what define us.
The ongoing fight for climbing access in America is on the brink of profound change, all while some of the same old struggles of 20 years ago remain prominent and, in many respects, unresolved.
By J. Young, 2009, www.rockclimbing.com