Western student studies climbing impacts on local habitat

“This is a great educational tool for climbers to have”

[ By Kendra Walker ]

Rock climbing may not be the first outdoor activity that comes to mind here in the Gunnison Valley, but the climbing opportunities still abound in our outdoor recreation mecca with popular granite climbing areas in Taylor Canyon and Hartman Rocks. But along with the overall outdoor recreation industry, rock climbing is rapidly growing and with that comes an increase in negative impacts to the surrounding habitat.

Rhyann Lowrey, a student in the MS Ecology program at Western Colorado University, loves the sport of climbing and had the idea to combine her extra curricular interests with her studies. For her thesis, Lowrey spent this past year studying the rock climbing impacts to vegetation and soil health in the Gunnison Valley. “I wanted to see if I could help contribute to a change in the outdoor recreation world with science,” she said.

According to Lowrey’s research, rock climbing is growing roughly 13 percent each year. According to the Outdoor Participation Report, more than 5 million Americans participated in indoor rock climbing in 2017 alone, assuming many in that population climbed outside as well. As more and more climbers venture outside, their potential impacts to the surrounding ecosystem increases greatly, including the vegetation and soils.

“Without a doubt, climbers have an impact on the ground they walk on – when they’re at the crag, walking the trail or approach in and out, and staging areas get hammered with foot traffic and people sprawling out their gear,” said Peter Horgan, host of the Access Fund’s Climbing Advocate Podcast and stewardship coordinator for the Crested Butte Land Trust.

“I don’t see these kinds of studies being super prevalent in the climbing world as in other spaces,” he said. “A lot of studies focus on climbing’s social impacts and overall impact on environment, so Rhyann’s focus on the vegetation was exciting to see. The sport itself is growing at an exponential rate and not looking at these specific issues or topics as it relates to our sport is doing everyone a disservice.”

For the project, Lowrey focused on the Taylor Canyon and Hartman Rocks climbing areas, collecting data and samples at the base of climbing routes. She randomly selected popular climbing routes of varying difficulty grades, and measured above ground vegetation composition, soil health and evaluated soil seed bank growth potential at the base of climbs. She also measured samples 15 meters away from the climbing to represent her undisturbed data for comparison.

She spent this spring analyzing the data and from her research, Lowrey found the rock climbing traffic had significant impacts to the vegetation growth. She found a higher percent composition of grasses in disturbed areas, including the noxious weed cheat grass, versus a higher percent concentration of shrubs like sage grouse in undisturbed areas. “There was a significant effect on grasses and shrubs,” she said. “Once there’s much more disturbance in the area, there’s much more prevalence in non-native species.”

Lowrey also collected soil samples and grew them in a greenhouse to analyze the seed composition. She found that the areas disturbed by rock climbing also had an impact on the soil bulk density and seed bank growth potential.

And even though it wasn’t part of her data collection, Lowrey also observed a lot of evidence of people going off trail venturing off to different climbing routes.

Lowrey hopes her research can help contribute to future management plans for the valley and elsewhere. “Using this research, mitigation plans for rock climbing areas can be based on science, creating sustainable recreation areas for future generations to enjoy,” she said. “It’s becoming more and more of an issue in the valley, people just don’t understand the severity of their disturbance to the ecosystem. I think this was a good profile for what can happen with rock climbing disturbance overall nationwide. Rock climbing is growing so fast and the impact is coming. Maintenance and awareness is huge, and once you bring in education hopefully those impacts can be diminished.”

Some of Lowrey’s initial ideas for mitigation include trail building and maintenance, increased signage and designated belay areas and platforms. “I think it’s super important for climbing areas to have really strong trails and signage to help people from wandering off trail. Having a designated platform or belay area at places like Taylor and Hartman’s would help minimize the sprawl.”

“This is a great educational tool for climbers to have,” said Horgan. “Incorporating studies like this is beneficial for us to figure out ways we can mitigate our impacts, and see what are the remedies and strategic ways we can help re-vegetate areas. A number of climbers out there might be ignorant to the impact they have on their climbing area, but there’s a level of reasoning you have to adopt and be more than just a climber. Seeing this clear study that shows your resulting impacts is a great tool for advocacy and caring for the places that you recreate in.”

Lowrey is currently communicating her findings with the Access Fund and other local organizations, and she graduates this spring with a Masters of Science in Ecology.

Horgan also intends to host a stewardship day sometime this summer in Taylor Canyon that will include re-vegetation, weed pulling and hardware updates on routes. “When climbers think of stewardship I think they often think of trail building, but it can go beyond that with the surrounding vegetation. It’s a great way to bring the community together and show the difference you can make.”

Lowrey is optimistic that climbers can turn their impacts into positive change. “Science education is so important, not just for people in school or scientists, but for the entire public space. It’s important to work together and have a common goal of protecting our spaces through sustainable recreation,” she said.

“I really appreciate Rhyann’s dedication to this project,” said Horgan. “She’s doing the work that a lot of people just don’t want to do. I love seeing fellow climbers really go above and beyond to educate and do the research to shed some more light on impact issues like this.”

Check Also

Fire at the landfill Monday

May have been caused by lightning [  By Katherine Nettles  ] Earlier this week a …