Science Moab

Science Moab spoke to Zeke Baker and Steve Fick to explore the social and ecological impacts of climbing in the Indian Creek area outside of Moab. Baker is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Davis, while Fick is a post-doctoral research ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder and works with the U.S. Geological Survey in Moab.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Baker and Fick submitted answers as a team.

Science Moab: Can you explain what you are trying to do with your research in Indian Creek?

Baker/Fick: Our basic research question is, how do climbers interact with the Indian Creek landscape? And in order to adequately address that question, you need to examine what kind of community climbers are: who they are, where they’re coming from, what their values are, what organizes them, and what experiences they want. And then you have to also problematize what the Indian Creek landscape is. It’s both an ecological landscape and a political landscape. It’s something of a test case of the relationship between the federal, state, and county in levels of governance, as well as various stakeholders that want to use that land and see it managed in a particular kind of way. We seek to ask questions about how climbers interact with the landscape in those terms.

SM: What were the takeaways that you found from your interviews?

B/F: Our initial findings suggest a basic contradiction in how climbers interact with the landscape. Climbers are drawn to a kind of wilderness adventure experience, but that experience can be encumbered by a lot of people, infrastructure, and regulations. The contradiction is that the experience must actively be managed if it’s going to persist. If you want to preserve that kind of climbing experience, then you actually do need some kind of regulation, some kind of infrastructure. Most climbers recognize the impacts of climbing and don’t want to see the areas degraded. They want to see access to those areas preserved and so they recognize the limits of unregulated, unmanaged wilderness climbing. Our goal then is to take those experiences that climbers have and make them known to decision-makers so that Indian Creek doesn’t become a Yosemite Valley…an area that is buttressed by this idea of wilderness, but in reality, is an urbanized landscape and traffic jam.

SM: Do you foresee ways that managers, outdoor gear industries or the climbing community itself could use the research that you’re pulling together?

B/F: At least initially, our research has been funded by the American Alpine Club which, along with the Access Fund, is very involved and invested in sustainable climbing. They recognize that if climbers want to protect their activities and the access to the areas that they climb in, whether it’s because of political challenges to public lands, or the growth in climbing in general, that they need to get organized. We’re researchers, not activists, but we think that this kind of research is absolutely necessary for advocacy efforts. We think that social science research can contribute and inform those efforts that are already underway. We hope that managers or other groups reading this material might at least use it as a starting point for potentially doing more intensive quantitative surveying and analysis.

Zeke Baker and Steve Fick talk about the impacts of climbing in the Indian Creek area