On better stewardship of the great outdoors

Photo by Casey Gomez

As anyone who has spent any time with me knows, my weekend activity of choice is taking a trip up to Chattanooga to do some rock climbing on cliffs in the surrounding mountains. I usually take some of my fellow climbers, and we tend to spend the day climbing, relaxing in hammocks and jumping in rivers.

This weekend, however, the focus was not on scaling walls. Instead, it was on spending the time and effort to revitalize heavily-trafficked trails and making areas safer to travel through. As climbers, our eyes are usually trained upwards. We watch our friends execute hard moves and map out routes on the wall. We often do not think about where we put down our gear or about the impact of our footprints as we trek to the wall.

Each footprint or careless climber adds up; the impact on the land becomes evident quickly. Dislodged rocks allow erosion to wash away more of the soil. Trash and discarded food is unsafe and disruptive to local plants and animals. Many outdoor climbing areas become unsafe to humans because of loose rock and precarious trails.

Fellow climbers and I spent the day constructing stairs that would safely allow people to travel up a hill, while taking care to mitigate erosion and minimize our disturbance of the environment. We chatted about ways to hold ourselves and our friends accountable for taking care of these spaces.

It is easy to forget that it is necessary to be stewards of the resources that are so precious to us. We take for granted that we don’t have to pay a tangible sum and underestimate our impact on the land. In doing so, we put access to these beautiful natural areas in jeopardy. The vast majority of outdoor climbing areas are free to use for hiking, climbing and enjoying nature. Organizations such as the Access Fund and the Southeastern Climbers Coalition work hard to make sure that climbers have access to beautiful land. They partner with indigenous communities to protect natural areas from overuse and development. These are thankless jobs and organizations that are often overlooked, and they are frequently starved for money and resources.

So many other beautiful public spaces suffer from the same lack of interest and resources. Parks, trails, sidewalks and a myriad of other places are open to the public and used by everyone but taken care of by a select few. Donating money is a valuable contribution, but even better is donating time. What the land needed most from us this weekend was our time and effort. Even intentional attentiveness to the consequences of our actions can help. In the coming weeks, I am sure that I will think more about what I bring into the forest. I will be more mindful to the work that went into planting trees and constructing walkways. I will be more careful. I know that it’s hard to consciously make the choice to volunteer when we have so many other things to worry about.

It helps me to be motivated to help out if I see causes like this as an investment in myself and my community. Through volunteering, I know that a bit of effort now will result in a safer and more enjoyable experience in the future for myself and my fellow climbers.

Charitable organizations that take care of outdoor public spaces are everywhere and prolific, especially at Tech. I would encourage anyone who has just a few hours free to invest into their own community. All you have to do is show up.