A Bold Plan: Can Climbers Help Save the Economy?

The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 100,000 American lives to date and has devastated local economies. As we look toward the gargantuan task of rebuilding the economy, we believe a bold, new plan could put Americans back to work all across the country, while strengthening one of our greatest national assets—public lands.

Cimbers cutting new, sustainable trail at Liberty Bell Spires in Washington state. Ancestral lands of Nłeʔkepmx Tmíxʷ (Nlaka'pamux),Syilx tmixʷ (Okanagan), Yakama, Chelan, and Methow. © Matt Perkins

Consider this: Public lands across the country are facing dire infrastructure and overuse impacts. The National Park Service alone has $11 billion in deferred maintenance—that is, trails, bridges, parking areas, visitor centers, and other infrastructure that is in disrepair. And U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management areas aren’t faring any better.

At the same time, these deteriorating public lands are the lifeblood of the outdoor recreation economy—an economy based on renewable resources that has proven time and again to help local communities thrive. This combination of nearly 30 million unemployed Americans and crumbling infrastructure across our public lands system presents a unique opportunity.

We should put Americans back to work improving public lands—building trails, repairing bridges and campgrounds, creating jobs in rural and gateway communities, and contributing to a more resilient economy. Young Americans are struggling to find jobs and fuel their desire to help rebuild the country. Investments in recreation and conservation can get Americans back to work and jump-start rural and gateway economies.

This isn’t a new idea. One of the most successful economic-recovery programs in history was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), launched to help pull America out of the Great Depression. The CCC program employed more than 3 million diverse, young Americans in the 1930s and early 1940s, putting them to work rebuilding and improving America’s public lands system. Young adults were trained in marketable skills, while building the recreation and conservation infrastructure that is still evident in our national parks and forests today. The CCC program not only employed millions of Americans, but it also developed the recreation infrastructure necessary to attract visitors and bolster local economies that have continued to grow for nearly a century.

Unfortunately, Black and Native CCC workers had a markedly different experience than their white counterparts and were not able to enjoy the fruits of their labors. At worst, they were completely excluded from these places, and at best they were made to feel unwelcome and unsafe. In order for all Americans to truly enjoy and benefit from a revived public lands infrastructure, we must acknowledge and help dismantle systemic racism—from recognizing that public lands were stolen from native peoples to the fact that Black people do not feel safe sleeping in their own homes, let alone adventuring in the outdoors. We have an opportunity now to launch an inclusive CCC-style program that creates economic opportunity for all—including Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and LGBTQ+ communities—while promoting equitable access to our public lands.

Lookout Mountain Conservancy's Howard School Interns work alongside the Access Fund-Jeep Conservation Team crew to establish a new bouldering area in Chattanooga, TN, ancestral lands of Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East)

Right now, Access Fund is working with our allies on Capitol Hill and within the conservation and recreation communities to advance the idea of a modern Conservation Corps that unites the broad and complex conservation work sector—including government agencies, nonprofits, and private companies—toward this common goal of improving public lands. A large-scale government investment in recreation infrastructure will provide both a source of jobs and economic resiliency to hard-hit communities across the country. The idea is gaining momentum, and public lands are poised to be part of America’s economic recovery. The vast majority of both Democrats and Republicans support voluntary national service, and a Columbia University study indicates that every dollar expended on public service projects produces $4 of benefits.

The Senate is ready to vote on the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act (S. 3422), a bill that was ready for prime time just before the pandemic derailed Congress’s attention. The Great American Outdoors Act appropriates money to tackle our maintenance backlog and also authorizes permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). This Great American Outdoors Act could work in concert with a modern-day Conservation Corps to help ignite America’s economy, enabling climbers and other outdoor recreationists to be a part of the most significant recovery since the Great Depression.

The Access Fund–Jeep Conservation Team program is well-positioned to lead our community in this effort, and our crews are already working on the ground to improve public climbing areas across the country. Innovative, new programming is also popping up in different corners of the nation. Carolina Climbers Coalition, for example, has launched the Carolina Climbers Conservation Corp to employ out-of-work climbers to maintain rock climbing infrastructure in the region. Imagine the difference we could make with a nationwide initiative?

Our country is ripe for a revolutionary program that welcomes all young Americans to an inclusive work and training system, creates a safe outdoors that they will return to repeatedly, and deepens their ethic of conservation and public service. These climbers and other recreationists can be a significant part of the recovery effort by creating jobs, increasing conservation values, and bootstrapping local economies. It is an audacious and ambitious idea, but so was the CCC after the Great Depression, even with its flaws.

Stay tuned for opportunities to push this idea forward, as Access Fund continues to advocate for legislation on Capitol Hill. Sign up for action alerts below, and we’ll notify you when it’s time to mobilize.