Rock climbers hope a new study of their economic impact in the Red River Gorge will help make the case for opening more public land in the area for climbing.
The study found that climbers spend an estimated $3.6 million annually in six counties around the gorge.
Much of that was for lodging, food, retail purchases and recreation activities, according to the study.
Researchers surveyed more than 700 climbers at crags on public and private land in the spring and fall of 2015 to come up with data for the study.
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The researchers estimated that 7,500 climbers visit the Red River Gorge annually.
Opening access to more cliffs in the gorge probably would bring in more climbers and increase the economic benefit of the sport to the area economy, the survey found.
“If we want to attract more climbers, we need more space for them to climb,” said James N. Maples, a sociology professor at Eastern Kentucky University and lead researcher on the study.
The potential for greater economic impact exists because the gorge is one of the premier rock-climbing sites on Earth, said Zachary Lesch-Huie, southeast regional director for Access Fund, which works to protect access to climbing areas.
The unique sandstone crags, enormous variety of routes and great natural beauty draw climbers from around the world, said Lesch-Huie. “It is internationally renowned.”
If we want to attract more climbers, we need more space for them to climb.
James N. Maples, EKU professor
The greatest potential to open more climbing areas in the gorge is at sites in Daniel Boone National Forest or on state-owned land, said Rick Bost, a member of the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition.
There are routes on private land in the gorge, including some that nonprofit groups bought and maintainto preserve access. However, it can be difficult for climbing groups to acquire those sites, Bost said.
Also, with the development that has taken place on private land, the potential for more routes there has been diminished, he said.
Bost said the gorge has become such a popular climbing destination that people have to wait at times to get on some routes.
That has raised talk of people going elsewhere because they don’t want to drive several hours and then wait to get on the rock.
“That means they’re taking their dollars somewhere else,” said Bost, a mechanical engineer from Knoxville who began climbing in the gorge 13 years ago.
There have been discussions for years between climbers and public agencies about greater access to crags on public land in the gorge, officials said.
Climbers hope the study will re-energize those talks, in part by showing how their sport helps the economy.
There are many factors to consider in increasing the number of places open for rock climbing in the gorge, including the availability of parking at trailheads, the cost of building and maintaining trails, and the potential effect of visitation on historic and cultural resources — such as spots with native artifacts — and on the environment.
“We have to look at all these variables,” said Jon Kazmierski, district ranger for the section of Daniel Boone National Forest that includes the gorge.
The gorge is home to rare and unique animal and plant species, including the white-haired goldenrod, a wildflower with fragrant yellow blooms and tiny white hairs on the leaves. The gorge is the only place on the planet where it grows.
Sites in the forest that need to be protected are intermingled with potential climbing spots, Kazmierski said.
However, there are places in the federal forest where it might be appropriate to have more climbing routes, he said.
Kazmierski said he has asked the climbers’ coalition to identify the possible places to open new climbing routes so the Forest Service can analyze them.
Providing recreation is part of mission of Daniel Boone National Forest.
However, development of infrastructure such as trails is “challenging” for the Forest Service because of budget constraints, Kazmierski said.
Bost said climbers are willing to help pay for building and maintaining trails.
Access to climbing areas has become a greater issue nationally as the popularity of rock-climbing has grown, according to Access Fund.
The fund helped pay for the study in the Red River Gorge, along with EKU and the climbers’ coalition, according to a news release.
One key finding was considerable support from climbers for locally-owned restaurants.
In addition to trying to gauge how climbing contributes to the area economy, climbers wanted to offer some insight into how communities could increase the economic benefit.
To that end, the survey asked climbers to rank their interest in certain types of development.
Maples said one key finding was considerable support for locally owned restaurants.
Climbers expressed the greatest level of interest in that development, followed by live music, festivals and natural grocers.
“I think there is a good opportunity for local entrepreneurs,” Maples said.
On the other hand, the responses showed climbers to be ambivalent about having liquor stores or alcohol by the drink available at restaurants.
It also showed they have little interest in retail shopping opportunities, and the lack of interest in having chain restaurants built in the gorge was nearly unanimous, the survey showed.
The study estimated the economic impact of climbing on Powell, Lee, Estill, Menifee, Wolfe and Owsley counties, noting that some of those counties rank among the lowest in the nation in median income.
The findings could serve as a starting point “in uniting climbers and local residents in a shared effort to encourage economic activity in the region,” the study said.