A New Joe’s

Climbers, fed­eral land agen­cies, and lo­cals work to pre­serve Joe’s Val­ley


COF­FEE, IN­TER­NET, AND SHOW­ERS. That’s all the boul­der­ers asked for. Af­ter years of lurk­ing out­side the Orangeville Branch Li­brary to bor­row Wi-Fi, tak­ing sink baths, and swal­low­ing gritty gas-sta­tion cof­fee, the climbers found their call an­swered by en­tre­pre­neur­ial lo­cals in this once-boom­ing coal-ex­trac­tion re­gion in cen­tral Utah’s high desert. As th­ese climbers were civ­i­lized by their new ameni­ties, the boul­der fields got a makeover, too—com­plete with des­ig­nated trails, re­strooms, and camp­grounds. Climbers, who have been com­ing since the mid-1990s, couldn’t deny the growth at Joe’s. Nei­ther could the lo­cals, who were ready to cash in on the recre­ation boom, es­pe­cially in Orangeville (pop. 1,439) and Cas­tle Dale (pop. 1,605), both less than 15 miles from the boul­ders.

“We de­cided that, even though we don’t have a lot of money,” says Orangeville res­i­dent Doug Stil­son, “let’s boot­strap it out of our house.”

In the first week of March, Stil­son opened the doors to the only cof­fee shop in an 11-mile ra­dius, Cup of Joe’s, in the front par­lor of his home. Photos of climbers and the sur­round­ing sand­stone boul­ders and bluffs line the shop walls, and the Wi-Fi is free.

“It’s not just a fad that’s go­ing to phase out,” Stil­son says of all the boul­der­ers. “Climb­ing is here to stay.”

BE­FORE THE CUR­RENT DAYS of bumper-to-bumper park­ing on the side of Joe’s Left Fork, there was not much go­ing on at Joe’s, at least climb­ing-wise. In 1995, the climb­ing video Three Weeks

& a Day brought at­ten­tion to the black sand­stone blocks, fea­tur­ing Dale God­dard and Boone Speed climb­ing cut­ting-edge prob­lems like Smokin’ Joe and

3 Weeks and a Day. Since then, the area has swollen to en­com­pass 188 boul­der­ing sites with thou­sands of prob­lems from V0 to V14. Ac­cord­ing to Jor­dan Leonard, the eco­nomic di­rec­tor for Emery County, some 15,000 climbers visit an­nu­ally.

“It’s the right band of good rock that broke off the cliff at just the right height so that they could be dis­persed around flat land­ings,” says Justin Wood, a for­mer Joe’s Val­ley li­ai­son for the Salt Lake Climber’s Al­liance (SLCA). Con­sid­er­ing the many boul­der­ing sites; the scenic beauty of the canyons, side canyons, and piñon-stud­ded gulches and hills; and tem­per­a­tures that rarely drop be­low 30 or top 75, it’s no won­der boul­der­ers flood in year-round.

Pop­u­lar­ity has its draw­backs, though. The high-desert en­vi­ron­ment is frag­ile, with sandy soil and sparse veg­e­ta­tion to an­chor it. Heavy rains wash away the roads, like the steep Left Fork Road (High­way 29), as wa­ter rushes down the side drainages, push­ing rocks down­hill. At pop­u­lar ar­eas like River­side in Left Fork and Warm-Up in Right Fork, crash­pad us­age and high foot traf­fic have sped up ero­sion—wit­ness the “bath rings” on the rock that mark for-

mer soil lev­els, or boul­ders like Res­i­dent Evil and Goat Milk that have lost veg­e­ta­tion at the base. So­cial trails cause prob­lems, too, since the brit­tle desert soil crum­bles as climber feet tram­ple through.

Some­thing needed to be done, and climbers sprang into ac­tion: In 2008, the SLCA in­stalled two sea­sonal la­trines, in New Joe’s and Man­size Camp in Right Fork, and six years later, they brought in land man­agers to help ad­dress the im­pact is­sues.

The Bureau of Land Man­age­ment (BLM) Price Field Of­fice and Price Ranger Dis­trict of the Manti-La Sal Na­tional For­est split the man­age­ment of the Joe’s Val­ley boul­ders. In 2014, the SLCA con­ducted a base­line as­sess­ment of Joe’s, mea­sur­ing the level of use, lo­ca­tion of routes and trails, and im­pacts on the en­vi­ron­ment, bring­ing the data to the U.S. For­est Ser­vice (USFS) and the BLM in 2014.

Un­der the Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal Policy Act (NEPA), the USFS and BLM are build­ing off SLCA’s work to map the climb­ing ar­eas and trails, and de­ter­mine the best sites for camp­grounds and toi­lets. The two fed­eral land agen­cies are fi­nal­iz­ing an En­vi­ron­men­tal As­sess­ment draft that should open by May for a 30-day pub­lic-re­view. Then, both the BLM and USFS can be­gin con­ser­va­tion work.

Ray Petersen, pub­lic lands ad­min­is­tra­tor of the Emery County BLM Of­fice, says the part­ner­ship with climbers has been pos­i­tive, es­pe­cially since the SLCA be­gan host­ing an an­nual Adopt a Crag in 2014, clear­ing out trash and re­in­forc­ing land­ings. The SLCA also spends $2,500 an­nu­ally to main­tain the la­trines, a cost cur­rently spon­sored by climb­ing com­pa­nies, grants, and mem­ber­ship dol­lars.

To fund the fu­ture con­ser­va­tion ef­fort, the BLM and USFS re­ceived Recre­ational Trails Pro­gram (RTP) grants. The Ac­cess Fund, which plans to do a large amount of the trail work, re­ceived a $40,000 Re­source Al­lo­ca­tion Com­mit­tee (RAC) grant and $45,000 grant from the Utah Of­fice of Outdoor Recre­ation for 2017 and 2018. With that money, the Ac­cess Fund will bring a con­ser­va­tion team to Joe’s this fall for five weeks.

“We’re hop­ing to home folks onto a sin­gle, sus­tain­able route in­stead of mul­ti­ple pathes,” says Ty Tyler, stew­ard­ship di­rec­tor of the Ac­cess Fund. Next sea­son, they will be­gin a two-year project to tackle “high-pri­or­ity ar­eas that are see­ing re­ally se­vere ero­sion,” em­ploy­ing re­tain­ing walls, pa­tio-type struc­tures, and wa­ter di­ver­sion tech­niques. For their part, the USFS and BLM plan to use their RTP funds to help with trail build­ing, as well as re­stroom and camp­ground con­struc­tion. With all this change may come grow­ing pains.

“There’s talk of get­ting an es­tab­lished camp­ground, and that will def­i­nitely change the feel,” Wood says. But the Ac­cess Fund, SLCA, and land agen­cies are set on pre­serv­ing the boul­ders and trails over time while not dras­ti­cally al­ter­ing the prim­i­tive vibes.

“Our in­tent is to main­tain the ex­ist­ing char­ac­ter so it doesn’t look all that dif­fer­ent when we’re done,” Tyler says.

If the BLM de­cides to es­tab­lish the two camp­grounds they are plan­ning, fees are likely to fol­low. While that could anger some climbers, Tyler hopes that the long-needed fa­cil­i­ties, such as bath­rooms and park­ing lots, will make it worth it. Re­al­is­ti­cally, most climbers will still pile into dis­persed camp­sites any­way.

AS CLIMBERS ALIGN with land agen­cies to pro­tect the boul­ders, they’re also mak­ing con­nec­tions in the neigh­bor­ing towns. Be­fore coal mines in and around Orangeville and Cas­tle Dale dwin­dled to two be­cause of the na­tion’s de­creas­ing de­mand for coal en­ergy, every­one ei­ther worked in coal or on the al­falfa and corn farms. The coal and power-gen­er­a­tion jobs had a $200 mil­lion eco­nomic im­pact on the towns an­nu­ally, a fig­ure that to­day has dropped to $137 mil­lion. Res­i­dents need al­ter­na­tive ways to pick th­ese towns out of the eco­nomic dust.

“What do we have that no one else around us does?” the towns asked them­selves. Blessed with the boul­ders and sur­rounded by awe-in­spir­ing na­tional and state parks, they had the an­swer in their back­yard. “Vis­i­tors have been com­ing for years—not just to boul­der— but our outdoor recre­ation in the last decade has ex­ploded,” Petersen says. “Our chal­lenge is to see how we can ben­e­fit eco­nom­i­cally.”

Lo­cals have come on board to con­nect climbers and the com­mu­nity. Amanda Leonard, Emery County events co­or­di­na­tor, mes­saged the Joe’s Val­ley Boul­der­ing Face­book page to fa­cil­i­tate a boul­der­ing event.

Steven Jeffrey and Adri­ana Chi­maras, climbers who are writ­ing a new guide­book for Joe’s (due spring 2018), planned the first an­nual Joe’s Val­ley Boul­der­ing Fes­ti­val with Leonard. Now in its third year, the fes­ti­val’s at­ten­dance tripled in size from the first year to the next, with 150 climbers and an es­ti­mated $25,500 brought into the com­mu­nity. Along with yoga clin­ics and climb­ing meet-ups, the fes­ti­val also con­nects climbers to the lo­cal com­mu­nity through ghost tours, lo­cal ar­ti­san clin­ics, and a rodeo in which climbers race on cowhides dragged by cow­boys.

For Leonard, the goal of the fes­ti­val, be­sides fos­ter­ing ca­ma­raderie, is to show the pri­vate sector why they should bring restau­rants and ho­tels to Emery County. With­out it, the towns are miss­ing out on climber dol­lars. Cas­tle Dale’s new (and only) va­ca­tion-rental home, Cox Lodg­ing, might start a trend for Airbnbs or other homes­tays. Mean­while, the Food Ranch, the lo­cal all-you-need store in Orangeville, started cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the climbers years ago by sell­ing chalk, crash­pads, and their world-fa­mous But­terfin­ger donuts.

“Any­thing that climbers want and we can get, we bring it,” says Drew Leroy, owner of Food Ranch. If that means hum­mus and mi­cro­brews, then the Food Ranch will stock it. At his shop, Leroy notes, an av­er­age climber will spend up to $60 a day on food, gear, and pad rentals. In fact, the Food Ranch did around $4,500 in crash­pad sales and rentals, tape, chalk, chalk bags, and camp­ing-sup­ply busi­ness last year. To ac­com­mo­date climbers, Leroy even built a 12,000-square-foot refuge up­stairs from his shop: The Spar­tan Den, named for the lo­cal high school mas­cot. Leroy ad­vo­cated to the city coun­cil, BLM, and the USFS to im­prove ameni­ties in town as well as in the canyon, help­ing in the push for Orangeville’s Wel­come Park to in­clude bath­rooms and show­ers. Now, those re­strooms are sched­uled to open in April.

“This is a vi­able part of tourism that we want to capture. [The climbers] have al­ready proved their worth,” Leroy says. “We want them to be able to go up to the canyon and have the ex­pe­ri­ence that they want.” Out­side Leroy's shop hangs a sim­ple signs. It reads, “We Love Our Climbers.”


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