Ensure access to Red River Gorge climbing site, Kentucky

The Red River Gorge Climbers' Coalition (RRGCC) is a group of climbers that has come together to protect, promote and guarantee responsible climbing at the Red River Gorge site in Kentucky in the United States. Project supported in 2007.


Red River Gorge

  • Project partner:  Red River Gorge Climbers' Coalition (RRGCC),
  • Country:  Kentucky, United States
  • Project type: Preservation of the environment
  • Budget: €19,000 in 2007 and 2008

The RRGCC simply made the biggest purchase of land ever achieved in the world by an association of climbers. Morgain Sprague, a climbing enthusiast, has been project manager for the RRGCC since 2006.

Journalist Christophe Migeon interviews Morgain Sprague

What motivated the creation of the RRGCC?

Red River Gorge site Morgain Sprague: Red River Gorge is an internationally renowned site hidden in the dense forest of east Kentucky, a collection of sandstone cliffs that offer several hundred routes from 15 to 50 meters high, bolted or not. The RRGCC was created in 1996 in order to defend Red River Gorge climbing. The site was at the time managed by the US Forest Service (USFS), which had just published a small manual for climbers in which there were some pretty drastic clauses.
The RRGCC was created in order to establish a dialogue between climbers and the USFS and to rewrite the manual together. Since then, the RRGCC has made a great effort to maintain long-term climbing conditions in the region.

What was the motivation behind the purchase of the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve (PMRP) land?

Climbing - Red River Gorge © Keith Ladzinski Morgain Sprague: The land surrounding the Red River Gorge site contains oilfields, whose exploitation has become economically profitable with the rise in the price per barrel, especially because Kentucky is a very poor state. In the 90s, we had a lot of problems trying to coexist with the oil developers. It should be said that there are more than 200 of them. Access conditions to the sites were no longer guaranteed, so incidents became more and more frequent. In 2004, a 750-acre lot (approximately 300 hectares) that included exceptional climbing crags was put up for sale by the owner (the Murray family), which had owned the land for several generations. The opportunity was unique, and the RRGCC became the buyer in order to definitely guarantee access to climbers.

Today, what is your major concern?

Morgain Sprague: We had to get a loan to buy the entire piece of land at 8 percent over 10 years. This corresponds to about $30,000 in annual installments until 2013. So far, we have been able to pay each installment, but our donors are getting tired. The Petzl Foundation's aid has quite simply become vital for us.

How did you make contact with the Petzl Foundation?

Morgain Sprague: In 2007, John Evans, the Marketing Director for Petzl America, got the idea to associate the Petzl Roc Trip climbing event to the Rocktoberfest, the annual fundraising event organized by the climbers of the Red River Gorge, in order to bring the attention of the world climbing community to the threats against the crags. It was John, one of our number one supporters, who put us in touch with the Petzl Foundation.
We were able to collect $30,000 in one weekend, in other words the whole installment for the year, with $10,000 coming directly from the Foundation itself. The support was not limited to the financial aspect: the help from the Foundation in terms of communication was considerable.

The event and the buzz around it allowed us to promote our cause to all the people in the climbing community around the world. At the beginning of 2007 at the large Outdoor Trade Show event nobody had heard of us. In February 2008 when I went there, everybody asked me what the situation was. I would say that we have 80 to 90% more donations compared to 2006.

You talk about serious pollution problems in the area, and yet on the images the situation does not seem too serious.

Climbing - Red River Gorge © Keith Ladzinski Morgain Sprague: The big oil companies left the area a long time ago, but since the rise in the price of crude, farmers have set up their own small extraction operations, which are not always up to standards. The water and the groundwater are sometimes polluted; there is a multitude of canals and pipes, and some of them are rusted and let the crude escape onto the ground. In some areas the air smells like oil and gas. Kentucky is a lush environment; the pollution is not always visible because it is hidden by all this greenery.

Jean-Jacques Eleouet, Petzl Foundation's Secretary-General: Without a doubt, the picture of the pollution of the site was a little exaggerated. We sent environmental journalists over there, and they unfortunately - or fortunately (!) - came back without a real story. But even without it, we would have supported the project. We would like that the association now do its part to make climbers aware of their impact on the environment. We also need to encourage the climbing community to raise the question of the impact on these cliffs of today's climbing practices for future generations.

What is the relationship between the climbers with the local oil exploiters like now?

Morgain Sprague : They are much better than in 2007 and in particular since the support of the Petzl Foundation and the great amount of attention we have gotten as a result.

Since they have seen that we are able to pay the installments, they have been more inclined to collaborate with us on resource management. Fortunately, a real dialogue has been established.
In the United States, a person can own the land, have a house on it, and at the same time another person can own the ground underneath, as well as the mineral rights.

For the PMRP land, we are using the surface for climbing, while the Charman Oil Company, to whom the Murray family sold the mineral rights, exploits the ground underneath. We have reached several agreements with them, such as maintaining the access road used by a large number of climbers.

If the RRGCC were to not pay the installments, all efforts would have been in vain since the association would lose the deed to the property.

Jean-Jacques Eleouet: Supporting this project is risky, but it is a beautiful risk. If there was a need, there would still be time to pick up the phone and contact our competitors and other people involved in the community to encourage them to work on our side.
But for now, the RRGCC members are managing rather well. What really pleases me in this project is that they are truly taking responsibility and not being content to just create an association and then call for public financing, which is often the case in the French tradition.

MiniBio Morgain Sprague

Morgain Sprague Birthday: August 17, 1972
Degree in political science from the University of Kentucky
PhD from the University of Cincinnati ; Legal expert for the Kentucky police
Favorite place: a small cornice on a cliff over the Kentucky River. "I call it my spot of laughter. I like to go there and watch the world go by."
Her favorite people : Her grandmother. "She was born in the 1900's. She was a tomboy, completely undisciplined, who grew up with cowboys and horses. She was the first woman to wear pants in Lyon County. She was a hell of a woman, strong and determined, but she was also able sometimes to show her sensitive and lovable side. I hope that I honor her memory every day.

Updated in september 2014



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