Last month, Joel Brady called his final board meeting to order as founding president of the Southwestern PA Climbers Coalition. The Board elected new officers in December 2022, bringing one chapter to a close and opening a new one for the organization.
Stepping into the role of President is (formerly Vice President) Ginette Walker Vinski, with Jennifer Flaggs now as Vice President, DJ Wilmot as Treasurer, and newest board member Eliza Porterfield as Secretary.
While planning to remain actively engaged as a board member and committee member, Joel noted that, after seven years, it was time to pass the leadership baton. He served at the helm of SWPACC since its founding, navigating the organization through its growth from a small grassroots group of dedicated climbers and developers to a ~150 member nonprofit-Access Fund affiliate, which dialogues with land managers, private landowners, and state agencies. During his tenure, the organization has sponsored the re-equipping of hardware at important climbing areas, secured a lease on the parking lot for Breakneck Rocks; sponsored trail days and clean-ups, and more recently, hosted the Access Fund Conservation Team for stewardship of four different climbing areas in the region. Joel also led the organization in establishing its first open elections for board members and a formal committee structure, designed to provide opportunities for leadership and engagement within Southwestern Pennsylvania’s diverse climbing community. All in all, it’s been a lot!
We asked Joel to share some of his reflections on his experiences with SWPACC over the years. Following are the responses he shared. Joel, we’re grateful for your years of commitment and dedication to SWPACC. Thank you for your time and energy!
Q: How did you get involved with SWPACC?
A: I was conscripted. I love SWPACC but serving as president was honestly not my idea. Building upon a couple decades of Access Fund regional representation in the area, there were a few people around 2014/15 who were very active in climbing development in SWPA, who had already opened conversations with Access Fund, and who had already begun engaging in organizing community access initiatives. Through my conversations with those folks, I realized I might be able to help, since, just from having been a climber in the region since the mid-1990s, I happened to know a lot of different climbers from different generations and sectors of our community. I was well-positioned, I think, to bring us together in service of a common goal–to responsibly develop the climbing areas we love in SWPA and secure and preserve our access to them. And once I had gotten us all together around the table, they made me be president.
Q: Thinking back on your years of service as President, what has been most fulfilling for you personally?
A: Anytime we can establish and foster a positive working relationship with a key stakeholder, I get pretty excited about it. We’ve had some big moments like that over the years, whether it’s with DCNR, the State Game Commission, or private landowners. I’ve also found it rewarding when I can get different climbers with different ideas from within our community talking to one another–particularly folks who might disagree with one another. Climbers are not some monolithic entity–they have different interests, motivations, and backgrounds. And while I myself have strong personal views about where the direction of the organization should be, I’ve never viewed my role as President to be about pushing through my own agenda, but rather trying to bring us together around a consensus that the entire leadership and the community we represent can support.
Q: Do you have a proudest moment?
A: I don’t know if I can point to a moment, but it’s been great to see us go from that tiny group of about 15-20 dedicated folks to a membership today of nearly 150, with a formal committee structure to carry out our ever-broadening mission, and numerous dedicated individuals empowered to make contributions where they can.
Q: Any lessons learned that you’d want to share?
A: Success builds on success. We’ve found that securing a small victory in one area of our mission can unexpectedly pave the way for bigger successes down the line. A huge part of our conversations with potential new partners is to be able to point to previous successful partnerships. To achieve what we want to achieve personally and as a community, we have to be able to demonstrate that we aren’t just individuals obsessed with our next send, but instead, we’re a competent, dedicated, organized group with a mission, vision, structure, and strategic partnerships to make that vision a reality.
Q. What is your most memorable experience with SWPACC?
A: There are a lot of them, but I would say that the Lost Crag re-equip project, more than anything, encapsulates a lot of what the organization has been about–it is both a happy memory and a difficult one, because Lost Crag represents one of our greatest successes and, currently, one of our greatest challenges. I can recall when our board, comprised of individuals who had been a part of climbing at Lost Crag from the beginning, first cautiously discussed asking formal permission from the Pennsylvania Game Commission to replace all that old, rusty, increasingly unsafe hardware at Lost Crag. Although the regional office of the Game Commission had previously told us we could re-equip old hardware on Game Lands, the potential statewide implications of raising climbing’s profile meant we needed to approach this decision with care and tact. Ultimately, we made a calculated, collective, and in my view, well-informed decision to proceed, and after a great day out in the woods with Game Commission representatives to explain the proposal, we were ecstatic to have secured full permission. Over the next three years, we undertook a project involving over a hundred volunteers, over 1,000 volunteer hours, over 10,000 dollars in hardware, and the support of America’s Safe Climbing and an American Alpine Club/Access Fund grant, all carried out through a positive working relationship with the Game Commission. In that sense, the Lost Crag project was–and still is, in my view–a testament to what our organization can achieve collectively.
On the other hand, sadly in 2022, we were informed that a decision had been made, involving not just the PA Game Commission, but also other state agencies, to completely close certain Game Lands in our area to climbing, due to the potential impact of climbing activities upon habitats of threatened and endangered species. The closure includes not only Lost Crag, but many, many other areas beloved by our community for generations. Still in effect today, it is the single largest closure to climbing in the history of the state–it’s a huge blow for our community and our organization. As a result, I, personally, and we, as an organization, have had to reflect upon whether we made the right decision back in 2018, when we reached out to the Game Commission. And after much reflection, I can honestly say I believe we did the right thing. We made that decision extremely carefully, after much deliberation, weighing the pros and cons with the best information we had at the time; and, in the short term (not that short….three years!), all signs–especially our positive working relationship with the Game Commission–pointed toward the decision having been prudent. Furthermore, the specter of possible closures on Game Lands had preceded our decision, and indeed, preceded the formation of our organization. In fact, one of the first tasks SWPACC took on in the early days, was to join a successful campaign in 2015 to oppose Game Land closures for half the year, which would have affected climbers statewide. Furthermore, the current closure has led us to reflect further upon and take more seriously SWPACC’s identity as a conservation organization. We have increasingly realized how critical it is for us to formally articulate and implement our mission for conversation, and to find ways to partner with state agencies to advance conservation, balanced with responsible recreation, and in particular, rock climbing. This closure is not, I believe, the end of the Lost Crag story. We have a great deal of work still to do. We remain in dialogue with the state agencies who have implemented this closure, we’re working on a solution, and I’m hopeful that Lost Crag, and the other areas affected, will once again be reopened to climbing through a plan that responsibly balances conservation and recreation.