Plants or other species observations that can provide clues about potential rock climbing areas

I am using GIS software to try to model and isolate rock climbing areas in Travis County, TX that can then potentially be accessed through acquisition, collaboration with landowners, or other. I already have slope, geology, and some other layers that I am using to isolate areas that have potential for climbing but another thing I thought of was using iNaturalist to download observations of species you would only expect to be found growing in rock suitable for climbing (nearly vertical, bedrock composition, etc.). Once the species were downloaded, a buffer could be placed around these and those areas could help to provide clues about whether or not areas are suitable for climbing. In Travis County, TX, examples of species I was thinking of include wand butterfly bush (Buddleja racemosa) and cliff-brake ferns (Pellaea spp.).

One issue I see with this is the bias associated with observations being more common in spaces open to the public and fewer observations on private land where there is potential habitat/climbing.

Anyway, I’m curious (1) what other people think about the effectiveness of this and (2) if people have any suggestions for other species to utilize for this area. Any feedback would be much appreciated.

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Sounds like heavy impact on vulnerable plants and small animals, with habitat that is already limited and threatened. Loss of habitat for rare and endangered species?

Unless like Ernst van Jaarsveld you are studying cliff-dwelling species.

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@dianastuder I hear you! I am a certified ecologist, certified arborist, and certified ecological restoration practitioner in training so please understand that the project that I am working towards is something that would definitely consider rare or endangered species.

I would also argue that acquiring the land for climbing would actually be more likely to protect endangered species (golden-cheeked warblers [GCW] in this instance). This area is being rapidly developed due to the influx of companies like Tesla and Facebook and the associated people who are moving here for work. Land acquisition and conservation for recreational use is far better for flora, fauna, and funga than land acquisition for private/commercial development. In fact, I am planning on incorporating GCW data into the model as a way to prioritize land for acquisition so that others with the intention of more detrimental land use don’t acquire the land just to pay for mitigation elsewhere while being able to build on the land.

Also, I’d like to say the impact isn’t what I would call heavy at all and is certainly not heavy compared to other potential land use activities, even besides development. The same properties could be used for grazing which would likely cause more issues than if the property was acquired for conservation and recreational activities like climbing. Even other recreational land use activities like mountain biking, four-wheeling, dirt-biking, etc. can lead to bigger issues than rock climbing. The climbing spots in our area still have plants, lichens, lizards, arthropods, birds, and other various wildlife that use the crags alongside climbers. Additionally, climbers tend to be conservation minded and often have clean up days where people collect garbage that might collect from upstream or we close routes when there is anything discovered with archaeological significance (Hueco Tanks for example) to wildlife significance (i.e. closing all routes on Morro Rock due to nesting birds including peregrine falcons). I come from regulatory consulting so I understand the importance of things like the MBTA, BGEPA, and ARPA.

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So, I worked with rock outcrop plant communities in Shenandoah NP, and where I’m working now in SE Asia rockface plant communities are a chunk of my work as well.

One of the very big problems in both places is climbers not recognizing that these plant communities are often extremely sensitive to disturbance due to living in a marginal habitat that is subject to large swings in environmental conditions both in the short and long term. As a result they often have both endemic and endangered (locally or globally) species in them, and the habitat type itself may be considered rare and sensitive too.

In Shenandoah NP this was a big enough problem that certain areas were permanently closed to climbing as a result of damage caused by climbers, and where I am now there is the additional problem that the rock type the climbers prefer is also the preferred habitat of critically endangered primates, as well as nesting sites for raptors and owls.

I’d encourage you to be a responsible climber and use said data to avoid climbing in those areas, rather than use that data to find new climbing areas.

I’ve worked with a lot of climbers in my conservation work and there is a distinct mix. Some are responsible and pay attention to the environment, some don’t pay any attention at all and just want a good face to climb regardless of the consequences, and others have the potential to be responsible, but lack the knowledge about sensitive and fragile species. The first group is spectacular to work with and I’ve had a lot of really good experiences with them. I’d really like to see more of the climbing community move into this category.

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I agree that the bias towards public accessible areas would be high. I think that this could work, but not having data from private areas will be a hindrance. One other potential thing to consider is that, if you look for land and tell people that you used their iNat data to ID their private land as a spot, they might get freaked out and stop using iNat (or obscure their data).

Three other things you could consider: one is just pulling all GBIF data, not just iNat. There may be lots of scientifically collected data, some from private lands, that might help you fill in the gaps. Two is that you could use some type of trained model (like an ecological niche model) for the organisms you ID to help you find spots, but this might be a lot of work. Three is to see if Texas/Travis county has any LIDAR data (looks like it does: https://tnris.org/stratmap/elevation-lidar/) which would be high res and better at spotting elevation changes/areas with sheerer drops. I know folks who use this for finding cliff-dwelling species, so might work for you.

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I am a pretty regular recreational climber and definitely think that more rules should be established to protect populations. An example of a place where this has worked well is on the north shore of lake superior. There are determined places for climbing that have rules about using chalk and such.

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i don’t think iNaturalist data provide enough useful data for the kind of application you’re thinking about here because observations on private land are much more likely to have their coordinates obscured, and because of

i had thought about doing something similar (to use iNat data to help oil & gas companies figure out where extra care will be needed when exploring and transporting stuff), but there’s just not enough useful data in the iNat data set (of non-obscured observations) to provide much actionable information, compared to what can be achieved through other methods.

just mapping out the (open) observations of your 2 species in Travis County over different basemaps, it looks to me like you’d do much better just looking for streams and rivers and then finding the largest tracts of private land, or tracts of private land larger than, say, 20ac (according to county tax records), adjacent to these. then kayak or fly a drone through the public waterways to scout out the most promising areas revealed by your GIS datasets.

here’s what the observations look like against a USGS topographical map (with Travis County in orange):
https://jumear.github.io/stirfry/iNat_map?view=elevation&place_id=431&taxon_geoprivacy=open&geoprivacy=open&taxon_id=159589,57232

and here’s how they look over a USGS Ecological Land Unit map, with an extra layer turned on to show waterways (brown=urban land cover, and note the circle of tan volcanic rock near McKinney Falls):
https://jumear.github.io/stirfry/iNat_map?view=elevation&place_id=431&taxon_geoprivacy=open&geoprivacy=open&taxon_id=159589,57232

and here are the same pins over a USGS Slope map (orange=steepest, gray=flatest):

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I am daunted by the fact, that I, with deliberate good intentions can cause substantial harm … treading … very … carefully.
Cross that mountain stream = destroy habitat for a rare frog.

https://www.ewt.org.za/sp-aug-2021-ignorance-is-bliss-the-unnoticed-impacts-of-enjoying-natural-spaces-and-the-role-we-all-need-to-play-in-conserving-them/

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While I am always grateful to see people being conscientious about habitat destruction, it’s a little disappointing to see the comments go so far afield from the original poster’s questions. I think we can all agree that we don’t want a space where anytime someone asks a question about science, we only caution about potential negative impacts.

I think the concept behind your project is fascinating. We can use these data sets about species presence to reveal corollary information about the environment. It makes me wonder if someone could use it to detect hidden information, such as water table or soil mineralogy etc.

For question #1, I think the effectiveness relies on the data available. Niche species often have less coverage than more prominent species. So, if for some reason there is a thorough coverage of your desired species, then it could be highly effective. Not sure it would be better than a topo map, but why not try.

For question #2, I have no idea. :grin:

Keep us updated on what you do with this! Next time I go climbing, I’ll be the guy taking pictures of plants on the wall.

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Welcome to the forum!
@farkleberry The Niagara escarpment around the Great lakes are home to very old plants - http://www.oldgrowth.ca/oldtrees/#:~:text=The%20oldest%20known%20tree%20in,is%20over%20580%20years%20old.
I would advise against using plant life as a guide to climbing. I’ve only climbed a few times, and love it. I should do it more. But the life of plants living in marginal environments takes precedence over my pleasure.

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It would be nicer if someone with money could just buy the land to leave it as it is, climbing will for sure damage plants, even if it’s 100% regulated and everyone is careful, that’s the nature of activity and those plants that are soft in many ways.

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i’ve been thinking about this a little in the back of my mind, and i sort of wonder how this kind of model even works from a business / operations perspective. there are already several climbing spots in the area, and most of them are situated on public land, and access is free or requires a relatively small fee.

the outlier that i can think of in terms of being on private land is Monster Rock. it is owned and managed by Texas Climbers Coalition (TCC), with a recreation easement held by Access Fund. (i assume that you might even be trying to help TCC scout out their next acquisition in the area.)

the issue i see with this kind of private land climbing model is that the revenue potential seems to be relatively low, and the costs seem to be relatively high (land is expensive in the area, and liability insurance surely is not cheap considering the main activity on the land would be relatively risky). so without some people who are relatively generous with their time and money, i don’t know how you keep the climbing going, let alone the conservation.

when i read the press release about how Monster Rock was acquired by TCC and Access Fund, i kind of interpret it as saying that the original owner put a lot of his own resources and effort into it but just couldn’t keep it going on his own. so he passed the burden onto TCC:

After seeing the successful acquisition of Medicine Wall, and finding it increasingly difficult to manage the upkeep of Monster Rock, Hogge inquired about the possibility of donating the property. Access Fund and TCC teamed up on a plan to conserve Monster Rock for climbing.

here’s another kind-of-worrying description about another TCC property (this one is out in West Texas):

Unfortunately, the ranch closed to climbing in 2011 mostly due to concerns over liability. Since then, there have been several efforts to reopen the ranch, including an effort in 2012 between Access Fund and Texas Climbers Coalition to jointly lease the ranch for climbing. In early 2017, the owners were willing to reopen the ranch for climbing provided that the following restrictions and requirements be met:

[long list of conditions]

It has been a challenge to get enough climbers out to the ranch to make it financially worthwhile for the owners but there are several organizations working to make climbing at Continental Ranch a success…

Landowner liability is largely governed by a state’s recreational use statute. In Texas, landowners are immunized of liability when they allow the public onto their land for recreational purposes; however, there are limits on how much can be collected in fees and still maintain the statute’s protection.

so i know this doesn’t really get at your original question, but i wonder if trying to mix climbing and conservation on private land really even makes sense to do near Austin over the long term?

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The reality that one has to come to terms with is: Humans will always have some degree of impact on our environment, it is just a byproduct of our very existence

With this in mind, one has to negotiate a careful trade-off between making nature tangible to an urbanised world population decreasingly detached from the services and benefits provided by ecosystems (i.e letting them walk through, hear, smell and touch a forest), and putting up barriers to exclude and preserve some areas from human harm, the forms of which are nearly endless

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