By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
INDEX — Things are looking up for a world-famous climbing destination that appeared in danger of closing to the public just a few months ago.
Fundraising for the Lower Index Town Wall enjoys strong momentum, said Jonah Harrison of the Washington Climbers Coalition. More encouraging news arrived last month, when Snohomish County set aside money to buy the 23-acre site from a private owner, in case climbers can’t raise the money themselves.
“Right now, it’s a really good place for us,” said Harrison, 36, a Seattle lawyer who has been scaling the wall since the mid-1990s.
The coalition is working on the project with the Boulder, Colo.-based Access Fund, where Harrison also serves as a regional coordinator. Donations are “well north of $100,000,” he said, including individual contributions of $500 to $5,000. The goal is $300,000.
Purchasing the property is only the first step. Ongoing maintenance costs will add more expense, as will plans for to build a parking lot and restrooms.
“The fact that we’re doing well in the fundraising to purchase the option (for the property), that’s not the full story,” Harrison said. “We need a lot more to make it a viable climbing area well into the future.”
For more than 50 years, people have been ascending the towering granite cliffs crossed with huge cracks. Part of the site was used for granite mining, but that stopped in the 1960s after the railroad moved the tracks closer, making it too dangerous to blast away the rock.
The private owners for years allowed people to climb there. Then in March, they posted No Trespassing signs because of liability concerns and a quarrying company’s interest in the site.
The signs didn’t stop people from going to the wall, but they did spur efforts to save one of the most popular climbing spots on the West Coast.
“Even though it’s a small place, it’s really well known nationally,” said Joe Sambataro, who heads up the Access Fund’s acquisition program to keep climbing areas open to the public. “We’ve been working with (Washington) State Parks as our first option, since state parks owns cliffs adjacent to the property and we have a long-standing relationship with the agency. However, we’re open to either state parks or county ownership.”
Last spring, the Climbers Coalition secured an option to buy the property for $115,000, with help from a $15,000 Access Fund loan. They have until the end of 2010 to complete the deal, but hope to do so much sooner.
The Snohomish County Council voted Dec. 16 to set aside $120,000 in conservation futures for the property.
“We created a safety net for them,” county parks director Tom Teigen said. “We value this site, we want it to stay in public ownership.”
The wall is a big tourism draw that benefits the whole Skykomish Valley, including Monroe, Sultan and Gold Bar, Teigen said. If the county gets the property, the climbers would oversee the upkeep.
Forks of the Sky State Park surrounds the wall. For that reason, the climbers groups prefer giving the wall property to the state.
At the same time, county leaders are interested in taking over Forks of the Sky, similar to the transfer of Wenberg State Park to the county in July.
The state parks commission doesn’t have money to buy the Index Town Wall, but is ready to incorporate it into the surrounding park if somebody else does, spokeswoman Linda Burnett said. There have been no formal talks about giving Forks of the Sky to the county.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.