Joe Kinder: Chopping Trees, Lessons Learned, and the Value of Wilderness

posted by dpm on 10/23/2013

The internet has grabbed its torches and pitchforks to march in protest of the biggest tree-cutting debacle since George Washington cut down a Cherry tree to establish a sit-start lowball. That’s probably not how the story goes…it’s been a long time, but this new story is just as interesting.

Known for his endless levels of ‘psyche,’ Joe Kinder has been a leading developer of hard sport routes throughout America for over a decade. Shown here on his route Southern Smoke (5.14c) at the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

It all started when pro-climber Joe Kinder chopped down two trees at the base of a cliff near Lake Tahoe, California to establish a new route. As he said later, in an apologetic blog post, “This tree I lowered through was in a dangerous spot due to the fact that there was a difficult part on this route near the ground. Essentially, a fall from this lower section might have left a future climber injured: stabbed by tree limbs or worse. This was a serious concern of mine.”

Joe left the cliff and internally debated cutting down the tree. He returned two days later with his friend, another pro-climber, Ethan Pringle. According to Joe’s blog post, while Ethan and his girlfriend were warming up, Joe chopped down the trees. “I decided to take the initiative and make the climb safe for the future climbers,” he wrote. “As the developer of this route, I wanted to leave behind a resource for everybody, something that my climber folk could enjoy and not hurt themselves on. I spent about ten minutes and sawed them down.”

Joe’s decision, and the ten minutes of labor it took to eliminate the trees, sparked a flame in the Tahoe climbing community. Local climber, Bernie LaForest, posted a photo of the felled tree on Instagram with the caption, “The CA Juniper cut down by Joe Kinder with accomplice Ethan Pringle. I wonder what Muir would think of the progression of our sport. Let these guys know how you feel. Maybe it will make a difference in the future. This tree has been growing here since before most of our families came to this continent.”

LaForest also hashtagged the words: wilderness, pristine crag, JoeKinder, EthanPringle, and Joe’s# which was followed by Kinder’s cell phone number, presumably so that others could call Joe and let him know how they felt.

The Instagram Post

LaForest’s post on Instagram was quickly applauded by others including pro-climber Dean Potter who wrote, “Thanks for telling it like it is Bernie! I’m saddened by such disrespect to nature and such thoughtlessness.” As the simple spark of an Instagram post among friends was fanned to flames, LaForest had second thoughts regarding the implications of his post. He deleted it, but not before someone captured a screen grab and posted it to the California-centric climbing forum Supertopo. That forum post gained nearly 500 comments before Supertopo deleted the thread, or at least hid it from the homepage. But the wildfire had already grown out of control and spread through other social media channels like Facebook. The Supertopo thread was quickly replaced by two others titled, “Poor Joey” and “Tree Incident and Environmental Responsibility.”

Understanding the sensitivity of further publicizing an incident that could create access issues, DPM carefully reached out to hear the thoughts of LaForest and Kinder. In so many words, LaForest replied, “It’s sensitive!” while Kinder had no comment other than to say that he would address the issue publicly by Monday, which he did in the aforementioned blog post.

Kinder’s blog post offered some insight into his thought process. He outlines his justification for chopping down the trees then describes his reaction when he heard, via email, of the outrage he’d caused by a local climber friend, Chris Doyle. Kinder wrote, “I lost my breath. I felt faint. I responded immediately. Chris informed me that this was a precious, respected tree: a juniper, perhaps very old. Junipers are some of the most respected trees and they can survive for a very long time, upwards of a thousand years. Hearing this I nearly died. I had no clue and I felt completely awful. I had really F—d up.”

Kinder realized his mistake but it was too late. He apologized profusely in his blog post and summarizes with, “Again, I have learned something from this and I am extremely sorry for my actions. I hope that I have relayed that my heart was in the right place, but my actions were not correct. I hope that this message offers some pause and reflection for the future generations of climbers and route developers so that they don’t have to “learn the hard way” like me.”

Delving within the, thus far, 100 comments on Kinder’s blog reveals the deeply divided opinions expressed by extremists on both sides of the fence, some defending Kinder’s actions and others calling for outright crucifixion.

Though she retracts the “hate” remark in a later post, Karen Lycett strikes the first blow stating, among other things, “I hate you for what you’ve done. I wrote all your sponsors and told them to denounce you.” Ruthlessness continues with Skiclimb’s comment, “I find it ironic that your cover picture for this very blog features beautiful old trees. The one thing that was *living* and you cut it down. You should change your blog photo to cold, hard, lifeless stone because *that* is what you worship. This will be a continuing lesson for you to learn until you are cold and lifeless as well.” Kinder has since changed the cover picture.

Reflecting the polarization of the climbing community, others point to the inherent hypocrisy in arguing that a single tree is invaluable. ‘Grow Up’ writes, “One tree? According to a group who calls themselves NASA, there are roughly 400 billion (with a B) trees on this planet.” ‘Really?’ writes, “I’m assuming that all the people saying awful things about Joe, like D Lee (another commenter) don’t live in homes made primarily of wood? Wood that almost certainly came from the clear cutting of old growth forests. Am I right D Lee? Do you and your minions live in an echo bubble made of fairy dust and good vibes?” He goes on to argue that many, if not all, new climbing routes come with impact to the environment. “If cutting down one little tree is enough to generate this kind of uproar, than what I have done in the name of new routes and boulders is enough to merit a death sentence. Better yet, why don’t all these hippiecrites make a cross out of all the trees I’ve murdered and crucify my evil ass on it!”

Others point to the fact that in the eyes of land managers the tree removal might not be that big of a deal. Climber and plant ecologist, ‘Adrian,’ says, “Many plant communities in the western U.S. have issues with juniper encroachment causing adverse impacts on ecological processes. I am not saying that this is occurring in the Tahoe area, but again, it would be worth looking into before harshly criticizing Joe’s actions,” while another poster says, “What I find more intriguing, is the fact that in most places managed by BLM when it is a national forest you can get permits to harvest Juniper trees (for Bonsai, etc) and many other species for that matter. There usually are no restrictions on age, size, etc. Where is the line? If he did this with a permit, costing about 7.50 per tree, no one could say a word about it.”

And not every local is infuriated by Joe’s actions. ‘TK’ states, “Being one of the few that has climbed at this cliff in the past, I can’t say that I feel strongly about a tree getting cut down or not. Trees are felled all the time to enable the outdoor sports I love; climbing, skiing, mountain biking. I’m not naive enough to think that the sports I love on this planet are without impact,” while local climber Casey Hyer says, “I lived in South Lake for 6 months, climbed every day and had no idea that this would be a big deal.”

‘TK’ is one of many commenters pointing at the relatively insignificant impact of cutting one tree for recreation purposes when entire mountainsides are cleared and developed for ski resorts. Photo: CNtraveler.com

It’s a fact that we live in a world seriously impacted by the hand of man. The houses we live in are made of wood and there used to be trees growing where they now sit. The forest was cleared to make room for the roads we use to drive to the crag as well as the trails we use to hike to the cliff. These examples barely scratch the surface of humanity’s impact to the planet which is likely why we’ve come to cherish the fragility of the natural world that we recreate in.

The confusion lies in how much value we affix to the rock, trees, and climbing routes. Make no mistake, if you’ve climbed throughout the American East, you’ve certainly climbed a route that was made possible by chopping down a tree.

The four-mile long Endless Wall at the New River Gorge, West Virginia is undoubtedly one of America’s best crags. Climbers today can walk a well-established trail along the entire base to access hundreds of climbing routes, but it wasn’t always that way. The first trio of climbers to hike from one end to the other faced a heinous bushwhack in the late 1970’s. Bruce Burgin, one of the early explorers recalls that, “bushwhacking was a prerequisite to climbing in the gorge during the 70s and early 80s. Besides our climbing gear, we always carried a buck saw and machete. Nick (Brash) and I spent hundreds of hours cutting trail in those first few years.” They didn’t just cut trail either. A close inspection of the cliff base will reveal the stumps of trees that grew close to the wall, obscuring many of the climbing routes.

This is one example of the same thing that played out at crags across the country. Pay attention next time you’re at your local crag and, if it’s in a forested area, you’ll likely find evidence that the route you’re enjoying was made possible by sacrificing a bit of the natural world. Where it gets murky, and controversial, is when differing opinions of value are affixed to the landscape and the climbing routes.

To revisit the Endless Wall for an example, one of the best routes is a 5.12d called Pudd’s Pretty Dress. When it was established in 1991, encroaching tree branches were trimmed back by the equipper to reveal a beautiful, pocketed face of swirling orange stone. Pudd’s is an outright and undisputed classic, but over the years the branches began to grow back and, by this time, National Park Service regulations prohibited the cutting of vegetation for any purpose. A few years ago, a climber fell at the crux, hit a tree branch and shattered his leg resulting in an extensive helicopter rescue and plenty of pain and suffering for the climber. It became obvious that the route was unclimbable in its then current state. Months later, the tree was cut down, presumably by climbers intent on reopening the classic route. The National Park Service is still investigating the case and, if caught, someone will be in big trouble.

Is a five star classic worth the life of a tree? Land managers say no, someone said yes. Jason Marshall on Pudd’s Pretty Dress (5.12d) Photo: Mike Williams

This example clearly illustrates the differing values affixed to A: the route, and B: the tree. The NPS has created a blanket policy that places an equal amount of value on everything (they would be equally upset if the rock got chipped), while the climber(s) that did the cutting put a greater value on being able to climb the route, a route that had been essentially ‘closed’ by nature.

I’ll be the first to admit that, as a route developer, I’ve chopped back tree branches. I did it just the other day at Summersville Lake, West Virginia while establishing a new route. I rapped in, placed some bolts, swung out, broke off a tree branch, and threw it in the woods. It was unceremonious and done in plain view of other climbers at the cliff. Had anyone objected, they wouldn’t have much ground to stand on as the same was done for the establishment of the other routes they were climbing on.

This is not to say that Kinder’s actions were the same. Every route developer faces multiple decisions, the first being: “Is it legal?” which in Joe’s case it was not. Joe claims he just simply didn’t know that it was illegal. It’s understandable too. The wilderness is the easiest possible place to break the rules because law-dawg is seldom seen. What’s that old saying... If a law is broken in the woods and no one is around to see it, is the law really broken? Of course it is, but the fact is, you COULD get away with it which is why how one chooses to develop routes is based more on morality than the rule book. For example, bolting in some wilderness areas has to be done with a hand drill only. At the end of the day, though, the bolts are in the rock whether they were hand-drilled or power-drilled. It’d be a lot easier to use a power drill, not get caught, and just say you hand-drilled them. It’s up to the equipper to decide if they’re going to follow the rules.  

Legality aside, perhaps the bigger question for route equippers is, “Is it worth it?” Does the quality of the route justify the impact? Does the action align with the local ethic? This last questions seems to be where Kinder went astray. He was unaware of the value that the locals placed on these beautiful Juniper trees, a value that he only came to understand later. To make the route safe for climbers, the tree had to go. Obviously, those in defense of the tree argue that the route shouldn’t have gone in in the first place while others argue that it was worth the loss of a tree for a classic new route. But can we attach the “greater good” argument to every impact we make in the wilderness? Kinder’s actions suggest that he thought so, at least at first. The value of a classic new route, one which Pringle called “one of the best routes he’d done in his life,” plus Joe’s concern for the safety of the climber, outweighed the value he placed on the life of the tree.

It was later, when Joe realized how much value others placed on the tree that he realized the error in his ways. Had the route been a zero star choss pile over a beautiful living tree, it’s doubtful that he’d have made the same decision. But for a five star classic? Can any route, no matter how amazing, justify the destruction of a living organism? And if so, where do we draw the line? What about destroying moss, lichen, or ferns? Maybe it’s OK to chop down Pines, Poplars, and Maples but not Junipers? How about only young Junipers? What about a Juniper that’s 20 years old? 50? 100? Where’s the line?

The only thing that’s nearly certain is that Kinder crossed the line. He admits as much himself. We got in touch with Joe to hear his thoughts on route development, the wilderness, and what he considers an acceptable level of impact on the outdoors.

DPM: It’s no secret that thousands of trees have been cut down in the name of climbing and I’m sure you know this as well. Talk a little bit about growing up in the Northeast, specifically Rumney, and how your experiences shaped your ethics as a route developer.

Joe: Putting up routes back east revolved around sending a project that was already bolted.  Or we would beg Team Tough (developer crew) to bolt us something.  We were young and not equipped to actually bolt a route.

Seeing them working at that point was always a mode of excitement because it meant more routes for us to climb!  We had an immense amount of respect for those guys and I personally saw them as gods. 

But regardless of what has happened before at cliffs, I want to spread the message that it is illegal to cut down trees on Federal land without a permit.  It doesn’t matter what kind of tree it is and I know this now.  Sometimes the route is simply better to be left alone and unclimbed. 

DPM: Do you think that a different ethic is applied in the west vs. the east?

Joe: Every crag has a different set of ethics, which locals help create.  The differences in ethics from place to place varies with understanding where you are and what the rules are, how prior route developers have done their work, and the consensus of locals. East and West makes no difference.  It depends on the specific spot and what the local attitude is towards route developing.

DPM: You made some effort to communicate with local climbers before establishing routes and wielding the saw. Where do you think you failed in hearing the voice of the local climbing community? Does the voice being heard represent the entire climbing community? Is everyone outraged?

Joe: I only interacted with one local and I did everything I could to communicate with him about each move I was making. This particular individual was enthusiastic about me bolting. The development process involves more than just installing protection bolts; you have to make a bunch of other decisions in terms of rock removal (etc.), all for the sake of making a route safe and something for the community. I don’t put up routes just for myself. I enjoy putting up routes other climbers will enjoy, the way Team Tough did for us as kids. In fact, I didn’t even do the first ascent of this climb. All the decisions I made were out of a concern of making a climb that the future climbers would be able to enjoy. 

DPM: Is it fair to say that you weighed the options and decided that a 5 star classic route was ‘worth’ more than the life of the tree?  Describe the thought process you went through during the week you were away from the route. What shaped your final decision to remove the tree?

Joe: Like I said, my concerns were for the climber’s safety.  The route seemed amazing and after Ethan did the first ascent, he said it was one of the best routes he had ever climbed. I was thinking more as a route developer and not as an environmentalist, which was a mistake. Now I’ve learned that it’s possible to be both. The route was just really worth it to me and my vision was blurred by that simple concept.  All I was concerned with was the danger of the tree.  I never thought about the consequences and the fact that I might be destroying this living thing on Wilderness land.

DPM: How will this incident affect future decisions you make when establishing routes and recreating in the wilderness?

Joe: I love climbing. I love establishing routes. And I love the climbing community. I feel really fortunate to be a member of this community, even if everyone doesn’t see eye to eye. I am taking a break from everything right now, but I look forward to just doing what I love: climbing great routes with my best friends and enjoying the beauty of natural world.

DPM: Are you worried about any kind of prosecution or fines? Have you looked into this?

Joe:Upon learning that my actions were in fact illegal, I immediately reported myself to the National Forest Service. We talked about the tree, and discovered that it may have been up to 100 years old—not 1,000 years old, the way some people have assumed. Either way, I felt terrible. I paid a fine to the USFS. I’m donating $1,000 to the Sierra Nevada Alliance, whose mission is to protect and restore the natural resources of the Sierra Nevada for future generations while promoting sustainable communities. I’m also donating to the Access Fund and Leave No Trace and I’m spending a week of my time planting trees in Yosemite.

DPM: A lot of climbers are calling for you to “make it up” somehow. What do you plan to do to make this right?

Joe: It will be a long time before I can simply “make it right”, but I know I have learned a profound lesson that has shaped me as a climber for the better. In that sense, I’m appreciative of the experience and I look forward to being able to influence people, in whatever way I can, to be more mindful of their impact as climbers, and especially as route developers. This world is bigger than just climbing and it feels good to have learned that.