CLIFTON, Maine — Local rock climbers are banding together in an effort to conserve Eagle Bluff, a well-known climbing and hiking location, since a recent change in the property’s ownership has closed the land to the public.
Unless the Clifton Climbers Alliance, a newly formed group aiming to conserve the land for recreational use, can meet a tight fundraising deadline to buy the property, climbers could permanently be denied access to the popular crags.
“Eagles is really the premier climbing destination in our area,” said Jeremy Robichaud, treasurer for the alliance. “It has a great mix of climbing routes, as well as some potential bouldering.”
The alliance recently has joined forces with the Access Fund, a national advocacy organization that keeps U.S. climbing areas open and conserves the climbing environment. Access Fund has secured an option agreement with the private landowners that secures its exclusive right to purchase the 160-acre property for permanent conservation and climbing access.
To meet the agreement deadline, Access Fund needs $150,000 by Aug. 1. The Clifton Climbers Alliance is hoping to make this happen.
“This has all happened really fast,” Robichaud said. “This organization is weeks old. As far as fundraising options — we don’t have a clear strategy yet.”
Climbers have been enjoying the granite cracks of Eagle Bluff since the late ’60s. Today, approximately 130 climbing routes lead up the vertical rock face of the bluff, which rises 512 feet above sea level.
This isn’t the first time local climbers have joined forces to conserve Eagle Bluff. In the mid-’90s, climbing access was threatened when the Clifton property was listed for sale. The Access Fund started working with the local climbing community to raise funds, but the previous owner was unwilling to wait. Fortunately, an avid climber stepped forward to purchase the property.
Local rock climber Donald “Donnie” Nelligan Jr., a Brewer High School graduate, purchased the land with the help of John Barker and Ward Smith, who improved the climbing locale by installing fixed anchors and cleaning the cliff. Nelligan not only allowed climbers and hikers to use the property, he encouraged it.
“Don was an avid climber, a local legend,” Robichaud said. “He made sure the cliff was open to climbers. We’re all very thankful for that.”
Nelligan died unexpectedly on Aug. 7 at the age of 62, and the property was passed on to members of his immediate family. The Nelligan family closed public access because of liability concerns and immediately sought to sell the property, according to the Access Fund website.
“We’re working with the family,” Robichaud said. “They understand and want to honor Donnie’s legacy. They’re giving us an opportunity to carry this forward and preserve this place forever.”
If the money is raised in time, the Access Fund plans to assign the option to the town of Clifton or another long-term owner — such as the Clifton Climbers Alliance — that will keep it open to climbing for future generations.
“Eagles is really the crown jewel in what we call the ‘Four Crags of Clifton,’” said Robichaud. “Clifton is a little local climbing treasure. It’s not super well-known and it’s not known nationally, but that’s the way I think a lot of us like it.”
Robichaud started rock climbing 15 years ago and now teaches the sport as adventure recreation and program development director at the Bangor Y. He’s also the author of the guide book “Boulder Bangor!”
“We have an area at Eagles that we call the practice wall,” Robichaud said. “As a person who works with a lot of new climbers and does a lot of guiding, it’s a really great area to utilize because it has a lot of variety and setups are easy … so from a professional standpoint, Eagles is absolutely crucial. From a recreational standpoint, it has some of the most fantastic climbing in Maine — in New England, really.”
The Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School of Bar Harbor and Maine Bound Adventure Center at the University of Maine in Orono are two guiding businesses that long have used Eagle Bluff to teach rock climbing.
“It’s interesting to see a lot of older folks, people I took to Eagle Bluff back in the 1980s, writing on Facebook about [the effort to conserve Eagle Bluff],” said Jon Tierney, owner of Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School. “It’s good to see different generations coming together and speaking up.”
The bluff is also home to two hiking trails, one that circles the base of the bluff and one that climbs to the top, ending at ledges where hikers can enjoy views of nearby Peaked Mountain and Cedar Swamp Pond.
“It’s a beautiful, easy hike,” said Jayson Nissen, president of the Clifton Climbers Alliance. “There are fantastic views from the top.”
The detailed project budget, available on the Access Fund website, breaks down the $150,000 acquisition: purchase price of the land, $125,000; appraisal, $1,500; acquisition costs, $3,825; fundraising events, $1,125; project support, $3,500; stewardship and improvements, $15,000.
“If we can’t sufficiently fundraise, I don’t know what will happen,” Nissen said. “If the local community doesn’t show any interest in Eagles, it’s very hard for the Access Fund to act.”
“This is an opportunity for us to make sure this never happens again,” Robichaud said, “to ensure that this resource will be available for as long as people want to climb.”