They’re badasses on the trail, crag, and slopes, but they are also some of the most engaged citizens we know, leading the charge to protect the landscapes they care about and rabble-rouse on issues that matter. Our series on Outdoor Allies continues with Kenji Haroutunian, who serves as the President of Access Fund's Board of Directors, and is an advocacy ace. Here he shares the intimidating list of advocacy issues he's engaging on, plus his story of how climbing at Joshua Tree led to a lifelong commitment to civic engagement.
Tell us a little bit about what you like to do outside and some of your favorite places to go.
Since I discovered the realm of wild outdoor places as a webelos scout in Culver City, CA, I’ve marveled at the places both close to home and further out that dazzled me as a young, impressionable teenager and forever after. I’ve been fortunate to get around the country and a bit internationally with my business and climbing adventures. Still, my favorite places to get out and in the wild are relatively close to home - Joshua Tree, and the eastside of the Sierra Nevada. Big spiky mountains, alpine forests and lakes, hot springs, and the unique high desert landscapes are magical. I have to give the Pacific Ocean surf zone a nod as well… surfing and SUP’ing lately, outrigger paddling long ago now (but still love!). Outside of California, the Grand Teton and Red Rocks rank very high on places to return to soon.
How are you currently involved in advocacy work? What inspired you to get started with it?
I began adventuring and guiding in Joshua Tree in 1986, before sport climbing had taken hold in the U.S. My passion for this magical wild place was large but as family and career expanded, my time there shrunk back. Getting involved with Friends of Joshua Tree (FOJT) seemed like a great way to stay in touch and give back in some way to the people and the place I loved. Getting invited to participate as a board member of FOJT was a spark that ignited my passion for wild lands and inclusion/diversity advocacy for sustainable outdoor recreation.
Working with Friends of Joshua Tree, I got involved with Access Fund. In late 2010 I was awarded a Sharp End award for the work FOJT was doing; shortly thereafter, I accepted a Board of Directors position as the organization.
I’ve also been involved with a number of local advocacy groups, including Catalina Island Conservancy, Friends Of The Inyo, Mammoth Lakes Recreation, and San Onofre Parks Foundation, and Southern California Climbers Coalition.
Can you talk a little about your focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in your advocacy work?
Diversity, equity, and inclusion has been a constant theme in my work of the past decade. This started with Outward Bound’s Urban Youth Project in the 80’s, and continued with my work in the film industry for Ford Motor Co, REI and others, and then into the new millennium with Nielsen Business Media. My career path through the outdoor recreation industry allowed the culture of inclusion to be brought into the industry via specific content and partnerships, as well as producing ‘Inclusivity Luncheons’ at each trade show that brought thought leaders together to share successes, challenges and inspiration with each other every 6 months. Now there is even a ‘Kenji Award’ given annually to a top leader on Diversity/Equity/Inclusion in the Outdoors. The current recipient leads Latino Outdoors, a network of active outdoor enthusiasts that brings strong connectivity and passion for wild places to communities across the United States, and connecting those communities to the industry and entire ecosystem of land management agencies, conservation groups, and the wholesale/retail products channels.
What are the big issues you care about that you’re working on right now?
At Access Fund, we have two traveling conservation teams doing important trail work in areas as diverse as diverse as Salt Lake City, the Homestead in Arizona, and Rumney in New Hampshire. The Rock Project partnership with Black Diamond has more demand than supply of critical education for a climber's gym to crag transition.
I’m also working on Bears Ears National Monument, newly designed in Utah; and Sand to Snow National Monument, newly designated in Southern California and adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and Williamson Rock are also important.
What do you think are the best ways to get new people involved in advocacy work? What stops a new climber from wanting to get involved?
Being an events person, I feel that live events that gather communities together in real time are a great way to make advocacy come to life. It’s too easy to click a box or send $5, but when you meet like-minded people who have a passion for any kind of passion-driven advocacy, it means more. What stops new climbers is simply ignorance, people who say, “I didn’t realize that our public lands require stewardship or protection.”
I would like to see more people jump in or start local and support boots-on-the-ground advocacy like trail projects, native flora and fauna work, or Servapalooza. It’s particularly great for parents to involve kids in grassroots local efforts.
What are your top tips for making a difference in protecting the places you care about?
Get started somehow – simply attend local events, build out your network, and nudge yourself each day to personally get active with the community. Could be through a local specialty retail store, a club, a gym, an online community, or a regional advocate for well-managed outdoor recreation spaces. The Access Fund has around 150 Local Climbing Organization (LCO) affiliates around the country, so for climbing, there is plenty. Outdoor Alliance, a hub organization based in D.C. (don’t look now but you’re reading from their blog!), has connectivity to advocacy groups in paddlesports, mountain biking, and climbing and mountaineering. A great way to connect and give back to where your passion goes to recreate!
Current favorite piece of gear: I’ve had a long love affair with my Hilleberg Nammatj GT tent.
Favorite social media tool: Trying to get better at Snapchat, but I still like Twitter best. Maximum scrolling efficiency, minimum pictures of cats. (I like cats but…)
Next destination on your bucket list: The Pueblo nation lands in Bears Ears area, and Four corners