We keep banging on about the sheer scale of these bans and the significance to the international climbing community. It has taken a bit of time for us to realize just how harsh they are when compared to other famous cases of climbing bans. They are of a magnitude never before seen in Australia and easily outrank similar bans enacted worldwide at such places as Moon Hill (China), Whanganui Bay (NZ), Monument Valley (USA) and Crazy Horse Chiang Mai (Thailand). All those previously listed areas are on private land where our right to access is easily overturned. The most famous restriction of climbing on public land has to be the bouldering mecca of Heuco Tanks (Texas USA). Climbing is not banned there, but it does have severe restrictions attached, including a quota system. To put it into perspective, Hueco’s parks management still allows 25,000 climbers a year into a 4 square kilometer park – whilst Parks Victoria has banned climbing outright in an area of over 500 square kilometers!
Let’s be clear – the area now shut to climbing in the Grampians, and more importantly the sheer quality of the routes in this area, is not just a loss to Victorian climbers, but to all future climbers across the globe from now and into the future. We need to be kicking up a world class fuss about this!
Summer Day Valley and SPAs
One of the most disturbing developments has been the closure of Summer Day Valley (SDV). This has been the heart of commercial guiding in the Grampians and many individuals have invested decades in building up a viable small guiding business in a regional area (not easy!). The reasons given for this closure are vague to say the least. Rumor has it that SDV is positioned inside a 2003 era Special Protected Area (SPA) that seems to have been drawn around a secret aboriginal art site – but the radius around this site seems to be huge (hundreds of metres) and includes a major carpark, toilet block, tourist pathway etc all leading to Hollow Mountain Cave (also banned to climbing).
This whole Hollow Mountain area, including SDV, is central to Parks Victoria’s push for more visitors. Two decades ago only a handful of people were seen in this area on a single day and the carpark & campground was an old quarry. Now it is a common stopover for large buses spewing out hundreds of international tourists who march in a conga line to the summit. How this sanctioned mass of humanity works harmoniously with a Special Protected Area in Parks Victoria mind is anyone’s guess? Why has climbing, that has existed far longer than any of the carparks and toilet blocks, been singled out as a prohibited activity? And where are commercial groups supposed to operate now that this area is off-limits?
LTO and PV Meeting – 4th June
There may be a solution on the horizon however, with a meeting scheduled between LTOs (Licensed Tour Operators – i.e. guides) and Parks Victoria on June 4th 2019. This date is important as this is just prior to the new financial year where these LTOs renew their licenses on where they can operate for the forthcoming year. Will PV throw a bone and give them permission to operate in SDV again? Will recreational climbers continue to be excluded? That is what many are guessing will happen. PV are obviously under increasing pressure to sort out the mess of their own making and allowing climbers to return to the most popular crag in the Grampians could be seen as a win by some. But hold on to your handholds…
It’s a very common strategy in politics to take everything away, get everyone riled up, then hand back something minor and be hailed as a generous benefactor. This is a trap that climbers shouldn’t fall for! It is not a victory or a win to regain access to a cliff that 6 months ago we were happily climbing at. At most it should be labeled a smaller loss. There should be no thanks directed at PV for such tokenism. Getting SDV back is only a victory over bureaucracy. The real challenge is doing the right thing in the eyes of traditional owners.
Horse Trading Crags?
And importantly, no one should be cheering that SDV is open at the expense of other areas remaining closed. We don’t want to see horse trading between crags in negotiations. Each and every climbing crag needs to be measured on it’s own merits. A crag should be open or closed because of the impacts of climbers on that site only. Each area needs to have some measurable reason for a ban – be it an increase in erosion or proximity to cultural heritage sites etc. And if there is a growing problem at an established area there should be legitimate discussion on a solution, outside of a ban, to fix the problem. This needs to be done crag by crag. The default position shouldn’t be to close everything – then work upwards. It certainly should not be up to a handful of unidentified PV staff or others to say “climbing is out of control – just ban it all” without going through formal evaluation of each area.
Crags should also not be closed as punishment for problems that happened at other areas. One of the main reasons given for these broad climbing bans was a handful of safety bolts being placed near aboriginal artwork – at an area outside of the Grampians National Park. Drawing a big circle around 550 square kilometers of the Grampians and prohibiting climbing is not only unfair but just plain lazy management. It has never happened previously in Australia or overseas.
Where to From Here?
PV has continued to say that climbing has reached a tipping point in growth and that environmental impacts are now unacceptable. At what point in the past was climbing ok in the Grampians? 2003 when the last Management Plan was created? 2009 when PV published a Code of Conduct that included approval for bolting? 2016 when PV published a list of open climbing areas that included The Gallery and Millennium? How can we rewind to that earlier time where climbers were acceptable to PV management and the important traditional owners? And how can they help us achieve this? Rethinking where and how climbers establish new routes and problems is part of the process. There has been a voluntarily moratorium on new routes/crags across the entire Grampians since October last year. This was instigated by CliffCare just before the current round of bans were introduced. It’s entirely reasonable to suggest that doing new routes in the old way (just wandering around the bush) is probably dead in the water moving forward. We now need to really rethink how we treat caves especially.
If PV does take away climbing access to specific crags then climbers should still expect something in return. What would that be? It should be better climbing outcomes in general. As a start it should be cold hard cash directed at managing some of the remaining open climbing sites. One look at the erosion problems at areas such as The Watchtower or Spurt Wall show there is urgent need for proper track stabilization. Summer Day Valley was a great benchmark for a well managed climbing location. Signage, well built tracks and re-vegetation areas set aside. This should be the model for other heavy use areas.
Parks Victoria’s current reluctance to manage climbing cooperatively is at odds with many other similar climbing areas across Australia. At Frog Buttress in Queensland, they have a climbers campground, signage and tracks. Even more amazing is the work put into crags such at Mt York and Shipley in the Blue Mountains where climbing is hugely popular and major source of tourist dollars. Kangaroo Point in Brisbane is another example where they have turned climbing into a fun family activity and tourist highlight!
Meeting with Pollies – 5th June
All that badgering behind the scenes and in the papers has paid off. On the 5th June there is a major meeting organized by ACAV with the Advisor to the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, Minister Lily D’Ambrosio. Other attendees include representatives from VCC/CliffCare, Parks Victoria, and Aboriginal Victoria. An invitation is also being extended to an Advisor from the office of the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Major Events, Minister Martin Pakula. Fingers crossed there is some positive outcomes from this meeting. Ratcheting up the pressure to the highest levels of government has been reasonably successful in getting our message heard – and we can only thank you people for writing those letters and signing those petitions (currently sitting just below 25,000 signatures). In the end of the day we need to win the approval from State Government, not Parks Victoria to gain back long term climbing access. We need new legislation that clearly states that climbing is an approved activity and any changes requires proper consultation before a ban is proposed. Apparently the ACAV have 6 lawyers working on this very thing!
VCC Mediation Behind Closed Doors
The VCC have also announced they are entering “mediation” with Parks Victoria on behalf of their members after receiving a number of legal documents regarding the bans (VCC are not releasing these documents to the public.). They have been a little mysterious on the details…
“Over the past months the VCC has taken steps to seek written reasons from Parks Victoria (PV) in relation to all recent closures within the Grampians National Park.
PV has now provided a number of documents which it has confirmed constitute its written reasons for those decisions.
PV has also offered to participate in a mediation with VCC members (and legal representatives) in respect of the closures so as to avoid costly litigation. Subject to some process commitments being agreed by PV, the VCC will likely participate.
Assuming that the mediation goes ahead, VCC will likely not be able to comment on what occurs at the mediation. VCC would be able to comment on any tangible results of the mediation (and would only resolve matters on the basis that the climbing community can be properly informed of these results).”
Are you a VCC club member? Let your chosen representatives know that you want to read all the information available in advance of this mediation beginning. We hope that VCC members get a chance to discuss together what is going to be on the table with PV in mediation. These discussions are between PV and VCC members, not all climbers. We are not sure what unique privileges VCC are hoping to achieve for its members, but as discussed above, we sure hope there is no horse trading of crags without proper analysis of each and every crag. VCC are keeping their cards close to their chests. Best of luck to them!
Let’s Work Together
What should be clear is that climbing groups need to be lobbying for climbing access first, and anything else second. We have been slammed with internationally significant climbing bans and we need to push back against them with all our might. There has been a lot of online disagreements between the various (and expanding!) climbing lobby groups recently that certainly isn’t bringing out the best in our community. Losing wholesale access to this area on “our watch” is bound to stir an emotional response from anyone heavily invested in the area but let’s try and put personalities aside and work together, including sharing of information, for the benefit of all people who love climbing in the Grampians. The next generation of climbers are depending on us.
Get educated on our Grampians climbing history. Check out the below PDF from the VCC regarding Grampians climbing access issues associated with Brush Tailed Rock Wallabies in 1998. There is some parallels with the current issues. We survived that – can we survive the latest problems? Let us hope so.
If you haven’t already joined up to ACAV – please do so! It’s only $15.
Also – join your local climbing club, or donate cold hard cash direct to CliffCare who are also fighting the good fight.