Is Arapiles Next?

Many climbers have voiced concern about the future of climbing at Arapiles after seeing the dramas unfolding in the Grampians. Could similar bans happen at Arapiles? Is it all connected? Yes and yes. Let’s explain.

The overriding basis of the recent Grampians bans have been changes to Victorian legislation in 2018 regarding management of crown reserves and parks, and the ever growing imperative to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage on the public estate. (Parks Victoria Act 2018, Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 & Aboriginal Heritage Regulations 2018). What was new in these pieces of legislation that changed everything?

The new Parks Victoria Act 2018 makes it clear that Parks Victoria has the primary responsibility for the protection, conservation and enhancement of Parks Victoria managed land, including its natural and cultural values.

The granting of land management powers to Parks Victoria directly increases their accountability for managing public land for the people of Victoria and makes that role clear to the community.

That means Parks Victoria is now legally responsible for all aspects of land it manages. However, this action puts PV squarely in the sights of any action raised by a Traditional Owner group for failure to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage. Now combine it with these clinchers from the Aboriginal Heritage Regulations 2018…

A park is an area of cultural heritage sensitivity.

A cave, a rock shelter or a cave entrance is an area of cultural heritage sensitivity.

Translation – all Parks Victoria land (ie. parks & especially caves) are now an area of cultural heritage sensitivity by default. This means any activity within a park that PV, knowingly or unknowingly, allows to happen opens them up to legal scrutiny. If PV follows the letter of the laws then any cliff is now possibly “culturally sensitive” and must be “culturally assessed ” before the activity of recreational or guided climbing can be allowed to take place. This currently applies to any crag – Arapiles, Buffalo, Taipan. And this isn’t theoretical.

Assessments Begin – For All Victorian Crags?

Word on the street is that there will be cultural heritage assessments done at Summer Day Valley in the coming week. What does this actually entail? Experts are looking to identify sites of cultural significance that conflict with other user groups (in our case – climbing). Like previous assessments done in the Victoria Range, the detailed results of this assessment will most likely be put under lock and key as part of the secrecy provisions legislated within the Aboriginal Heritage Act and managed by Aboriginal Victoria (the government department responsible for cultural heritage management). The locations and details of particular sites are recorded in the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register which is considered off-limits to the general public as, in their words “it contains culturally sensitive information.”

How secret are we talking about here? Let’s demonstrate with our ill fated attempts to get any information about the Grampians SPA bans using Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

“Documents comprising one hundred and two (102) pages have been found to be relevant to your request. In accordance with the Act, I determined to grant you partial access to three (3) pages, full access to five (5) pages and refuse access to ninety-four (94) pages.

Rhonda Davis, Freedom of Information Officer

When more than 90% of the relevant documents are deemed state secrets then it hardly inspires confidence in a fair and balanced approach to park management. Even worse – we are also still waiting for these meagre documents to be released to us despite the FOI request being applied for almost 4 months ago (March 4th).

The act also gives the powerful government department of Aboriginal Victoria (AV) the ability to financially cripple Parks Victoria for failing to protect cultural sites from damage. Fines of up to $1.6 million have been threatened (this is the maximum penalty however. A recent landmark case against a farmer for major damage to cultural heritage ended with a $20k fine). So PV have all this new responsibility, and have been threatened by AV to “manage” the land they are responsible for. Arapiles is, of course, one of those pieces of land.

What follows is a disturbing report sent to us from Louise Shepherd, Natimuk local, local guide and icon of the 80s Arapiles climbing scene. It shows the sketchy position climbers are in right now at Arapiles.

“Climbers have had a good run for forty years; their time is over”

My friend Bob [name changed to protect privacy] called me yesterday. A few days ago he had attended a Landcare event where representatives from the local Aboriginal council Barengi Gadjin Land Council (BGLC) presented a session on Aboriginal culture. The group drove out to Mount Arapiles to inspect a scar tree. The topic of the Grampians climbing ban was raised, the behavior of climbers was discussed  and the conversation broadened to include Mt Arapiles. Darren Griffin from Aboriginal Victoria, told the group that a full heritage study of Mount Arapiles was planned, and the outcome of that survey would determine where rock climbing could happen, if at all. Griffin explained that climbers damage the rock, the environment and heritage values.  His views received a sympathetic ear from many of those present, mostly Landcare facilitators from the western region. Bob was astonished. He had been a rock climber in the past, but had stopped climbing twenty years ago when he moved away from the Wimmera and his life took a different trajectory. Vaguely aware of the Grampians climbing bans, he had not followed the story closely. Bob still has many old friends in Natimuk, and he struggled to recognise Darren’s depiction of climbers as being environmental and cultural vandals.  His own values, and the values of the climbers he knows, did not mesh with Darren’s view.

A member of the group spoke up, pointing out that until then, the conversation had been about respect, but when climbers were mentioned, the tone had changed, suggesting that climbers deserve the same respect as all users of the land in the current context.

Darren Griffin and other BGLC members had clearly not anticipated dissent.  One member of BGLC responded thus: “Climbers have had a good run for forty years; their time is over”.

Bob was unhappy. He agonised for two days on how to respond, and eventually called me. I’ve known Bob for 30 years. His impression was that climbers were being given an unfair rap, their care and deep respect for Mt Arapiles was now being overlooked and the focus appeared to be straying into areas that had more to do with power and control rather than care for the landscape.  

It is no secret that Arapiles will soon be subjected to a full heritage study. This was announced at a meeting I attended in Halls Gap two weeks ago between LTOs (licensed tour operators) and Parks Victoria.  I ask you: where is our focus as climbers? Do we view Arapiles as just an outdoor gym, or as a special space that deserves all the care and joy and passion that we feel for our sport?

Heavy stuff. And as you read this the plans are already being drawn up for even greater changes at Arapiles.

Arapiles’ Ownership to Change

Since 2005 Mount Arapiles-Tooan State Park has been formally co-managed by Parks Victoria in partnership with Aboriginal organization Barengi Gadjin Land Council (BGLC). There are currently negotiations underway between BGLC and the State Government of Victoria under the Traditional Owner Settlement Act.

It is likely that a settlement will include a change from co-management to joint management for Arapiles. This means the title of the land passes from State Gov ownership (i.e. the general public) to BGLC under a form of land title called Aboriginal Title. Decisions about the management of the park will then be the responsibility of a new Traditional Owner Land Management Board (TOLMB). The TOLMBs will be made up of Traditional owners (majority), government representatives and members of the broader Victorian community. Parks Victoria will continue to deliver on ground management in these areas guided by the direction set by the TOLMB.

As part of this process Arapiles will need to be “assessed” and those secret cultural management reviews and plans are part of this process. The question needs to be answered fairly quickly – what kind of radius around sites will climbers be allowed to climb? Or will climbing be allowed at all? The disturbing quote from Louise Shepherd’s letter above about climbing’s time being “over” is not a good sign of the current fractured relationship between climbers and Aboriginal groups.

Raps at Arapiles

How does this situation differ to the Grampians situation? What we have at Arapiles is an already registered Aboriginal party (RAP – the acronyms for this bureaucracy are never ending). This is a legal status given to organisations that hold decision-making responsibilities under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 for protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage in a specified geographical area. Barengi Land Council is the RAP for Arapiles and have already been managing the land with PV since 2005.

Whilst down in the Grampians we have multiple Aboriginal organizations with varying claims over parts of the Grampians – none of which have been formally recognized as a RAP by the Victorian Gov (yet) despite several attempts. This means that the BGLC are way further along in the process of full ownership and control of Arapiles. PV will lease the land off them and act as guardians/police – but the real powers belong to the BGLC group. What voice will all other interest groups have when that happens – especially climbers? That will be decided in the next year.

Arapiles Advisory Committee – our last hope?

There is currently only one way for climbers to have any official say in the future of Arapiles – and that is through the Arapiles Advisory Committee. This is a discussion group run by Parks Victoria that has been functioning for decades and currently has 8 members, five who are climbers.

An advert will be published this Wednesday in the Wimmera Mail Times seeking expressions of interest to join the Arapiles Advisory Committee for the next three years. Applications closes 26 June. This isn’t a case of anyone joining in. Applicants will be vetted and chosen by Gavan Mathieson from PV. We clearly need to maintain climbers in this group who are strong lobbyists for climbing and the future of this sport at Arapiles. If you are interested in applying and feel qualified then please read the ad posted below.

That PV gets to choose these applicants could be problematical right now. We know from sources that the Grampians PV office is currently a toxic environment regarding rock-climbing. Much like the infamous US militarily attitude towards gays – “don’t ask, don’t tell” – it is now considered career suicide to publicly partake in rock-climbing as a sport whilst also wanting to work for PV. But it swings both ways – some staff with Aboriginal ancestry have left the organization claiming PV has a conflict of interest because of a “pro-climber” attitude. This explains a lot about the confusion at ground level from staff towards climbers and the media. In the not so distant past climbers and PV shared common ground and worked together to manage climbing areas. Let’s hope the Arapiles Advisory Committee is a fair representation of the main users of Arapiles.

How Can You Help? Get Off the Fence!

This is going to be blunt. It has to be. We are standing on a precipice staring down at the very real chance that Victorian rock climbing as we know it is about to disappear altogether. This is no exaggeration. Climbers need to get off the fence and start being proactive. It’s time to step up and be counted. There are so many climbers, even big name ones, who are seemingly in denial about the bans. They believe it will all work itself out and they just need to sit it out on the sidelines. We can tell you right now this is not under control. This is not about to be solved. The legislative tide is hitting us like a tsunami.

Instagram influencers give us daily updates on their training programs for their next Taipan project – but fail to mention that Taipan is now under direct threat. For example we had the “launch” of a film about Wheel of Life at Hollow Mountain Cave being publicized heavily a few months ago – but no attempt was made to talk about the bans that actually make climbing in this cave prohibited. What’s going on here?

As a starter we suggest following the ACAV Facebook group where there are daily calls for action and good discussions about some of these issues. And most importantly join the ACAV here, it’s a measly $15 membership fee for their fighting fund and you can could make a donation whilst you are there.

You may not agree with the opinions shared on this site, or some of the actions of the ACAV or VCC. Fine. Got a better solution? Then let’s hear, read it, see it! Don’t let our generation be the one to lose it all.

Joke of the Day

We would like to finish with a bit of a joke – apparently a guy called Simon Talbot (COO of PV) announced in the Halls Gap meeting a few weeks ago that they are planning on building a shower block at the Pines campground. Hold on – we just checked our sources. That’s not a joke – that’s a real story. OMG. How clueless are these people…. I’m sure we can expect increased camp fees for this privilege.

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11 thoughts on “Is Arapiles Next?”

  1. Outgoing Arapiles Advisory committee had 5 climbers or former climbers out of, I think, 8 members. No guarantee that this level of representation continues though.

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  2. In order to want to protect a place you first have to love it.

    Climbers love and care for Arapiles and the Grampians.

    Parks Victoria should focus their energy on other areas…

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  3. Sounds like we need to demonstrate to the rightful (traditional) owners how climbers will be respectful and support the care of the area. It is their land after all. We need to demonstrate how it will be respected and be flexible in negotiations. Most people would expect this for access to their land. Remember, regardless of the past, this is (now legally) and always was Aboriginal land – what would you want to see from people wanting to enter your land.

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    1. Carol I think you are absolutely right. This is the approach that should be adopted, but I think that climbers should present a strong case in future negotiations and not simply roll over.

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  4. This is interesting. On one hand, I’d hate to see trad rock climbers prevented from opportunities to enjoy their sport (especially the ones who don’t do it for sport…). On the other hand, I deeply believe that as a society we need to reconcile with the culture of those who were here before us. Especially regarding the ethics and values of climbers regarding the damage they do… each climber who loves and cares for the grampians or arapiles when they go there is contributing to its gradual degradation. Death by a thousand hugs? It is an uncomfortable truth that I have faced – I used to enjoy climbing there too (like “Bob” my life took a different direction and I haven’t climbed for a while). The wear and tear I saw 20 years ago concerned me, and I wasn’t yet as aware of the Aboriginal heritage issues as I am now. I don’t know what the answer is, I can’t stand indoor climbing, contrived as it is. But I can’t accept that Aboriginal culture is something consigned to the past, and only protected in places that we don’t have any other use for.

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    1. Yep, it’s difficult to see a way through. Above, there’s a comment that asks us to demonstrate our respect for the indigenous caretakers of the areas in which we climb—but, I wrote in response to another article, it seems that the position of Aboriginal Victoria is that the only form that these demonstrations may take is for climbers to not climb in these areas. Climbing is disrespectful. If that’s the case, climbers must take the decision to either climb or demonstrate respect. The two are mutually exclusive, it seems. For some, and understandably, this is quite the dilemma.

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    2. Like you I have a deep respect for Indigenous culture, having worked with Indigenous people for many years, but I cannot understand how climbing at Arapiles is somehow more disrespectful than driving to the top and leaving rubbish around the lookouts, or worse throwing it over the cliff, which I have witnessed on many occasions. Are they going to dismantle the microwave tower that stands on top? Isn’t this disrespectful? Anyone who visits an area does some small amount of damage and this is always the problem of striking the balance in sensitive areas, but I am convinced that climbers, as a group, do less damage than most visitors to the park.

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  5. Hi all,
    The information regarding joint management in this article is factually incorrect. I would encourage all readers and user groups to access correct information publicly available on DELWP (https://www.forestsandreserves.vic.gov.au/joint-management/joint-management) or Parks Vic (https://parkweb.vic.gov.au/park-management/aboriginal-joint-management) websites. As you will see from the correct information the statement ‘Decisions about the management of the park will then be solely the responsibility of the new private owners.’ is particularly flawed.

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  6. I have written to several politicians. I also clicked on the link above for the petition but my Norton blocked access warning that it was a dangerous site. I’m reluctant to over-ride this but I would like to add my name. This may deter others from signing as well and it’s probably just some technical glitch. Can you look into this?

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