1975. It was a big year. The Vietnam War ended, Sony introduced Betamax video, Muhammad Ali beat Joe Fraser, Microsoft was launched and Whitlam got dismissed and replaced by Fraser. It was also the year that rock climbers discovered Summer Day Valley in the Grampians. For 44 years since it has been the core of climbing in the region, a place many people were first introduced to the sport by friends, clubs and guides. This climbing history has now literally been torn up as rangers removed PV signage about rock-climbing from the area over the weekend. This included informative panels explaining the history and benefits of climbing.
Like a good o’l fashioned Orwellian novel, Parks Victoria is now erasing anything positive about climbing in the area and pretending it was never an approved activity. Many of these signs were only installed in the last few years after the 2014 bush fires. Will they be removing the memorial chair next? With these signs now removed – PV are now all in, fully committed to destroying livelihoods and decades of past pleasure. Why the sudden weekend rush to remove the signs? It’s all about the “new and improved” Summer Day Valley that PV launched today! But let us rewind a bit here for the back story…
The climbing bans across a third of Grampians were announced in February this year, more than four months ago. Almost immediately the guiding companies (referred to by Parks Victoria as Licensed Tour Operators – LTOs) asked about the future of Summerday Valley, the area that was their default location for rock-climbing tour groups. It has easy access via PV built tracks, short beginner routes aplenty and all traditionally protected (no need for bolts). It was also clearly inside a Special Protection Area that PV was now saying was prohibited to climbing. The future of these guiding companies was immediately in danger. We are talking about companies that have existed for decades, employing 50 or more people in the region.
Plan of Mismanagement
You would think that Parks Victoria would have come up with a plan for what would happen in advance of the ban announcements. But, as has been shown again and again, they had done no research and had no plan. When tour operators asked them what was happening they flat out refused to answer, didn’t return phone calls, sent no emails. This went on for months and months with the companies still running groups through SDV on entirely shaky legal ground (imagine not knowing if your insurance covered you). LTOs rely on permits issued by PV to operate in the Park. These permits are contracts on where and what the LTO can do in the park and they also have a defined finish point – the end of the financial year (i.e. yesterday). Any business needs clarity on what it can do in the future and when the permit expires they are out of business. Trying to make PV understand this seemed futile to the guiding companies.
Surprise! New Rules
With the end of the financial year only a week away, Parks Victoria suddenly organised a cultural assessment of the entire area (not just SDV, but also Anderserons bouldering, Hollow Mtn Cave etc). Still no information issued to the public or LTOs – we only knew about this assessment from climbers in the area who saw it happening and asked questions. A week went by, still nothing. Then two days before the permits expired, on a Friday night at 8pm (hours after the office closes) LTOs received an email informing them that there would be drastic changes to how guiding in Summer Day Valley would occur and these changes would come into effect on Monday morning. This timing isn’t an accident. It was clear strategy deliberately done to reduce any chance of a backlash and to make them unaccountable.
You can read all the documents here:
A quick summary of the more controversial points in this contract “variation”.
- After three months this variation will be reviewed and if an extension for an additional three months is to be offered that will be communicated at the time.
- No chalking, bolting or any other fixed protections is to be used under any circumstances anywhere in the park. [Isn’t this just about SDV – not the whole park?]
- Compulsory completion of an Aboriginal cultural heritage induction program. Details and timing of this will be communicated at a later date. [when and by whom?]
- Ongoing education on Aboriginal cultural values to operators and their tour groups. This may include the presence of a representative from Traditional Owner groups. [which group?]
- Anyone wishing to climb at Summerday Valey will need to do so though a licensed tour operator.
- Park Rangers will be onsite to monitor activity and ensure compliance. [full time?]
- Parks Victoria can revoke Licensed Tour Operator rock climbing and abseiling access to Summerday Valley at any time.
- Any breaches by tour operators will put access to Summerday valley at risk for all operators.
Wow – collective punishment to finish it off. What a contract.
This isn’t a proposal – this is the new system starting today. PV had since February to present their plans to climbing groups and LTOs as a proposal and work though the detail in advance of major changes. They even held a meeting with LTOs last month but failed to mention any of this. They could have collaborated with stakeholders who literally live in the same small town. But no. Take it or leave it is the new approach. Did the people writing this actually fully understand what they are regulating?
Current local guides had little positive to say about this – most were furious. Tori Dunn had this to say “Parks Victoria, your blatant vilification of the climbing community has damaged mental health, friendships, local community and spirit. Your mis-managed media campaign has damaged my business badly enough already. For you to now impose such a level of regulation, red tape, and outright opportunistic monetization of my industry is just too much. “
What is astounding is the way these new rules are written, they sound like parole requirements not a management plan. It is clearly worded to make it sound like LTOs have been breaking the law in the past, doing all sorts of nasty things and now that needs to be policed. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Exactly what have tour operators done?
The climbing guides don’t place bolts and don’t hand out chalk to clients. If PV had done its research they would know this. The beauty of SDV is that it is pure trad climbing – even the anchors used for topropes and abseiling are natural rock bollards. No bolts. There is no evidence that we know of that guiding groups have damaged any secret cultural heritage areas deliberately. So why the veiled threat to destroy the entire climbing guiding industry if anyone does something wrong? This is straight from the Stasi police state textbook. Everyone’s an informer, everyone’s a potential criminal.
With a contract that will only ever be issued in 3 month lots there is also zero job security. School groups want to book up to a year in advance. This is obviously no longer possible. This is PVs new approach to guiding, and quite possibly recreational climbing. You can be assured it’s coming to other areas as these assessments reveal further cultural heritage sites across the Grampians and Arapiles. It’s certainly clear that recreational climbers are no longer welcome in Summer Day Valley at all.
Nitty Gritty Analysis
Mark Wood wrote a good piece on Facebook analyzing these contract variations:
With regards to ‘someone in PV trying to compromise’ this is unlikely to be the case. Fear of litigation by LTOs means that they had to throw a bone. PV know that various LTOs book many groups 6-12 months in advance. The 3 month ‘trial’ is a PR diversionary tactic to fool people that PV is being gracious, whereas it appears designed to fail so that they can exclude LTOs from SDV. There was ample time for the cultural heritage assessment to have been conducted earlier in the year, the results analysed and consultation with the stakeholders to be completed. A considered approach, with a suitable lead time and comprehensive, accurate information is how PV are expected to operate under their gazetted obligations. A Friday night email changing the contract conditions, with inadequate preparation and conflicting information shows a disturbing lack of foresight, oversight and engagement. A good example is Cultural Heritage inductions where PV have not even worked out how or when this is going to happen even though it is a new contract condition. It is not stipulated who is going to cover this cost, what the cost may be and where this will occur. That is just one example. Running a business under these conditions is fraught with difficulties which are often unappreciated by those who do not run a business, or understand the time cycles of business and contract management.
There is the potential that additional extensions of the variation could be provided after a review of the three month period. This will only be applicable: a) if all conditions are met to Parks Victoria and Traditional Owner groups’ satisfaction, b) in three-month periods and c) concluding 30 June 2020. The LTOs also need to ask ‘who are the Traditional Owner groups and who are the contacts?’. 2. The contract is with PV, not the TOs. Is this requirement in the contract, if not then it is unenforceable, and if PV push this, then it is just another legal battle.
Do the TOs know they are being used in this without any legal contractual arrangement? How will they react when the ACAV inform them that PV has suddenly made them liable for contractual disputes and they may face multi million dollar class actions?
Thanks Mark for that informative breakdown and further legal questions. The whole new system sounds like a thought bubble.
Permit to Harm
Apparently to be able to allow climbing to continue in SDV, even with all these new restrictions, Parks Victoria had too apply for a Permit to Harm. This is a permit that usually applies to road works or building construction that would obliterate a cultural heritage site with bulldozers. It’s quite amazing to think what someone in head office is being told climbers are doing similar high impact damage to Summer Day valley cliffs. Take a look at the photos below for what really causes harm to these areas – natural bush fires! Trees gone, rock shattered by heat across kilometres.
How Did This Happen?
Don’t expect to read about it how they got to this point – freedom of information attempts from us have shown absolute reluctance from the government to supply any official info on cultural assessments that forced these changes. We have heard rumours that the new sites discovered in Summer Day Valley a few weeks ago were Aboriginal quarry scatter areas – not art. If this is the case, and these climbing restrictions are what happens, then almost all climbing areas are doomed. These scatter sites exist everywhere – all along the bases of most climbing areas at Arapiles and major Grampians clifflines. And if it’s damage to rocks scattered on the ground that is the concern – why are walkers and picnickers ok to visit these areas unencumbered by highly restrictive regulations and bans?
Our last attempt to get official info about cultural heritage surveys on the broader SPAs area had massive redactions. 90% will be blacked out according to their reply. PV won’t even talk to anyone in the national press anymore. The award winning journalist John Ferguson, who has been writing regular articles as the associate editor for The Australian newspaper about these bans (including front page stories), has told us that PV and the government have refused to talk to him.
Crime to Climb
When did it become a crime to climb? Some of us here at Save Grampians Climbing were visiting NSW climbing mecca Nowra on the weekend with a few dozen old friends. Early in the morning a ranger drove around the carpark adding an extra chill to the already frosty morning. Apparently he had been hassling climbers for camping in the bush at the top of the cliff. The mood among climbers at the cliff was sombre. Some spoke like this was our last winter of freedom and we will remember it fondly in years to come. Could a group of illegal campers trigger an access crisis in Nowra? Our rights to climb are evaporating across Australia on our watch. It’s not inconceivable considering what is happening in the Grampians. “No climbing” signs went up at super popular Pages Pinnacle in Queensland a few weeks back. Climbers need to wise up to what is happening.
Even the usually coy VCC have come out strongly over this “We agree that PVs actions have been completely lacking consultation with climbers, which is why the legal process we have begun is about holding them to account for that, forcing them to formally justify the reasons for their decisions and open them to scrutiny. So we’re legally compelling them to be collaborative in order to remedy the lack of consultation.”
We asked VCC quite a few questions last week (before this latest kerfuffle) about how they are working towards solving these sweeping changes and climbing bans. You can read the Q&A on their website here.
Let’s Lighten the Mood
This might brighten your day. A photo we found in the State Library records from the 1890s showing climbers at Venus Baths.
Please share this…