This is a guest post by Mike Rockell, a climbing lifer who left New Zealand and moved to Melbourne 4 years ago. His history with Victorian climbing goes back a lot earlier than that though, with his first trip to Arapiles in 1984. Mike is still climbing grade 26 at age 60. The Grampians, with it’s amazing rock and pre-historic beauty, have been his most recent climbing inspiration. Having seen significant climbing closures in New Zealand, Mike has now became part of the interim committee of the ACAV, following and working closely on the Grampians access issues.
Before reading Mike’s article take a look at this excellent article from today’s The Australian newspaper which explains some of the wider context behind the Grampians climbing bans. The following is Mike’s personal theory on how climbing and climbers ended up as collateral damage in this bigger picture.
A claim for joint management of the Grampians National Park by three Registered Aboriginal Parties (RAPs) was in play from 2016 through to June of this year. The impact of climbing within the Park was likely used as evidence by Aboriginal Victoria and the RAPs to demonstrate that Parks Victoria (PV) were negligent in managing the Park on behalf of Traditional Owners. This could then be used as a negotiating tool for their joint management claim. In defense, PV acted to remove this irritant (climbers) so they could demonstrate to their Victorian government masters that they were on top of the situation and no doubt so the government could maintain a stronger hand in the negotiations with TOs.
A Bit More Detail
In May 2016, three Registered Aboriginal Parties (RAP), “the Barengi Gadjin Land Council, Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owner Aboriginal Corporation and Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, filed in the Federal Court an application for a determination of native title over the Grampians National Park. This is known as the Gariwerd Native Title Claim. Joint Management negotiations between Parks Victoria and Traditional Owners also commenced.” (Vertical Life primer, 29 Nov 2018)
Sometime, presumably in 2018, PV rangers with links to one of the Traditional Owner groups, came across a number of climbing locations in the Southern Grampians Victoria Range. The climbing locations included both bouldering and roped climbing areas, which had been impacted by climbing activities with the Gallery being perhaps the best known and most popular for climbing. The Gallery was used as a standout example against climbers because of the extent of climber’s chalk and bolts that were present. This could be used to show that PV were not managing the Park properly with regard to protecting cultural heritage. Additional evidence was compiled. Some of the evidence was relatively valid (the chalk and bolts at the Gallery for example), especially when seen through non-climber eyes. But some of the evidence, such as paint graffiti and a very old bolt placed by Parks management as part of an earlier protective cage around a cultural heritage site was also incorrectly attributed against climbers.
This evidence could be used to support the claim being made by the 3 Registered Aboriginal Groups for joint management of the Grampians National Park that PV could not properly manage the cultural heritage within the Park. This evidence gathered by the PV ranger staff would likely have been fed back to Aboriginal Victoria (AV) possibly through one or other of the RAPs. AV may well have then advised PV that, through their poor management of the GNP with regard to cultural heritage, that they could be facing fines of $1.6M and that they better get their act together quick pronto.
PV, under this pressure and lead by an inexperienced newcomer, Chief Operating Officer, Simon Talbot, needed to do something, and do it fast, to appease his latte sipping liberal lefty (oh shit I might be one of those) masters in the Victorian government.
There was little time for consultation/communication with the climbing community and who exactly should they consult with anyway? Given the lack of an over-arching climbing body, VCC/Cliffcare were the only obvious organisation for PV to talk to. Arising from closed-door communications between PV and the VCC, the VCC requested the climbing community to undertake a year long moratorium on new routes within the Grampians. This was announced on 31 October 2018. The announcement came out of the blue and with no prior consultation with the climbing community. It was a well-intentioned effort to forestall a worsening situation, but it did not wash well with the greater climbing community because it was sudden and there was limited background explanation.
But the situation quickly worsened none-the less and in early November 2018 (Melbourne Cup weekend) climbers in the Victoria Range were approached by overzealous PV rangers, jumping the gun by handing out flyers saying that climbing was now prohibited in much of the Grampians. These handouts had maps that indicated large climbing Special Protection Areas where climbing was to be excluded. Interestingly, two of the rangers involved in this incident no longer work for PV.
Things went relatively quiet over Christmas, but come 15 February 2019, PV issued official information on the Special Protection Areas where climbing was to be no longer permitted. This included 8 focus sites that would have signage installed and advised that compliance activities would be undertaken for these 8 areas. For the broader SPAs, information provided by PV was unclear as to whether climbing was expressly forbidden in them. The climbing community took the conservative interpretation, that at least for the time being it would be better not to climb in the SPAs. At the same time, Parks Victoria launched a media smear campaign about climbers to justify their actions. This included the graffiti, the fake bolt and additional evidence such as the highly erroneous, unsubstantiated ten fold growth of climbing numbers to 80,000 climbing days per year. This was used to heighten the view that climbing was a fast and growing environmental threat to the Grampians.
No doubt PV hoped that the combination of closing a significant portion of the Grampians to climbing, yet still leaving some areas open, would be a salve to both AV / Traditional Owner groups and leave the climbing community with enough open crags that climbers would meekly accept this outcome. After having been shamed in the media by the smear campaign, climbers would be expected to just roll over. Job done, time for another latte.
What they did not reckon on is the major blowback that would come from the climbing community or that the climbing community would get organised and push back. They did not realise that they had closed access to a major proportion of the best climbing in Victoria. They did not count on how angered and motivated the climbing community would be, to be so badly maligned and misrepresented to the public. And here we all are at this current impasse.
Where to from here?
PV are continuing to poorly implement climbing bans within Summer Day Valley and get deeper into a mess largely of their own making. Licensed Tour Operators, accommodation providers and all sorts of businesses related to climbing in the the greater region continue to be more and more negatively impacted as this sorry saga rolls on. The damage to climbers reputation in the public has wilted.
But it need not end like this. Climbing in Victoria will never be the same, but climbers are generally highly environmentally conscious and respectful of cultural heritage. That is not to say that we can’t learn to tread more lightly going forward. It would be great if we can develop a working relationship with the RAPs and assist as stewards of the land. In this way it could be a positive outcome for all, even for Parks Victoria. Essentially it is time for the Minister of the Environment, Lily D’Ambrosio and The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to direct their staff to get all the parties together and request they work together with climbers to find and implement solutions acceptable to all.