What you are about to read is a tale of deception and bluster. An email trail between land managers secretly planning the removal of rock-climbers from most of the Grampians crags, whilst the very same climbers appear oblivious to what is coming. Wool pulled over their eyes they profess the desire for consultation whilst the plans for their execution have already been drawn up.
ACAV legal team have finally received the first of three long awaited Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests and it sure is juicy reading (despite the 4 month delay whilst it was “processed”). What isn’t so delicious is the missing information that has been redacted. In the Freedom of Information Officer Rhonda Davis’ own words:
Documents containing one hundred and fifty pages (150) pages have been found to be relevant to your request. In accordance with the Act, I have determined to grant you partial access to forty-five (45) pages, full access to eleven (11) pages and refuse access to ninety-four (94) pages.
There were two separate queries in ACAV’s request for information, and the responses for each are enlightening:
The first query was for communications between PV and Victorian Climbing Club/CliffCare. For this they released all 48 pages that were” found to be relevant” – and only did some minor redactions on 42 pages, mainly just blacking out individuals names and identifying details. Fair enough.
But the second query, for communications between PV and Aboriginal Victoria regarding climbing bans, there was a near total blackout. The government “found to be relevant” 102 pages of documents, but refused to release 94 pages of them! This is genuinely crazy stuff – we as taxpayers (funders) of this process get 10% of the information and are expected to be confident of the processes involved. Why is so much hidden? It all comes down to the law in the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 apparently. Let’s quote what they said:
A document is exempt from disclosure where it contains information relating to matters of a business, commercial or financial nature and the disclosure of the information would be likely to expose the undertaking unreasonably to disadvantage… Some of the documents reveal information held on or prepared for the Victorian Heritage Register. This is a confidential Register that is subject to access conditions set out in the legislation (Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006) and Parks Victoria is unable to divulge that information. Parts of other documents refer extensively to sections of the Register and are also exempt for the same reason.
What has “business, commercial or finance” got to do with climbing bans and Aboriginal cultural heritage sites? And apparently it is all so secret they won’t even release any of this – even with sections blacked out. How is it not in the public interest to know about PV and AV being in cahoots whilst commercializing something that relies on climbing bans? Nothing to see here. Move along folks.
OK, lets move onto the actual documents themselves (or the bits we are allowed to read). Download and read them all here first (if you have the time). Scroll to the bottom of this article if you just want to read the conclusion.
The order the documents have been given to us is not sequential so the following breakdown unpicks and reorders (and explains) what they contain.
13 July 2017 – the first taste of PVs master plan
We start with an illuminating email sent in July 2017 (1.5 years before the bans were announced). In it, the unidentified author from Dept of Environment forwards a paragraph presumably drafted by someone in Aboriginal Victoria (AV) explaining the legal obligations of rock climbers and land managers under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006.
This email mentions the now infamous threat of a $1.58 million penalty for harming Aboriginal cultural heritage. Importantly it also groups “land managers” (ie PV ) into the people who this fine could apply to. This email mentions “inserting a bolt” as a potential problem. 40 minutes after that email was sent we see a reply from someone at Parks Victoria who describes it as “perfect” and they will “need to have some internal conversations in PV about the broader plan of attack”. They then list three points of action:
Some interesting tidbits there – a hope that climbers would be “Really supportive and volunteer to remove inappropriate bolts”, “self-regulation of the VCC climbing policy hasn’t worked” and that PV will need “a compliance focus”. Remember this is more than a year before the first inklings of this were leaked to climbers via the “rogue ranger” handing out draft maps showing banned areas at Muline.
23 October 2017 – Black Range incident
Three months later, the documents reveal correspondence regarding the Black Range bolting issues – where several bolts were placed near (not in) Aboriginal art sites in early 2017. The first email comes direct from an unidentified person (possibly Ben Gunn?) who stumbled upon climbers and new bolts near a caged art site…
This email was sent to someone at Barengi Gadjin Land Council who responded with great concern.
When they refer to being in negotiation with CliffCare regarding removal of bolts, they are talking about Back Ians Rock (not to be mistaken for the nearby Black Range). These were bolts placed in an earlier incident than 2017 near Aboriginal art and were then removed. So this new incident in October at nearby Black Range was a second incident – and obviously of great concern to the Traditional Owners. The VCC was contacted with concern about this report and Tracey Skinner asks for more information before communicating the problems with the climbing community – and the response from someone in PV is damning.
Again, mentions of self regulation and community self-compliance not working and problems with bolting. Also of note is a mention of Special Protection Areas – the areas now prohibited to climbing that consist of a third of the park (and most of the good climbing). At this stage I doubt many climbers even knew of the existence of the SPAs – let alone specific rules that needed to be followed when in them. Tracey wrote back explaining some of PVs more misguided assumptions and also asked for further thoughtful discussions before PV implemented anything drastic.
Two days after this email conversation Tracey published a warning on CliffCare’s website about the Black Range incident and says “there is a definite push to put some processes in place” regarding bolting. There was however no mention of PV’s very strongly worded phrase in their email to Tracey two days prior that “bolting is being reviewed and is now out of hand and inappropriate”. A missed opportunity perhaps? Either way – bolters were clearly on thin ice. But no mention of climbers in general being banned. That’s an important distinction.
30 October 2017 – Remove the bolts?
On the 30th October Tracey emails PV and suggests climbers could remove the offending bolts and she has someone lined up to do this job when required. PV replied with:
Chopping a bolt “officially” is a bureaucratic mess it seems. What appears to be a simple job (removing bolts – which takes a couple of minutes) is now some sort of epic involving three groups, safety briefings and meetings. Despite further emails back and forth for the next week and onsite meetings these bolts were never removed “officially” (as far as we are aware). They are however now gone.
31 October 2017 – AV step in & threaten fines
Next up we have a turn of events that signals much greater problems. The emails about the Black Range bolting were also sent to Aboriginal Victoria (the gov department responsible for Aboriginal cultural heritage state wide), but they didn’t respond until a week later. What they sent was harsh and to the point.
That is a threat of a $9,900 fine (60 penalty units) to the person who put in the bolts. This email was sent to Parks Victoria who then forwarded it to Tracey at CliffCare with the following ominous message:
“Line in the sand. Challenging conversations.” Trouble is indeed brewing and it appears the Black Range incident (not the Black Ians Rock one) really could have been a major trigger for bigger involvement from Traditional Owners and Aboriginal Victoria regarding rock climbing in the Grampians. In general climbers were unaware of these disturbing emails.
20 November 2017 – Media spotlight dramas
This next email chain is one of the most interesting – and unexpected. It reveals someone at PV reading the Weekend Australian and seeing a photo and article about sport climbing in the Victoria Range. They then look up the name of a route (mentioned in the article) on the climbing website thecrag.com,. They discover it was first climbed in 2014 and then track down the first ascentist on Instagram. The perils of putting everything on social media folks…
After looking at the Victorian Range section of the thecrag, the author of the email writes that “development of the Victoria Range has truly exploded” since 2011. Which is total fiction – there were 1500 routes and boulder problems done before 2011, and only 195 added between 2011 and 2017 – a 13% increase. If you remove trad and boulder problems – and stick to bolted routes that figure halves again to 100 routes (a 7% increase). To put that into perspective that is 16 new routes a year – or one every three weeks. There are more than 8000 routes in the Grampians – so how can 100 new sport routes be described as an explosion of development? We can only presume this same unidentified PV employee came up with the other crackpot stats paraded out as facts in the media (10 fold growth of new routes since 2003, 80,000 climbers a year etc etc – all proved false with basic research).
Right down the bottom – they clearly say they want to fast track communication saying that all bolting is banned immediately in the Grampians and Black Range. And alarmingly this needs to be done before the “bigger picture” project will be complete. What project is that? There is no mention in other documents. This is all happening in November 2017 – still 16 months from the climbing bans being announced in February 2019. Was the SPA ban the “bigger picture” plan that was being kept secret? or something even more sinister we have yet to know about?
22 November 2017 – AV spells it out
A few days after that alarmist email from a PV staff member we get this draft text about the Black Range incident from Aboriginal Victoria – now with threats of $200,000 fines and jail.
And slipped into the bottom of their draft text is the line “Rockbolting in these landscapes will no longer be tolerated and any persons found to have placed bolts in these areas will be prosecuted”. It’s not entirely clear if they are referring to only rock art sites – or the Grampians and Black Range in general. It certainly makes no mention of Aboriginal quarry sites or other cultural areas being places bolting cannot occur.
November 2017 to July 2018 – Nothing????
For almost an entire year the conversations between Parks Victoria, Aboriginal Victoria and TO groups about the “bigger picture” plans and bolting bans goes cold. There are no public announcements of a bolting ban or reversal of the self regulation model used by climbers for decades. Possibly a lot was being discussed and planned but it was part of the documents the government decided was not in the public interest – business, commercial, financial?
20 July 2018 – Tracey emails developers
What is strangely missing in these FOI emails is something that was sent to new route developers about 10 months after the Black Range incidents. Tracey sent the following email – and refers to discussions with PV. Those discussions were not included in the FOI documents. There was clearly work being done but what exactly? The email from Tracey to developers was the first time hints of a ban or restrictions were being raised.
24 September 2018 – PV finally contacts VCC
After what seems like an eternity PV finally decides to contact the VCC to discuss their new plans (whatever they were). This time it’s addressed to VCC president Paula Toal.
Presumably some phone calls had been happening between the two previously as they refer to having “recently discussed” rock art damage and unofficial climbing points (which we presumably mean bolts). The date of this email is key – it was less than a month before PV’s “rogue ranger” Brett Combs kicked climbers out of Muline and handed out draft climbing ban maps to people in the carpark. Clearly there were major plans afoot from PV to ban climbers in SPA areas but these were not being told to the VCC (at the time the only climbing organization that PV could talk to). The blindside attack was coming…
9 October 2018 – Talbot inspects Black Range sites
In an email exchange PV’s CCO Simon Talbot invites Paula to inspect art sites in the Black Range with him. Why Tracey Skinner was not the main point of contact is a mystery – since she had been heavily involved for at least a decade and knew all the details.
Talbot writes of “emerging issues and proactive measures “. Still no mention of bans about to be put in place.
4 October 2018
Knowing there was some stress in the relationship between PV and climbers – the VCC sends an email to PV with a VCC Climbing Policy update and a proposal to create a draft Climbing Management Plan in collaboration with PV. This was in advance of a face to face meeting with PV on the 5th of October.
It was a noble attempt by the VCC to get more information and be part of whatever plan PV was cooking up. Clearly at this stage PV knew exactly what they were about to unleash and the VCC had no idea about this. PV had made the plan already – they had designed the brochures and briefed their staff explaining bans across SPA areas. The actual climbing community were in the dark. This is not collaboration with a usergroup – this is just PV ticking a box that says “collaboration” whilst doing their own thing,
31 October 2018
Not mentioned in any of the emails was a Climbing Route Development Moratorium proposed by the VCC. With little background information being received about future access problems most climbers thought this was an overkill. Oh how wrong they were in retrospect.
4 November 2018
The rogue ranger incident. A Parks Victoria ranger issues climbers in the Victoria Range with notices to cease and desist and vacate the area immediately. This ranger hands documents including a map that depicts the Victoria Range SPA areas to climbers in person (some international climbers climbing at Muline) and left on cars (underneath Red Rocks). These documents are marked draft but are professionally designed and clearly real. PV management claim they did not order this ranger’s actions. Simon Talbot assures Simon Carter in a phone call that there would be no large bans in the future. Total bullshit. Climbers should have kicked up a fuss but there was still a strong belief that surely PV wouldn’t lie to our faces – would they?
November 2018 to February 2019- no news is good news – right?
Another black hole in email communication appears – this one lasts for almost four months. There is zero attempt by PV to talk about proposed climbing bans in SPA areas with the VCC.
15 February 2019
Talbot thanks the VCC for attending a meeting (lecture?) on the 12th February where they informed VCC about upcoming crag bans – but didn’t tell the people attending the meeting what crags were to be banned.
19 February 2019
After the unilateral bans at 8 key sites (Gallery, Millennium etc) were announced on the Friday night of the 15th February – the VCC writes to PV to express their disappointment about not having any involvement in their plan. VCC learnt about the bans at the same time as everyone else – when PV released a “fact sheet” onto their website. Blindsided is the word to best describe this turn of events.
This was a great letter from the VCC, spelling out clearly the reasons for climbers concern and the past collaborative approach to climbing management. The fact that PV failed to give any advance warning of this plan is damning. They had taken photos, done cultural assessments, created maps and media plans but failed entirely to discuss this with the only usergroup to be affected – climbers. Imagine the government did the same thing to fisherman? Or surfers? Or bike riders? Banning half of the areas that the sport is practiced in – but not telling anyone until the Friday night. Case closed. Suck it up. It’s pathetic management and honestly needs a proper investigation by higher levels of the government.
25 February 2019 – PV contacts AV about the Gallery
Now we come to an odd inclusion into this series of documents. For some reason we get one email between PV and Aboriginal Victoria regarding The Gallery climbing area. This is a literal treasure trove of information about the secret assessments. It’s particularly odd as it was sent more than a week after the bans were announced – and also contains clear photos of Aboriginal heritage items (quarried rock). Why is this information ok for public knowledge and everything else not ok? Where is the equivalent for Millennium Caves for example?
The email explains to Aboriginal Victoria the actions they have taken to protect the quarry site at the base of The Gallery. What is intriguing is the way this document is written. It makes it sound like the bolts and chalk are new developments – whilst the reality is they had been there for 25+ years and PV had even built a walking track up to the climbing area as recently as 2011.
Let’s try and breakdown this important email that was clearly written to regain confidence in PVs ability to protect Aboriginal heritage sites.
It’s clear straight away that climbing in SPA is to be banned – this is no grey area. They also want to ban areas “adjacent to the special protection areas”. New routes are also to be prohibited throughout the park and surrounding areas. This sort of clear message however was not said in media releases and Fact Sheets issued by Parks Victoria. For months climbers believed SPA bans were merely an unfortunate bureaucratic oversight and would be removed in the next management plan. Yere no. That is clear when you read the next paragraph.
They are planning on signposting “all special protection areas… enabling us to enforce compliance”. Probably take them a lot longer than a few weeks however! 6 months later we only have signs at the 8 key sites and a couple of new dodgy ones at Summer Day Valley. The email then moves on to The Gallery climbing area.
So there are apparently 7 other reports of crags that have been made – but we only get access to this one. Weird. This is also a very brief report – a couple of photos, some misinformed “facts” and no information about the previous acceptance of this climbing area.
Now this is a little bit of bullshit. PV actually worked with CliffCare to build the climbers track up to The Gallery – both in the early 2000s and as recently at 2011. Stop obfuscating PV and own up to knowing about, and promoting this climbing area decades ago. It’s the second most popular climbing area in the Grampians. If you didn’t know about that you are a very very poor land manager. Tourism Victoria even promoted The Gallery on their website as recently at March this year (after the bans were announced).
The report finishes with several photos showing chalk and bolts in the Gallery cave, and a single photo showing chalk on a section of broken rock – which is the alleged Aboriginal quarry. What is intriguing is that there are many similar quarries around Hollow Mtn area – including a much larger one that tourists literally walk over via a PV built walking track just before Sandinista Wall. Double standards? You bet.
Similar problems with climbing near Aboriginal heritage items at Bundaleer and Black Ians Rock were resolved with individual climb bans, boardwalks and even the construction of a wooden pyramid as a “cairn”. This photo evidence appears to show one chalked up hold on one chipped section of rock. Seems drastic to ban the whole cliff why not just this particular climb? (can anyone ID which climb it is?)
The last few documents in the FOI release were just notes from the Feb 12th meeting between the VCC and PV (where the bans were announced, but the locations were not). They don’t reveal anything of note. The last document is an email between Tracy and PV stating, with some level of concern, that PVs maps were not good enough to inform climbers where they could and couldn’t climb.
What is clear is that there was genuine concern about bolting and new route development in the Grampians a couple of years ago. These were valid concerns and initial discussions between government departments seemed to only talk about this. A new route ban, restrictions on bolting and a couple of banned cliffs would have been acceptable to most climbers. But at some stage a broader banning of all climbers in SPA areas was introduced into the mix. Now all climbers were to blame – and all will be punished. Even trad climbers who have never used chalk would be excluded en masse. This was a big step, and one possibly ill thought out by PV. Did they realize how many people this would effect, and the importance of the areas they were stripping away from climbers? Did they realize it would affect not only local climbing businesses – but the broader tourism industry in general? And the foundations and mental health of communities in small towns such as Natimuk and Halls Gap?
What these documents reveal is real deceit from PV regarding any sort of collaboration between themselves and climber representative groups (VCC). PV clearly had made a plan to ban climbers from all SPA areas (the largest climbing bans in the world – covering 550 square kilometres) – but they were not willing to admit to this – even when climbers attended a meeting with them a few days before the ban announcement. We have always said that PV is two steps ahead of climbers when it comes to planning – they say one thing in public but they have the next two steps already formulated and ready to roll. We have seen it again and again. The most recent example was the bizarre face saving attempt to rationalise LTOs in Summer Day Valley (despite it being in an SPA). Don’t for a moment think that further bans and restrictions are not coming. History says they are here already – we just don’t know about them yet.