Disengage Victoria – Will climbers get a real say?

Next Wednesday is a new beginning for the future of rock climbing in the Grampians. Or is it?

A lot of climbers have expressed frustration with the lack of progress in the Grampians climbing situation. This angst has been brought about especially by the replies many of us have received to our letters of concern directed to State Ministers and Parks Victoria. Almost without fail these replies have come straight from the public relations textbook – a couple of nice platitudes about rock climbing and then cookie cutter mention of a new Grampians National Park management plan that is in the process of being created as the “solution” to any concerns from climbers.

The previous 2003 Management Plan devoted a meager one page to rock climbing – 534 words to be exact. Can we expect more in the 2020 Plan? Probably not a lot more.

Rock-climbing in the 2003 Management Plan

It’s apparently not even a legally binding document, it is just a guide to help them plan into the future. Parts of this plan can change at any time. For example – they can add or remove Special Protection Areas whenever they want – they have added quite a few since the 2003 plan. The old plan also had the infamous “typo” on a chart saying SPA’s covered less than 1% of the park – then had a map showing 30%. So it’s clearly not a legal document.

Back in May, when they first announced a new management plan, you all probably signed up to PV’s Engage Victoria website – according to PV’s own figures over 700 people did. It’s supposed to be the place where “stakeholders” (us climbers) get to hear and have input into the new Grampians Landscape Management Plan. In their own words…

“This is a chance to be part of shaping and conserving the Grampians landscape for future generations.”

“Alongside other research, your input will be used to help shape the draft plan.”

Chances are you have heard nothing since. Not even a “thanks for signing up” confirmation email. There appears to be no attempt to inform the general public about any progress in creating this plan – or any method that we could use to “help shape the draft plan“. You may be surprised to hear PV have actually held two high-level meetings (attended by 10+ PV staff) in Halls Gap with Licensed Tour Operators about the future of Summer Day Valley. They have also run cultural heritage assessments over the entire Hollow Mtn area and held several meetings with the three Traditional Owner groups about rock climbing. None of this has been mentioned publicly by PV. And to top it off, they have already chosen the climbing communities sole representative to help them craft this new 2020 management plan.

This rep will be part of the so-called Stakeholder Reference Group (SRG), which many climbers seem to be blindly throwing all their best hopes, thoughts and prayers into as the solution to the climbing crisis. That could be quite misguided. Let’s look a bit closer on what the SRG actually is:

“A Stakeholder Reference Group (SRG) is a group of people brought together to represent the range of interests in a project or issue. A SRG is being established to provide a forum for Parks Victoria and key stakeholders who represent these
interests to discuss and test the plan through its development.”

Sounds ok right? But there is a catch. It also says:

“It is important to note that the SRG is an advisory group, not a decision-making body.””

Translation, we will listen to you for a couple of hours every four months but don’t expect what you say will have any impact on what we do. In the past they even created a handy chart showing just how little they will “listen” to rock-climbers.

Only 15 stakeholder groups have been invited to attend the SRG, and rock climbers apparently only get one place (the other groups are environment and conservation, cultural heritage, recreational use (including bush walking, 4W driving), tourism, education, neighbouring community, community and civic participation). With one place for rock climbers that puts the climbing community in an awkward position considering there are currently several organisations claiming peak body status in Victoria for rock climbing. We have the stalwart Victorian Climbing Club/CliffCare, the recently formed Australian Climbing Association Victoria, government backed Sport Climbing Victoria, the Grampians Access Working Group (GAWG), a Climbing Reconciliation Group and lastly, a yet to be incorporated “peak body” of various clubs and sporting organisations currently known as the Founding Council. This group theoretically includes some of the other organisations. This “council” is merely an idea in its current form. Preliminary meeting notes seen by this author show they seem to be spending time designing logos, flow charts and avalanche training facilities (?!l) rather than focusing on solving the world’s biggest climbing bans. This group is a noble idea but at the moment seems like it is many months away from forming. To be clear – this group does not exist yet. There is no way to contact this group – no website, no email addresses, no bank account.

So how is PV choosing the group that best represents climbers? Let’s look at their own document:

So it is somewhat confusing to read that the group chosen by PV for the SRG is the “founding body for rock-climbing in Victoria”. The group that literally does not exist. Have a read of the invitation letter from PV below:

Paula Toal, current president and interim Cliffcare Access & Environment Officer of the VCC, has been anointed the position of climbing rep on the SRG. After the retirement of the VCC’s Access Officer Tracey Skinner earlier this year, Paula has taken over this role temporarily “until such time as there is a paid Founding Council coordinator of Cliffcare Access & Environment Officer – which may ultimately be a role supported by VCC/Cliffcare funds/SCV and Outdoors Vic depending on the outcomes of funding decisions.” It appears in one of the earlier meetings discussing the Founding Council Paula put her hand up to also to be the SRG rep as well. So PV has invited a non-existent organisation & a person with a temporary job position for this very important role representing all climbers interested in the Grampians.

According to the ACAV, they have twice attempted to put their hand in the ring for one of the 15 places on the SRG, sending multiple letters to PV that have remained unanswered. That in itself is fairly alarming. A government department refuses to even acknowledge an incorporated organisation that is clearly a stakeholder? This is apparently the largest climbing group in Victoria (over 1300 members), whose sole purpose is to negotiate climbing access via legal means, and they are being straight out ignored by the land manager responsible for writing the new management document for the Grampians. But this seems to be the current state of climbing politics in Victoria.

Why can’t there be multiple climbing representatives on the SRG? That seems the simplest apolitical solution. Or can’t all groups just get along and work together? Climbing is a huge and complex beast – from bouldering to aid climbing. It really does require many people to have a total grasp on it. Having multiple people also removes any bias against particular styles of climbing – for example the most popular but also contentious styles – sport climbing & bouldering. Any person claiming to be the sole rock climbing community representative needs to be very supportive of sport/bouldering in the best interests of the greater climbing community. The fact we have lost the majority of sport climbing & bouldering areas in the Grampians through these SPA zones needs to be looked at in detail. It appears that some out there in the climbing community are quite happy with the loss of all the SPA crags and won’t bother to push back on it. Is that the sort of people we need in charge of climbing access negotiations? We hope Paula, the SRG climbing rep, takes a visit to most of the SPA crags in advance of these meetings, so she has a real understanding of what is at stake. Eureka, Lost World, Muline, Mt Fox and the Gallery are the best there is. Inferior crags around Halls Gap are no replacement.

And in another confusing twist it appears none of the Traditional Owner groups associated with the Grampians will be part of this Stakeholder Reference Group. They have their own group independent of everyone else. So there will be no opportunity for any of the recreational user-groups to have direct conversations with any of the Aboriginal groups as part of creating this plan. That surely has to be a fairly major stumbling block.

So should climbers put all their hopes in this Stakeholder Reference Group and a new management plan? With 15 stakeholders on the SRG with divergent needs (environmental, tourism etc) it is unlikely that rock climbing will be any sort of priority. If a meeting goes for a couple of hours every four months – how much time do you really think will be devoted to rock climbing? 30 minutes a year? That isn’t going to solve this. Especially considering the biggest stakeholder for climbers in this whole mess, the TO groups, aren’t even in attendance. To many it does appear to be a box ticking exercise so PV can claim “collaboration” with rock climbers before locking in the continuation of the draconian bans. As has been shown again and again in the past couple of years, it is highly likely PV have already made a solid plan that will be presented to climbers as a done deal. It happened for the original climbing bans announced in February, and also for the changes to LTOs in Summer Day Valley in July.

The first meeting of the SRG is scheduled for August 21 – that is one week away. Despite promises made there appears to have been little engagement with the wider climbing community from PV or the “founding council” about what is going to be discussed next Wednesday. CliffCare’s last public statement was back in June…

“As an essential part of consultation and transparency, the VCC will convene formal workshops open to anyone in the climbing community who wishes to contribute irrespective of memberships or affiliations. These workshops will be conducted not only in Melbourne, but also in the Grampians and other key locations as needed. SRG documents will be shared with the representative in advance of the meetings and then shared with the climbing community in advance of scheduled climbing community workshops to facilitate meaningful collaboration.”

Formal workshops? That didn’t seem to happen. Sharing of documents? Not yet. Let’s hope we get a few more comprehensive updates from the SRG process as it progresses.

The SRG and the new plan could be a small step in the right direction – but it’s the first step in many ahead of us. One thing that certainly needs closer examination is the zoning on any new maps – it was these SPAs that have been catastrophic for climbers access this year. Let’s hope there is a little more leniency in the new plan for low impact rock-climbing. Just don’t expect to get much of a chance to “engage” with anyone involved.

Please share, comment and stay informed.

One thought on “Disengage Victoria – Will climbers get a real say?”

  1. Make sure your group , join the B.U.G.U. rally on the 27th August , with signage representing your plight !. State Forest are the public’s Forests , “ACCESS FOR ALL” !. See BUGU site for time and where to meet . The more people , the better the chances the Gov’t will pull back and listen !.

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