This month in Grampians climbing news… Climbers asked to supply list of priority 10 crags for PV assessments, paradoxical signs at Summer Day Valley, PV’s commercial and growth mentality exposed and more anti-climber “facts” published by another lobby group. There is a lot to cover – let’s go!
Rountable to Select 10 Crags
Many may not know there is a now a Grampians Rock climbing Roundtable group created by Parks Victoria, and run by external consultant Mark Dingle of Deloitte (sounds pricey!). It was formed after climbing groups lobbied for a larger say in the new Grampians Landscape Management Plan (currently being written). Originally there was only going to be a Stakeholder Reference Group (environmental groups, tourist organizations, 4wd clubs – all in one meeting). Clearly the climbing “issues” of this year forced PV to seek a more comprehensive consultation with the climbing community – and thus this new Rock climbing Roundtable group. It sounds impressive on paper, but the reality is that this group has no direct ability to change anything. According to their own blurb “The Roundtable has no decision making powers beyond its own deliberations. It is a forum convened for information sharing and dialogue to promote understanding and inform views of all participants“. There will not even be any official report submitted to PV at the end. What these meetings have done is given direct access to PV’s senior staff – both in management and in the environmental and cultural heritage departments.
They have held two meetings over the last couple of months on a variety of subjects. Unfortunately for transparency for the climbing community the details of these meetings is apparently protected by Chatham House Rules which boils down to “ information disclosed during a meeting may be reported by those present, but the source of that information may not be explicitly or implicitly identified.”. The reality is this means no one can give a proper report of who said what and we are left with reading a vague ill-defined set of notes with little context.
One thing that did come from this meeting was a written request by PV for this roundtable group to come up with 10 Priority Sites for cultural heritage and environmental assessment. Ding ding! Alarm bells started ringing. The deadline for this list was apparently only a week away and there was no further information about what PV would do with this list. What are the expected outcomes from an assessment? Which crags have already been assessed? The climbing community has not been told of previous assessments. Are crags within current SPAs open for assessment? Are any of the 8 key sites open for assessment? Are the assessors independent of PV? Will a climbing community representative be able to attend these assessments? Will the completed assessment report for each crag be available to the climbing community? So many questions.
But let us rewind back to the structure of this Roundtable group who is now tasked with coming up with a list of 10 sites for assessment. The members of this group were invited by PV, and mainly consist of social climbing “clubs”. One representative from each group is allowed on the roundtable – regardless of the size of the club. So we have a situation where a tiny club with a handful of members is getting the same say as organizations with thousands of members. But where this group really falls down is in actual real world Grampians experience. This group currently has no bouldering representatives, no guidebook authors, no elder statespersons from the Grampians scene, nor members of the climbing “media”. Amazingly Licensed Tour Operators didn’t even have a rep until they strongly lobbied for such a position (Daniel Earl of Hanging Out is now the rep). At least half of this group have never been to most of the SPA crags for example. For all their best intentions this is a wildly inexperienced group who have been anointed to select 10 crags to be assessed. What could possibly go wrong?
There are certainly two schools of thought on how this should be approached, and this mirrors the divided nature of the climbing community at the moment. Some have an optimistic viewpoint and take this as a genuine attempt by PV to broker a solution to this years climbing bans. They believe that all climbing areas should be open for immediate assessment and that the results of the assessments should just be taken on the chin by climbers. One person on the roundtable even admitted they would not kick up a fuss if the “world’s greatest crag” was shut. However, taking PV at face value and believing they have climber’s best interests at heart is a hard pill to swallow for many. This website strongly believes that prematurely throwing some of the worlds best crags into the machinations of heavy duty & opaque bureaucracy is fraught with disaster. We only have to look at what happened at Summer Day Valley to see the result of a top heavy “solution”. More on that later.
What can you do? Well if you belong to any Victorian climbing club or organisation then we strongly suggest you get in touch with your el presidentee and talk to them about their proposed strategy for selecting (or not selecting) the 10 crags. We believe the climbing community must present a unified response to Deloitte/PV. Having multiple lists of crags from different groups and individuals is not going to work. Some think it would be best to just not propose any at all and let PV and TOs make their own decision about what to access – as they have the knowledge about what is out there. The aim of this process for the climbing community should be to regain access to the best and most popular crags that we once enjoyed. We currently have reasonably unrestricted access to many crags that we hope to keep open. Let’s hope we don’t loose them as well. This is a game of reducing losses, not winning.
In the wider community we have seen a wide range of responses to rock climbing. For some, a sign, walkway and wooden platform such as used at Bundaleer is deemed an acceptable solution to mitigate harm to cultural heritage areas, whilst others appear to consider any form of climbing in the entire Grampians disrespectful (the Uluru argument). Which of these opinions gets the final say after an assessment is not known. The deadline for this 10 crag list is apparently “in a week or two”. The assessments are due to be completed at the earliest in late November.
If you are out and about climbing in the Grampians over the next few months it would be a great time to make sure our crags are in tip top condition. Clean up any rubbish or toilet waste (even if it’s not climbers responsible). Scrub those tick marks off. Take the draws home with you at the end of the day. It’s inspection time!
Paradoxical Sign of the Times
In the last week we have seen these large signs appearing at Summer Day Valley. This is one more notch in the ever increasing list of requirements for commercial guiding companies to operate there.
These signs are in full public display (they are almost a metre high and positioned at the base of cliffs). The wording is very interesting and continues the vilification of “average” climbers by implying they do not have the “skill and knowledge to protect Aboriginal sites”. But the most extraordinary (and paradox bending) thing is that these Licensed Tour Operators actually have not had any additional training to give them these skills! This sign is a total lie. The proposed training for these operators is scheduled to begin at the end of October, more than 3 months after these new rules were apparently being applied. We still have no information about who is doing this training either. PV continues to play catch-up on decisions made in haste. Why roll out these signs when the information is not even correct? This reeks of a public relations campaign to be “seen” to be doing something rather than a genuine attempt at protection. To many climbers it feels like a public shaming exercise.
The wording of the sign also implies that only people who have done this expert level training are climbing – whilst the reality is it is a huge bunch of total outdoor noobs and a couple of guides trying to control them. The reason we have commercial groups allowed in SDV and not recreational climbers is that money talks. They have an industry lobby group (Outdoors Australia) who kicked up a fuss and PV were forced to come up with a creative solution to allow their industry to continue to operate. A so called “permit to harm” was given for commercial climbing to continue there. Was the opposite ever considered? (Ban commercial groups and allow recreational climbers?). Can recreational climbers also do this training to gain the “skill and knowledge” and be allowed to climb in SDV like they have for the last 50 years? Right now it appears not.
PV’s Job Ad Exposes Commercial Growth Bias
Someone alerted us to this job ad posted last month for PV’s Western District Manager position. This is the person responsible for the Grampians, but also Arapiles and the Black Range. What is incredible is the wording in this advertisement – nothing about conservation and environmental outcomes – it is all about growing the commercial side of the “business”.
Some of our favourite lines are “looking to further enhance both the experiences of customers as well commercial outcomes.”, “you will be responsible for shaping the future direction of one of the highest potential growth areas for the organisation”, “With this growth presents a significant commercial opportunity for the Regional General Manager to take advantage of for both the organisation but more so the regional communities in which their iconic assets are based.”, “Leading this commercial transformation, you will be bring along the highly committed workforce of more than 300 staff across your region”, “You have a proven background in identifying commercial opportunities“
This is absolute confirmation that Parks Victoria, under the direction of Simon Talbot, is well and truly changing to a commercially driven growth mentality where the “assets” of the Grampians are to be marketed and commodified. So when climbers are talking to anyone in senior management at PV they need to understand this. You are no longer talking to a bunch of science based conservationists – but instead a group devoted to tourism and $. Is that a good or bad thing for climbers? It’s hard to know. The real problem will be when PV’s grander schemes like the Grampians Peaks Trails intersects with long established climbing areas and traditions. Free bush camping and off track walking, long practiced by climbers (and obviously TOs) is currently in the firing line for wholesale banning according to sources we have spoken to. PV has been tasked to monetise all they can in the park – and we can rest assured there are outsiders looking at ways they can make money from climbing areas and climbers, or replace them with a user group who can make money.
Friends of the Grampians
There was a couple of mentions of climbing in the recent Friends of the Grampians spring newsletter. This group is a long-running community organization who works directly with PV on conservation, protection and restoration of the Grampians National Park. It’s not a large group (80 members) but they do have direct contact with PV decision makers and their projects. Unfortunately they seem to be regurgitating statistics that have been disproved in the past.
“Traditional rock climbing was mentioned in the previous management plan. At that time, they were few in numbers and came with clubs or groups. But today there are something like 45,000 rock climbers coming here, of whom only 5,000 belong to a club.”
“We learnt that the Grampians was regarded as one of the world’s premier climbing locations, attracting visitors from all over the world, and that numbers doing this had been growing very rapidly until the recent climbing bans.”
Ok – time to go full fact check on this (again). The previous management plan was published in 2003. Even back then traditional climbing was being superseded by sport and bouldering. To look at key dates of crag discoveries it is clear to see that todays mainstream sport climbing & bouldering areas were mostly well established by 2003.
1983 – Bundaleer (possibly Grampians’ first sport route)
1987 – Taipan Wall hard routes
1991 – The Gallery, Muline
1992 – Van Diemans Land
1993 – Millennium Caves
1994 – Spurt Wall
1995 – Trackside bouldering
1998 – Centurion Walls
1999- Hollow Mtn Cave bouldering
2001 – Amnesty Wall, Cut Lunch Walls, Andersens
2002 – Red Rocks
2003 – Sentinel, Lost World, The Tower
Now the weird statement “At that time, they were few in numbers and came with clubs or groups.” Having personally climbed in the Grampians for many years prior to 2003 this is a very bizarre claim. Climbing as an activity of loners and individualists was alive and well back then – probably even more so then now (the internet has allowed loose social groups to form more easily). Clubs were certainly not the prominent rock climbers pre-2003 – and there was almost no commercial guiding to the scale we see now. Recreational climbing has mostly been practiced outside of the eye of land managers so any figures from them seem dubious at best.
Now to the magic 45,000 figure. We have no idea where these figures have come from, but it is half the 80,000 that PV was claiming at the beginning of this year – but it still seems highly overinflated. (45,000 = 123 climbers in the Grampians each and every day – rain hail shine). No matter how much we try and produce that figure we can’t get close unless it was a busy long weekend of perfect weather. In winter and high summer the Grampians is practically abandoned as a climbing destination. The figures just don’t add up. There would be 20 climbing area carparks that get daily use at most. That is six cars parked at each and every carpark to equal 123 people per day (one car per 2 people). Remember this has to be every single day to equal 45,000. Why these figures are still reproduced without data 6 months after we first complained about them we have no idea.
Growth by Design
We cannot deny that climbing has grown over the years, but so has general visitor numbers to the Grampians. And this isn’t by accident – it is part of a well developed tourism campaign hailed as a wild success by government and industry groups. Take a read of this newspaper article from last year.
“The number of visitors visiting the Grampians increased in the past year by 15.7 per cent, with 931,000 visitors travelling to the Grampians between March 2017 and March 2018.”
“Grampians Tourism chief executive Marc Sleeman said the growth in tourist numbers and expenditure was ahead of both state and national averages. “It’s an amazing result for our region,” he said.
And this is another article from this year about “‘Big nature” being the key for visitor growth.
“Grampians Tourism wants to double the 54,400 international visitors to the region in the next decade.”
On one hand climbers growth is considered an evil to be stopped, whilst on the other hand the general populace continues to stream into the park in ever larger numbers with a large welcome matt put out for them. You can see this when reading further in the Friends of the Grampians newsletter. PV seem to have snuck in the approval of commercial huts (not just tent platforms) along the whole Grampians Peaks Trail. They call them “pods” but we suspect it is just a bit of wordplay to disguise what they really are. Take a read…
“The timeline has changed, and it will not be complete before March 2020. 70% of the track from Troopers Creek to Halls Gap is complete, but not yet open. Halls Gap to Cassidy Gap will be completed by December 2020. The main problem is the hiker camps, 4 will be completed by March 2020, there are 11 altogether. Then pods will be constructed at the same camp sites. These are currently only for people doing the PV indigenous cultural guided tour. About twelve indigenous folk have expressed interest in becoming tour guides, discussions are continuing on how many are needed, from which groups etc.”
“In the south there are some areas of particularly challenging terrain where we will have steel stairs to allow safe hiking; these are currently being designed. Finalising the key design elements and preparation for constructing the hiker camps is in full swing. Materials in the area will be used where possible to build seating and other camp elements, ensuring harm and introduced assets are kept to a minimum. Come autumn 2020, you can walk along precipices, wind through creek beds, climb hand carved stone steps and be dwarfed by the grandeur of rock formations and the ancient landscape.”
Private pods, steel stairs and carved stone steps = all good. Climbing = all bad.