Come In Spinner – Rock Climbing Roundtable 2.0

A lot people ask us if there has been any progress in the Grampians climbing ban situation or is it all just spin doctoring from PV? That is a hard question to answer with the incredible complexity of the issue, the many players and the seeming endless lust for power plays between all parties (climbers and non-climbers). What is certain is that closed crags remain closed whilst the climbing community continues to tear itself apart. The following article is small snippets of some of the recent goings on. Let’s start with the big one:

Rock Climbing Roundtable 2.0

A month ago the 2nd of the Parks Victoria organised “Grampians/Gariwerd National Park: Rock Climbing Roundtable” meetings was held. These were apparently created to give climbers a larger opportunity to discuss climbing issues with PV. The other Grampians discussion forum, the Stakeholder Reference Group, was considered too wide in scope (it included 4WD, bushwalking and environmental groups) and was only focused on the new management plan for the Grampians. The Rock Climbing Roundtable’s aim, according to their notes is ” to promote and strengthen the relationship  between the Victorian rock climbing community and Parks Victoria.“. 

Download and read the official notes from this meeting below. It’s a frustrating read because individual participants names are removed as per Chatham House Rules, but please go and read it as there is lots of useful info in there.

Regarding the membership of this Roundtable Group – it still seems to lack experienced Grampians climbers apart from a couple of individuals. It’s a real shame that this group consists of mostly Melbourne climbing club leaders rather than knowledgable local climbers. There is no shortage of experienced individuals up in Natimuk for example.

Considering all the reps of various clubs and organisations that attended (11 in total) there has been minimal public statements from any of them. Why attend a high level meeting but not inform your members and the climbing public what is going on? It’s not a spectator sport. 

The only person willing to make a public statement was the irrepressible Mike Tomkins who attended the Roundtable on behalf of the ACAV. He had these bleak words to say:

Email from Mike Tomkins

Not exactly a glowing review of the process from someone who has been working on this for the last 9 months. It would be good to get some other attendees perspective.

Unpicking the Notes

Let’s take a look at the meeting notes ourselves to try and unpick any useful information. A lot of the info focused on assessments.

Currently, environmental and cultural heritage assessments in the Grampians National Park are underway and will continue over several months. Outcomes of the assessments will help identify low and high-risk areas which may allow for recreational activities including rock climbing, to recommence.

We have had climbers report they have seen groups of rangers up at Taipan Wall in the last few weeks taking photos and asking questions of climbers. Was this an assessment? We are not sure but they seem to be openly admitting these assessments are in progress now. Do these assessments include SPA areas? It is not clear if that is the case. PV had requested the Roundtable group supply them with a list of 10 Priority Sites for assessment but apparently neither VCC or ACAV were comfortable with this proposition and officially declined to supply a list. With the whole process and outcomes being unclear it was probably a wise idea to seek further info before handing over a list. It is not clear if the other members of the Roundtable will be supplying PV with a list of crags for assessment.

Now lets looks at some of PVs statements in Roundtable document about the reasons for the bans.

One of the features of the decision by Parks Victoria to enforce restrictions in Special Protection Areas was the potential and observed impact on Aboriginal cultural heritage. The Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 defines cultural heritage as “Aboriginal places, Aboriginal objects and Aboriginal human remains” and extends to intangible heritage.

That last sentence is an interesting one. What exactly is intangible heritage? We thought the best place, obviously, to find it’s definition would be the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 they mention. But hold on…

We got zero results searching for “intangible” in that document. PV don’t make this easy for us to understand do they! We actually want to be looking in the Aboriginal Heritage Amendment Act 2016.

This doesn’t appear to be directly in conflict with rock climbing as far as we can tell. Who defines if harm to intangible heritage has occurred? PV had this to say in the Roundtable notes:

As a guide, Traditional Owners provide advice as to whether harm to intangible heritage values has occurred… but notification may be made by other parties.

ACAQ’s David Reeve says: “As the law currently stands, whilst harm may occur to tangible cultural heritage, by omission from the Act, it is not something that can occur to intangible cultural heritage. So whilst the TOs may inform PV of what they consider to be harm to intangible heritage, PV have no obligation under the Aboriginal Heritage Act to consider such claims.”

PV’s Reasons

The meeting notes give a short timeline and reason for the current climbing prohibitions:

On 12 February 2019 Parks Victoria met with representatives of the climbing community in Halls Gap to inform them of the decision to enforce restrictions on recreational activities in Special Protection Areas in eight locations. The enforcement of these Special Protection Areas followed dialogue between Parks Victoria and Traditional Owner organisations and other relevant organisations.

Here we see again the wordplay that PV has been using all year. They only mention 8 locations in Special Protection Areas – not all of the Special Protection Areas as being restricted. Remember that Summer Day Valley isn’t even one of the 8 locations. We know in recent weeks some climbers, including the president of the ACAV, have been openly climbing in SPA areas that are not one of the 8 locations. This is a contentious move, but seems to have attracted no legal threats or fines from PV or AV despite photos being published on social media.

The meeting notes refer to the secrecy provisions of the Act.

The Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 requires that where a site of Aboriginal cultural heritage is identified, the site must be kept confidential. The Aboriginal Heritage Regulations (2018) state that land within 50 metres of a registered cultural heritage place is an area of cultural heritage sensitivity.

This is another example of misleading information, that to the ill-informed would make total sense. Is there a 50m radius around a registered cultural heritage place in the Grampians? Yes – but actually the whole of the Grampians National Park is an area of cultural heritage sensitivity! That’s how the legislation works, all National Parks are automatically areas of cultural heritage sensitivity – there is no need for the 50m radius to apply. The entire park is protected – that is the whole point of National Parks (unless you are PV and want to build some glamping huts, or a huge walking track across the entire Grampians – then you have to apply for a “permit to harm” to do so.)

The mechanism for further protection inside the Grampians National Park is actually the Special Protection Area zoning. Smaller zones around specific sites makes sense to us, but the huge areas zoned in this way across the Grampians (more than a third of the park) does seem to conflict with the definition of “special”. The rezoning of these SPAs was one of the items that was supposed to be front and centre of the new Grampians Landscape Management Plan, and a key part of discussions between rock-climbers and PV. But so far this doesn’t seemed to have made the agenda at all. Roundtable participants need to stop getting bogged down in snacks and platitudes and start thinking big picture.

This is why the ACAV are in the process of legal action against PV to try and change the automatic assumption that climbing is prohibited in SPAs. A lot of climbers are squeamish about this legal approach, but the reality is that unless this is sorted we can’t confidently climb in one third of the Grampians. No matter what sort of touchy feely discussions are done in back rooms the actual legal status of climbing prohibitions in the Grampians does need to be addressed before any changes can happen. It’s a remarkable fact that PV put in place the bans in a matter of days – but it apparently may take years to rewind them.

Assessments and Surveys

The meeting notes heavily feature information about Cultural and Environmental assessments being done across the Grampians at this present time (with a late November completion date proposed). The best thing to do is read the document itself to get a good overview of this process.

One interesting bit that doesn’t seem to be happening is the allowance of a climbing rep to attend these assessments. According to the meeting notes this should be allowed – but we know of no climbers actually attending them.

Participants asked whether a climbing representative could attend these assessments and surveys. Parks Victoria advised that they would be open to this in the future, and this had been done in other areas of the state for other projects. However, it would be important to allow for the assessors to be on-site before this could occur.

The climbing groups seem to have massively dropped the ball on this one. Why isn’t there someone attending each and every one of these? PV won’t be doing these assessments twice. Maybe your favourite crag has already been singled out and written up – but it’s too late for any sort of help from climbers to understand the place through climbers eyes. PV don’t have a great track record of interpreting what they see (the famous bolt in art photo being a classic example).

There is one positive sign that some areas within SPAs could be re-opened to climbing. The process remains unclear though – let’s hope the Summer Day Model isn’t the benchmark.

The Chair observed that from what Parks Victoria had shared, there was an opportunity for conditional access in future to suitable sites depending on the outcomes of assessments and the views of Traditional Owners. Parks Victoria reiterated that they had heard clearly that SPAs are the priority for the assessments.

The TOs

The notes give some explanation about the complex arrangement between Traditional Owners (TO’s) and Parks Victoria. According to the Roundtable meeting notes:

Registered Aboriginal Parties (RAP) are appointed by the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council. In Victoria, there are 11 groups with RAP status. Other groups are still consulted by Parks Victoria and Aboriginal Victoria. Where there is not RAP status, Aboriginal Victoria is responsible for making decisions on the registration of cultural heritage in consultation with relevant parties.

For the Gariwerd landscape, Aboriginal Victoria is the decision-maker as there is not a RAP and may or may not permit an application to harm.

Many people, both inside and outside the climbing community, believe the climbing access emergency in the Grampians can be solved through negotiations with the three Traditional Owner’s of Gariwerd Aboriginal groups who have various claims over parts of the Grampians (usually refereed to as Traditional Owners or TOs). What is odd in official statements and documents from PV regarding the Grampians is that these TO groups are never named – they are just referred to as “the TOs”. So to an outsider of this consultation arrangement, it’s entirely unclear which group is saying what. As an example this is a the sort of statement we read in the Roundtable notes:

Parks Victoria needs to manage the landscape in partnership with Traditional Owners – three organisations – who bring deep sources of knowledge and understanding.

That does seem to conflict with the earlier statement about Aboriginal Victoria being “the decision maker”. But let’s put aside the legal chain of command and focus on the three groups. We can be pretty sure, just like the climbing community, there wont be a unifying agreement on everything amongst these groups. Imagine if someone claimed that all climbers were unified in their politics or opinions! It would be great if each group was named in future so the wider community actually know who is saying what. Group names would make communication clearer and avoids the faceless “us” vs “them” that has leached into the current debate. To even know which group is responsible for which crags would be a start.

We believe the three organizations referred to in PV correspondence as the Traditional Owners are Eastern Maar Corporation (based in Warnambool) , Barenji Gadjin Land Council (based in Horsham) and Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation (based in Heywood, near Portland).

According to ACAQ’s David Reeve: “These groups are bodies corporate. They may be incorporated under the Commonwealth CATSI Act 2009, or they may be incorporated under State legislation. This act of incorporation confers no formal sense of land association. However, the body corporate may be appointed as RAP for a well defined area of land. In some cases, RAP boundaries may overlap.”

We do not know the size or scope of each of these organisations or the current legal relationship they have with PV (outside of AV). What climbers do need to understand is that these groups feel they have a cultural obligation to protect the heritage of Aboriginal sites in the Grampians regardless of the legal specifics. It is inevitable they will be working with climbers so harm does not occur at shared use places such as the Grampians. We need to be talking to these groups directly as part of this climbing access process. Leaving it to PV to be a middleman in this arrangement has not worked out well so far.

So it was disappointing to read in the meeting notes:

Traditional Owners had advised that while they enjoy regular contact with Parks Victoria, they do not wish to meet in a formal round table setting with Parks Victoria or the climbing community at this time. He noted that when Traditional Owners advise they are ready to meet, this will be communicated with the Roundtable and the opportunity for the group to meet with Traditional Owners explored

Remember this is now 9 months after the bans were first announced by Parks Victoria, one year after the “Muline Ranger Incident” which was the precursor warning shot to the bans, and two years after the proposal of these bans were first discussed in secret by PV and AV.  We are led to believe that some climbers more heated social media commentary and media appearances have put many of the TO groups offside and thus the reluctance to talk. This leads up to:

Gariwerd Wimmera Reconciliation Network

This is a new group that has formed with the express intent of starting the process of reconciliation with Traditional Owners (TOs). You can read about this in this Vertical Life article and also join their Facebook group for more updates.

The Network has reportedly started initial conversations with the three local Traditional Owner groups but they have stressed this isn’t just about rock climbing issues. This new group has a somewhat mysterious membership (it’s not open to join like a club – which is probably a good thing considering the internal battles we have seen in both VCC and ACAV in recent months). We hope this group can offer a bridge between TO groups and the climbing community.

If access will be determined by the Traditional Owners due to cultural heritage assessments, then we best pay our respects any way we can as a community by showing them support in this process, to feel comfortable with climbers. We should not really be in fear, but looking forward to an updated understanding of this landscape and our practices.

We sat down and talked to this group a few weeks back and were shown some appalling examples of abusive messages sent to one of the TO groups by a so-called climber (from NSW). It was so bad we only read half of it and had to put it down. What kind of pathetic individual sends messages to a group who climbers desperately need to work with for mutual benefit? This sort of vile social media attack needs to stop. It only takes a couple of bad apples amoungst many hundreds of thousands of good climbers to leave a really bad impression. Trust us – that one hateful message has rewound our chances of ever climbing in SPAs considerably. To be clear this message did not come from anyone directly involved in the Grampians access negotiations – just from someone who felt like they could kick the boot remotely via social media.

Rangers Off Message at Ruined Castle

Over the Melbourne Cup Weekend, several climbers were approached by Parks Victoria rangers at the start of the walking track to Ruined Castle in the central Victoria Range. These rangers, who said they were brought in for “enforcement” duties from outside of the Grampians, told the climbers that the entire area was in an SPA where climbing is prohibited. This is not correct information – there is no large SPA that includes Ruined Castle as you can see if you look at PV’s own maps.

Detail from PV’s own maps is cruddy to say the least
Our overlay over Google Maps which makes it much clearer that Ruined Castle is well clear of an SPA

The nearest SPA is a tiny one on the left end of Gilhams Crag (a well known Aboriginal quarry site 300m away from Ruined Castle across the valley). The rangers were obviously poorly briefed and it is alarming to hear that they are telling climbers the wrong information. With such limited Grampians crags now officially open this is a double whammy of incompetence and maliciousness from PV. These were the same type of rangers we saw in Easter this year hassling climbers up at Mt Stapylton. They wore tactical vests and carried handcuffs and other assorted “enforcement” items ready for use on climbers who stray too far into the wrong places. Read a bit more about this type of ranger in this Vertical Life article.

The nearest actual sign-posted closed climbing area is 12km north of Ruined Castle at Cave of Man Hands. That makes these rangers patrolling down at Ruined Castle even odder. Why aren’t they patrolling the many and varied areas up around The Gallery or Summer Day Valley which have been historically popular as climbing areas? Why pick one of the last remaining sport crags that is open to patrol? And why are these rangers only brought in during long weekends – whilst they are not to be seen during the rest of the year? It certainly seems PV don’t want to just “educate” climbers about their behavior in SPAs – but “enforce” as well. It’s worth reviewing what PV’s website says is the penalty for climbing in an SPA area.

They don’t even seem capable of answering their own question. Or maybe they have.

FOI Stalling Tactics

Incredibly useful information was obtained from prior Freedom Of Information requests to Parks Victoria and other government branches. You can read some of this gold here. But recent attempts at getting more information have stalled, with PV citing excuses such as “Parks Victoria does not have an electronic document record management system so the FOI Officer is unable to do a forensic search over all systems of Parks Victoria and relies on individual staff members to conduct searches over our digital and hardcopy files. “. Another request for information about Summer Day Valley had the following response “I am giving you notice of my intention to refuse access to the documents sought by you, on the grounds that the work involved in processing the request would, at this time, substantially and unreasonably divert the resources of the agency from its other operations.

Timelines are also being blown out. A 30 day turn-around for a FOI request is the  statutory requirement, but PV is taking months to even respond, let alone supply actual information in at least one example. They are also charging ridiculous sums to discourage FOI requests (one example was $229 for 38 pages). Also, multiple FOI requests from one person are being acted on subsequently rather than concurrently thus dragging out the results. Is this even legal?

We did glean some important information from an attempted request for  “all emails, letters, reports, documents, drawings and maps relating to environmental surveys, cultural heritage surveys and permits to harm for rock-climbing and abseiling activity at Summerday Valley and the Hollow Mountain area, between the dates of 17 October 2018 and 17thOctober 2019

Rhonda Davis, PV’s Freedom of Information Officer, replied that:

I am advised that there are no environmental surveys relating to this matter.

a cultural heritage survey is currently being undertaken and a final report will not be published until February 2020.  Until then, this is considered a work in progress and the release of any documents relating to the survey would not be considered until it has been finalised.

I am advised that the cultural heritage survey will cover the Grampians area in general and not just be specific to Summerday Valley and the Hollow Mountain area

please be aware that it is possible that some of the documents you request may reveal information held on or prepared for the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register.  This is a confidential Register that is subject to access conditions set out in legislation (Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006) and Parks Victoria is unable to divulge that information.

Email from PV – 6 November 2019

This reveals at least one key timeline to the assessment process (February 2020) and confirms these assessments are actually in progress now. It also admits that there is a good chance this information will be redacted anyway because of the super secret legislated requirements of the Aboriginal Heritage Act. For this same reason we hit a brick wall with earlier requests for information about the 8 key sites. For those sending in FOI – keep them coming. The truth is out there…

The Tori Dunn Affair

Tori Dunn runs a climbing guiding business in the Grampians, and has done so for 20 years. She has also been a vocal critique of the bans from the early days, appearing in the media quite regularly. Her business has also suffered considerably since the bans came into effect, with bookings way down on the previous year. This decline has been attributed to the negative press that climbing has gotten in the media and a reluctance from PV to publicize climbing. For example you would be hard pressed to find any mention that the Grampians is a world class climbing area on PV’s website now.

The rock climbing tours page, still listed in Google, is a dead link.

As someone who works at Summer Day Valley, Tori has also had to deal with the new restrictions imposed by PV to operate there – including pre-booking, restrictions on walls that can be used, on site signage that must be displayed and the completion of a cultural heritage induction from a TO group. The last item, the inductions, actually haven’t occurred yet despite 5 months passing since the new regulations are supposed to have taken effect.

So what was the big news item? Tori’s online commentary, some it quite controversial, was read by some of the TO groups who then contacted PV. Tori then received a phone call from PV telling her that she was no longer welcome in Summer Day Valley until she had completed compulsory mediation with the TOs regarding her social media commentary. It was not clear which TO group had made the request for this mediation. Effectively she was told she was no longer able to operate her business at a location she had used for 20 years because of things she wrote online. This story blew up in the mainstream press and even made the floor of the Victorian parliament the next day. Have a read of these stories in The Australian and the local Mail Times.

There has been a somewhat happy ending to this story however, with Tori giving a public apology for her comments in a radio interview, the apology apparently being accepted by the TOs and the mediation requirement for her to keep her permit being revoked. Read the second Australian article here. There was also confirmation that the Summer Day Valley inductions will actually take place soon (they have been repeatedly delayed since the announcement of their requirement back in July) . The Aboriginal group running these inductions has also been announced – Barenji Gadjin Land Council, the group also responsible for Arapiles. We will endeavor to report on these inductions as soon as they happen.

It would be interesting to know if the social media accounts of other people who work in the Grampians are being given the same level of scrutiny? Bus drivers, road building crew, school teachers and photographers all operate in the Grampians. Are they also being told by PV they can’t go to certain areas because of something they wrote online?

In general let this be a lesson to anyone in the social media world. Your words can go far and wide with unforeseen consequences.

Millennium Caves Art

The following is a bit of a thought piece on climbing in the vicinity of cultural heritage sites, using Millennium Caves as an example. This area was closed in February this year as one of the 8 key sites where harm to rock art was alleged to have been done. This cave also featured in the ABC’s 7:30 story that went to air earlier this year. As far as we know a single emu foot print, drawn in red ochre, is the only art at this climbing area (we are happy to be corrected if you know more information). This art has been mentioned in climbing guidebooks as an area to avoid since the first climbing routes were established in the early ’90s. The art remains unharmed as seen in our recent photo below.

Size and clarity reference for Millennium Cave art – photo taken middle of this year, after the bans were announced.

This emu foot at Millennium Caves is the only Aboriginal art that we know of within 50 metres of a climb in the Grampians National Park. In the Black Range and Black Ian’s Rocks, 30km outside of the Grampians, there are some climbs within a few metres of rock art. Oddly those crags remain open to climbing despite also being home to some near misses with safety bolts a few years back. Art at those sites also remains unharmed as far as we know.

Millennium Cave art using IdStretch software

Under image enhancement using IdStretch software we can see more detail of the Millennium emu foot location but there is no further art as far as we can tell. The art remains untouched despite 25 years of climbing occurring in this cave. There is no cage, no signage and no other public information about this art available online. Despite this lack of critical official information, climbers have deliberately avoided climbing on this section of rock because it is mentioned in climbing guidebooks over the decades as an area to avoid. This is the fine line we have playing in recent years. Is it offensive to climb near art such as this if no actual damage has occurred to the art itself?

The location of the emu foot art in Millennium Caves is not affected by chalk or safety bolts from climbing routes.

Millennium Caves has bolts and chalk, this is not unique, it is the same at many crags in the Grampians and around the world. This is environmental harm no doubt, but has remained unchecked for decades (chalk was introduced to the Grampians in the early ’70s and the first bolted cave routes even earlier – The Ogive at Bundaleer is a bolted ceiling first climbed in 1964.) Millennium Caves looks the same now as it did in the mid 90s just after the safety bolts were first installed. Without removing all the bolts and chalk the environmental harm remains despite climbing being prohibited. Or is the harm the climbers climbing on already installed bolts? Or is it the build up of chalk (which has been proven to be easy to remove when we did it at Trackside boulders)? Is the action of climbing incompatible with cultural sites in general? These are many of the questions that need to be unpicked by the climbing community and the TOs.

At the entrance of the walking track to Millennium Cave is now a “rock climbing prohibited” sign – but there is no information about why it is banned. No reference to cultural heritage in the cave and nothing telling bush walkers to also be cautious. This track to Millennium is well used by tourists as it’s on a popular 4WD touring road and near the summit with good views. The carpark was actually once sign posted as the “Cave of Fishes” aboriginal site which was located on the opposite side of the road to Millennium. This tourist site now appears to be abandoned – all signage is gone. Millennium is also a popular (and illegal) camping spot for non-climbers and was once popular with school groups as part of overnight bushwalking trips. The author has seen school groups of over 40 people camped there in the 2000s. Again, there is no signage about not camping there.

Faded sign at start of walking track to Millennium. No mention of why this area is prohibited. Nothing warning bush walkers.

Some of the best climbing crags that remain open also contain other types of cultural heritage objects such as stone tool quarried rock edges. We have seen first hand what could be these quarried rock edges being used as hand holds on routes and boulder problems at several prominent crags. But with no signage or public information we actually can only take an educated guess that this is what they are. To the untrained eye a broken rock edge is not unique to Aboriginal rock quarries and we need expert help to identify their locations. We hope some of these current assessments being done by PV locate and clarify where they are so climbers can avoid them.

First hold on Monkey Puzzle at The Gallery is mentioned as a quarried edge in PV documents.

According to info we got from FOI requests, the first hold on Monkey Puzzle, at the now closed Gallery crag, is a quarried edge and this was one of the reasons given for the entire crag to be closed. Even quarried rock edges in the vicinity of climbs, and that remain untouched, like we have seen at Summer Day Valley are causing access issues. The fear of potential damage appears to be the cause of these bans. But if we use Millennium Caves as an example, this fear could be unfounded. We reckon being able to see and experience these art and quarry sites at crags is actually pretty special. Avoiding any future harm to them is very much in climbers best interests.

Where to from here?

The next Roundtable is to be scheduled for the 3rd of December. According to the meeting notes we can expect to see the draft results of assessments done all over the Grampians. Will these be able to be shared to the wider general public? According to PV’s own emails – areas listed in the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register are confidential and Parks Victoria is unable to divulge that information. So it does seem doubtful climbers will actually ever get access to this information. Again PV seems to remains totally in control of the future of Victoria climbing.

So what has been achieved by all these meetings, media stories, political infighting and social media slagging matches? Not a lot to a casual outsider’s perspective. Some climbers have begun to return to SPA areas again which is causing tension with TOs. But there is also a push from climbers to be more proactive in caring for Grampians crags as PV has dropped the ball at managing it’s own estate. The social media “outing” of inappropriate chalk use and trail markings is hopefully a sign of a new way of doing things for climbers in the region. We will leave the final statement from the Roundtable meeting notes:

Parks Victoria’s CEO acknowledged the stress and sense of fear amongst the climbing community and assured participants that the organisation was committed to identifying where climbing can continue as soon as possible.

We’ll see about that…