People have been asking me my thoughts on the climbing bans in the Grampians that have been recently imposed by Parks Victoria (Parks), so here it is. It’s long. I’ve got some photos to help ease the pain. Unfortunately these are all from areas where climbing is now prohibited.
Before I get into it though, I want to say that I did not want to speak out on this issue because I actually know a lot of people who work for National Parks at numerous locations around the country; the people I know are of impeccable integrity and doing very important work. So let me make it clear, when I criticise “Parks” here, and I do, I do not mean there is something wrong with the entity as a whole, I suspect that most of the problems here (if not all) are the work of a small element inside Parks who have sailed this ship off course; I have faith that it can be fixed. But I would not speak out if I didn’t think it was necessary. Let me begin…
Modern rock climbing has been going on in the Grampians for nearly 70 years. Many consider it Australia’s best rock climbing area. It is also home to a unique environment and many irreplaceable Aboriginal art sites. The job at hand is to balance the rights of climbers, whilst maintaining minimal environmental impact and preserving Aboriginal cultural heritage.
This job does not need to be made so difficult. For example, in the past, if an area became very popular and there was some erosion on a track or near a cliff, Parks Victoria and climbers worked together to solve the problem – one way or another. Many climbers are staunch environmentalists; we spend a huge amount of time in the bush and hanging out, literally, in awe-inspiring natural places. A real appreciation, and something of an understanding, does rub off on us. The interests of climbers, Parks, and Traditional Owners are actually very much aligned. If the issue of preservation of Aboriginal cultural heritage and climbers comes up, and it has, then surely there have to be better ways to approach it than what we have seen.
To say that I feel that climbers are not given the credit that we are due, is something of an understatement. The current situation reflects something far worse than that. Blankets bans have now been imposed on rock climbing which affects nearly half of the good crags (or cliffs, where roped climbing occurs) and the vast majority of the good bouldering areas (unroped climbing on small – you guessed it – boulders).
These bans have been imposed by Parks unilaterally, without consultation, without satisfactory justification, without transparency and without sign of due process. They have been accompanied by appalling communication, out-of-this-world hypocrisy, and a failing in Park’s obligations to climber’s as a user group. In a belated effort to justify the bans at least some at Parks have engaged in a dirty, misleading smear campaign dishonestly vilifying climbers – and even resorted to lies.
Yep. Oh boy. Where to begin….
The Initial Bans
For a lot of climbers, the first sign that there was a real access problem brewing in the Grampians was on 4 November last year. A ranger hiked the 35-minute rough uphill track to Muline Crag, in a remote part of the Victoria Range, and ordered two visiting German climbers to leave. He told them that the area was in a “Special Protection Area” (SPA) where climbing was prohibited and gave them a flyer (which had the word “draft” across it) to back up his claim. The climbers were shocked and bewildered but did what they were told. Must have been disappointing, given they had flown half way around the world to be there.
In the following days I emailed Parks management and in response I was grateful to receive a call from Parks Chief Operating Officer Simon Talbot who assured me there would be no blanket bans on climbing in the Grampians and that the action of the ranger that weekend were not endorsed by management. I thought then that would be the end of the matter.
It was not until Monday 11 February 2019 that there was a meeting between Parks and the newly formed Grampians Access Working Group (GAWG), part of the Victorian Climbing Club, to discuss things. At this meeting the climbers were informed that eight specific areas had been identified where climbing would be banned, however at the meeting for some reason, which I still don’t understand, they could not advise which areas they were. Finally, at 5pm on the Friday of that week, Parks released maps which identified the eight areas. And on the Monday in a radio interview Talbot came out swinging against climbers:
ABC Radio Ballarat, 18 February
Steve Martin: “Why the closures?”
Simon Talbot: “What we’ve seen over recent months is some damage to rock art in particular in cultural heritage sites that are sacred and, we’ve seen actual rock bolting going into some of the paintings and that’s just completely unacceptable…”
Now there are a couple of problems here, but perhaps not the one that you might immediately think. IF a climber had actually placed a bolt into rock art, then yes that would be absolutely unacceptable, and it would be condemned by the climbing community.
IF it had happened, then whether it would justify blanket bans across the whole area is debatable, but yes it would be unacceptable and I’m sure many in the climbing community would be more than happy to see any such individual prosecuted for such an act. No, the problem is, as far as I can best determine, when it comes to “actual rock bolting going into some of the paintings”, in the Grampians National Park it has simply NEVER HAPPENED! Not in the eight areas banned, not anywhere.
“Bolts in Rock Art” is wrong and misleading
This is significant because the “bolts-in-rock-art” accusation is one of Park’s cornerstone arguments to justify the Grampians climbing bans. It is significant because this false accusation has become accepted as “fact” and may well be influencing decision making at the highest levels. Here is a snippet from a letter from the Mayor of Northern Grampians Shire (Stawell) to the Minister for the Environment:
It is significant because it is almost certainly not true. Not in the Grampians. Not in visible art. And it is significant because, if it hasn’t happened, then no falsification of evidence by Park Victoria can make it so!
But guess what? That’s what they’ve done!
The other day, in researching this article, I visited Parks’ Frequently Asked Questions page which I see had recently been updated. And there I saw a photo presented, at long last, as an example of where climbers had placed a safety “bolt in rock art”. Given the context, it was undoubtedly implying that it was a climber’s safety bolt. And it was quite damning evidence for sure! I was surprised. No one had ever been able to tell me where this was supposed to have occurred in the Grampians. So, I asked around and quickly got the answer back that the bolt in the Parks Victoria photo was not a climber’s safety bolt at all. It was one placed 30+ years ago by land managers themselves at a well-known art site at Buandik in the southern Grampians. This bolt was part of a cage intended to protect the art from vandals and ignorant tourists (not climbers), but still, the bolt didn’t need to go there! Years later the original cage was removed, a larger cage was installed, and the bolt stud was left there sticking into the rock. So someone has taken a photo of this 30+ year old land managers bolt, and Parks Victoria published it on their website, as an example of what CLIMBERS were allegedly doing in the Grampians! And this is to back up one of Park’s cornerstone arguments to justify the bans.
It’s outrageous. It was a fabrication. It’s complete and utter BULLSHIT!
Is this legal? How is this allowed? Does the public service not have standards? How can Parks allow the very serious issue of preservation of aboriginal cultural heritage be weaponised and used against climbers in such a dishonest manner? I would assume that many in the aboriginal community would be furious to hear about this; is someone in Parks deliberately trying to sabotage relationships, and vilify climbers? Are climbers expected to accept this stuff? So many questions. The photo has since been removed. No public apology. The arrogance is astonishing.
I don’t accept that this was simply an accident. It clearly fits a pattern of a dirty concerted smear campaign that Parks (or at least some in Parks, because, again, I’m sure it’s not the entire organisation) have been running against climbers for the last few months. Read on. You’ll see what I mean.
But first, let me finish explaining what happened about the bans.
The Bans Then Expanded
As I write it is over nine weeks since the original bans (of the eight target areas) were announced, and yet, incredibly, Parks have still not provided justifications for all of those bans. I would like to hear, for example, why Gondwanaland was targeted. Due to the nature of the crag I would be surprised if it was an art site. But on the way to the crag you do pass a well known art site (on a track made by Parks). Is that why it is banned, because the track goes close? But you know, tourists can walk there. How is that so different?
Anyway, things have moved on somewhat since then. Over the months there was a lot of speculation and angst amongst climbers — unhelped by unclear and often contradictory messaging from Parks. Messaging started coming out that climbing in the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) was actually prohibited, and on 20th March Park’s published their FAQs page confirming this. These bans completely fly in the face of recent prior communications from Parks which had declared climbing was open at virtually all of these areas.
Basically, Parks now say you won’t currently be prosecuted for climbing in the SPA’s, but you may well get “educated”, and fined for anything else. Rangers have been turning up at legal campsites at 8am, wearing tactical vests, standing over climbers who were eating their breakfast and exchanging terse words. Climbers have reported feeling intimidated.
Why are the SPAs now banned? That’s a good question. Areas are designated for “Special Protection” for environmental and/or cultural heritage reasons but in the areas where climbing is banned we’ve been kept in the dark about what exactly the reasons are. When you drive up the Great Western Highway from Melbourne to Horsham you drive through a SPA at Dadwell’s Bridge, about 200m north from the Giant Koala tourist attraction; climbing here is banned but a highway is ok it would seem. Commercial climbing (commercial groups) are still being allowed to operate in SPAs – so it’s recreational climbers who are being targeted. The mechanism for the bans is there, apparently, in the 2003 Management Plan and it seems no one bothered to question or challenge it at the time. Actually, if you look at management plan Table 3 indicated that the SPAs are less than 1% of the park, how that suddenly became 33% I don’t know. Anyway, the fact that climbers had been climbing in these areas for decades BEFORE then — and SINCE then — without any great problems, has been completely ignored.
In the Grampians’ near 70-year history of rock climbing, I can’t find one instance of climbers deliberately interfering with or damaging Aboriginal cultural heritage or rock art. I’ve heard of one cliff, Millennium Caves (one of the eight target areas announced in February) where routes were established 25 years ago, where one small piece of almost invisible art was later discovered, located away from the climbs, and to this day this art remains undamaged. That’s the worst cultural heritage instance in the Grampians that I know of. Our record is better than the land managers.
Using SPAs to ban climbing is a blunt and lazy management tool in the extreme.
The Actual Extent of the Bans
So what has been lost here? Parks say “There are still hundreds of known climbing areas in the Grampians National Park available for people to enjoy.” But that is misleading, it’s either a display of ignorance or disingenuous at best. I happen to be the publisher of Grampians Climbing, the current Grampians climbing guidebook, and we’ve calculated that roughly 45 per cent of the routes in the Grampians guidebook (the best areas) are affected by the ban.
And the situation for boulderers is far worse. To brush these bans off as insignificant is a sick joke.
Justification of the Bans
Let me now respond to some of the other statements and allegations that Parks have recently put out as “justifications” for these bans. Some of these are from their FAQ’s page, some are from their communications and statements.
1) The growth of climbing.
Apparently, the Grampians have experienced astronomical “growth of climbing”. Parks Victoria cited some figures to back it up (80,000 climbers per year), but who knows where they got that figure because it’s certainly not right. And it’s certainly not 20% year-on-year either. How do you actually measure the growth of climbing in the Grampians? Well, as publisher of the main guidebook, I’m one of the few people who would actually know. Checking the guidebook sales for the last six years since we started, the sales are not going up. Here you go, I’ll share it with you all:
Glenn Tempest, the publisher of the main guidebook to nearby Mount Arapiles, has reported an actual downswing, and his figures go back much further than mine. If there was any significant growth in outdoor climbing, we’d expect to see some significant upswing in sales as well. The Grampians is an area that you need the guidebook to safely get around. Outdoor bouldering might be growing slowly but that would require separate management strategies and is no justification for blanket bans.
Parks also claims an enormous number of new routes and “sites” are being established, saying “The number of climbing sites has risen from approximately 2,000 sites in 2003 to an estimated 8,000 sites in 2018”. Again, this is wrong. I guess you could call a single boulder a “site”, but in recent years the establishment of new routes and areas has actually slowed to a trickle. There are 61 separate “crags” (or cliffs) described in the current guidebook. Since we started the guidebook in 2013, I only know of one “new” crag (Clean Cuts) worth adding (we added this in the 2015 edition). There would be a few other crags of minor significance, not really worth adding to a guidebook, but the point is, the growth of new “sites” has slowed very significantly. The good stuff is obvious and was climbed on long ago.
2) “contemporary rock climbing activities, such as bolting, have emerged…”
Actually, the use of safety bolts (which many climbers quite appreciate) has been around as long as climbing in the Grampians itself. Nothing new here. The thing is, combine the fact (as explained above) that the establishment of new routes and new crags has slowed to but a trickle in recent years, AND the fact that climbers abide by a very staunch set of “ethics” which makes it virtually unacceptable for climbers to add additional bolts to a route once it is established, and what we have here is nothing new. If it’s a problem then it is far less than it ever was and can be “self regulated” by the community. Believe me, it can.
3) “Visitor safety.”
This is a serious issue and one I’ve given considerable thought to. The problem would be if climbers were falling out of the sky and landing on tourists or walkers and squashing them (we try not to, believe me) or dislodging rocks from above. Loose rocks are only a problem when there are in fact loose rocks (easily managed) AND tourists linger underneath (easily solved by suggesting they move along – or climbers not climbing whilst they are there). There are numerous cliffs I know around the world where climbers climb above tourist tracks and this problem is easily managed. The thing is, in the Grampians most all of the climbing is far away from tourist areas and walking tracks, it’s just not a problem. The only place I could think of where a walking track goes close to a climbing area, in the currently banned areas, is Sandinista Cliff, where the Hollow Mountain tourist track meets the cliff momentarily, but then turns left along the cliff away from the few climbs; if that’s a problem then it’s easily managed. In case I’d missed something, I asked around and learned something alarming. Apparently, the long-established crag Barbican Rocks has a route marked out (with marking tape) along under the cliff line for a future walking track, it’s believed this might be the route for the “Grampians Peaks Trail” that Parks are currently building. There are options, the route doesn’t have to pass right along under the cliff line. Now, I don’t know Parks thinking here, and if it’s the plan, but if it is using “visitor safety” as a reason for banning climbing (and they are) and the only real place that could be an issue is at a place where they are creating the problem themselves, well I can guess how that is going to go down.
4) “The development of informal walking tracks, … using chainsaws.”
Oh please, more smear. Where, when? I would be amazed. Never ever seen a sign of it myself but I do remember that when the track to The Gallery was rerouted many years ago, in an awesome working bee which had climbers and rangers working together to make a new better track, rangers used a chainsaw to cut through a few fallen trees for the track. I suspect another own goal from Parks here.
5) “People clearing areas for bush camps and campfires in forested areas..”
“People” being the operative word. If people are making illegal campsites and/or fires then please fine them. If they are climbers then the word will soon get around and it won’t be a problem any more. But blaming climbers, banning climbing across much of the park, destroying livelihoods, lifestyles and dreams, because of stuff that other people are doing? Well Parks, we’re not going to let you get away with that. Also, that photo of an “illegal campfire” illustrating “impacts of climbing” on Parks website, is highly unlikely to be a climber’s campfire, the only place I’ve seen something like that is at a camping cave commonly used by school groups. It’s more smear I suspect. I bet Parks can’t say where it is. Are we now also to be blamed every time a tourist is too lazy and/or ignorant that when they find nature calling all they can manage is to make it 50 meters from the car park before “taking a dump”, then leave it unburied and toilet paper strewn around. Look around your park Parks, it’s everywhere. It gives me the shits too. But climbers would be rarely the cause of that problem either.
I could go on. Suffice to say, Parks justifications for the bans are either fabrications, massive exaggerations, wrong, insults, petty and insignificant. A lot of it is extraordinarily hypercritical. Any “problems” are easily “managed” – especially when we work together as was done in the past.
Implications of the Bans
There will be some serious implications if these bans become permanent. Business will go bust and there will be social upheaval; hundreds of climbers live in the area because of the climbing, bringing skills (some are physiotherapists, land planners, scientists, lawyers, project managers, health care workers, teachers, government officers, engineers — I could go on and on) and boosting the area economically and culturally. Parks say they understand the importance of climbing in the region, I don’t think they do, or this situation would never have been allowed to deteriorate in this way.
I am deeply concerned that these bans are actually dangerous. There has not been a rock climbing fatality in the Grampians for many, many years but when you close 45% of the Grampians best climbing, you should know that includes some of the safest crags in Victoria. Some of the safest beginners crags in particular. So climbers who would have gone to those crags will now have to go somewhere else, definitely higher risk. That’s on you, Parks. Think about it.
Environmentally, of course, funnelling climbers into fewer areas will only increase any impacts on those. Will climbers then be blamed for that too? The best management response is to keep as many areas as possible open. Grampians is vast and able to absorb it all, and if any problems are identified then they should be addressed specifically. It’s not too hard; climbers have man/woman power and are keen.
And finally, the big issue of protecting Aboriginal Cultural Heritage – a climbing ban will not solve anything in practice. It might sound great, make it “look” like Parks have done great things there, but in practice we are “mountains goats” who have become but “scapegoats”. After 70 years of climbing in the Grampians our record is good; very, very good indeed, virtually unblemished. It was never really a “problem” that required a “solution”, at least not like this. But by banning climbers from these areas you’ve lost our stewardship, our eyes and ears in the bush. Protection of ACH will be no better off. As David Reeve, President of the Australian Climbing Association Queensland put it “Parks are almost wholly dependent upon the engagement of the general public as stewards if natural values are to be conserved. Locking the gate, opens the park to feral visitor traffic and the consequent loss of that which is meant to be preserved. We will find that ACH is the same deal. Its preservation depends upon engagement of the general public as stewards. …. Wild spaces can’t be managed by fiat. You simply can’t expect to put a ranger behind every bush and boulder. What we all really, really want, land managers and stakeholders alike, is for a set of laws and management principles everyone can get behind. Ones that foster the transformation of visitors from consumers to stewards.”
When I remember Parks COO Simon Talbot’s reassurance to me last year (that there would be “no blanket bans”) and contemplate the situation we have now (effective blanket bans), I’m confused. Either Mr Talbot was misled by his staff, the plan changed along the way (mission creep much?) or something else.
Of course, if pushing climbers out of the park, or pushing our backs against the wall so that we’ll agree to anything was the plan all along, then I guess this incremental game would have been a way to play it. If these blanket bans had been announced at the onset, the outrage would have been immense. But we have been softened up.
But to what end?
Now I’m not much into conspiracy theories but I’ll just put this out there anyway. And if in a few years Parks come back with a new management plan which includes a user-pays ticketing system, well, maybe you read it here first and you’ll know we were played. It would explain a lot. Anyway, it is relevant in some ways. The “it” is the Grampians Peaks Trail plan.
The Grampians Peaks Trail plan
Currently Parks are spending over $30 million on the Grampians Peaks Trail which is a signature tourism project for the region, not dissimilar to the Cradle Mountains walk in Tasmania, or Milford Track in New Zealand. The Grampians Peaks Trail will be a 144km long walking superhighway, extending the length of the Grampians, north to south. Some of it is already open, the rest is under construction. It has an “estimated visitation of 23,000 people per year by 2020” and “34,000 people by 2025”, generating $6.39 million per annum by then. This is no small project.
When I first heard about the project I thought it sounded pretty interesting, assuming the impacts could be justified. Then when I heard the minimum cost per person is $50 per night for the privilege of walking on this trail whilst carrying your own tent, I was somewhat taken aback. I mean, there was I naively thinking that Parks and the Vic Government would be actually encouraging its citizens to get out and exercise and get closer to nature and enjoy the wonders of this country without being required to be flush with money, but no. There it is, “Healthy Parks, Healthy People” all over the Park’s website. But then I thought, oh well, it’s obviously a big investment and if that’s what it takes to get something like that built then fair enough, there are plenty of other trails or routes to take in the Grampians, it’s not like this is the only option for a few days out. So, provided it doesn’t interfere with existing activities, then ok. It’s good for the region and all that. I hope I can walk it with my daughter one day.
BUT, when Parks are building a massive walking track, where for much of the route no track had ever existed before, whilst simultaneously kicking up a stink about a few climbers footpads that have been there for 30 years, and banning a significant and historically recognised low-impact recreational activity (climbing) across vast areas of the Parks, well, the utter hypocrisy should not be lost on anyone.
Ah, but I digress, the point I wanted to make is this: deep in the Grampians Peaks Trail plan is nasty little clause that talks about the need to introduce a “whole of park booking system” which “relies in challenging the prevailing attitude that users should have unlimited access to the National Park”. It’s not just climbers who are being targeted by this, we are just the ones who have our backs to the wall at the moment, no, it’s aimed at just about every user group — including walkers. And I tell you what, if it turns out that that has been the play here, then the way that the very real concerns of protection of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage have been used in a pawn in all this, well I reckon that will be downright scandalous.
Loss of Perspective
The unbelievable hypocrisy aside, there is a real loss of perspective going on somewhere inside Parks Victoria. They like to talk about “protecting the values of the park” but they are actually destroying them through a failure to actually understand what those values actually are, and what the real threats to the park actually are. What are the real threats? The Grampians Advisory Group reported on the threat to different environmental communities and listed: “Herbivores, both native and introduced, and in some areas the native ones (e.g. swamp wallabies) are the main culprits. Weeds, rabbits, hares, cats and foxes, fire, water harvesting.”
Do I really need to talk about fire and how the impacts that poor fire mitigation strategies have had? It’s not pretty, let’s not even go there. Everybody knows.
If Parks put into rock climbing a fraction of the resources it’s putting into the Grampians Peaks Trail, and bothered to work with climbers, then any “management problem” there would easily be solved. But no.
Park’s have distracted themselves here and the more this goes on the more they will take their eye off the ball.
Failure of Obligations
Rock climbers are a major user group of the Grampians and sadly Parks have failed miserably in its obligations to us as a group. I’m not talking about some niceties in how I wish Parks had been honest, and open and consultative with climbers, I’m talking about actual legal obligations that Parks has to us. Let’s look at the Parks Victoria Act and here are some areas where I think it has failed:
Parks Victoria Act 2018, STATEMENT OF OBLIGATIONS
3.1 In performing its functions and exercising its powers, Parks Victoria must work to be a best practice park management organisation, striving for excellence in protecting and managing Victoria’s outstanding system of parks and reserves, engaging and working effectively with Traditional Owners, other land managers and the broader community, providing high quality opportunities for visitors to enjoy the parks and reserves, and contributing to the state’s visitor economy.
4.1 In performing its functions and exercising its powers, Parks Victoria must have regard to the following guiding principles:
(a) Healthy Parks Healthy People, which recognises the fundamental connections between human health and environmental health, is an underlying philosophy of Parks Victoria
(c) the community should be placed at the centre of park planning and management
(d) effective communication with the community and key stakeholders is critical to the successful development and delivery of major policies, management outcomes, initiatives and operations
(e) evidence-based decision making contributes to better decisions and management outcomes
ENGAGEMENT WITH THE COMMUNITY
6.1 Parks Victoria must undertake timely and inclusive engagement with the broader community, community and Friends groups, and key stakeholders to effectively support the preparation of its park management strategies and plans and the delivery of its programs and projects.
Yep, big fail. Please Parks, wake up.
When people ask me what is my favourite place in the world to climb I answer “The Grampians”, or I used to, until the bans, as now it is no longer “world-class”. There is something magical about the bush and the rock and I have no problem understanding how the place would have been special to the Traditional Owners before they were displaced many years ago. I have spent years climbing in the Grampians and moved to the nearby town of Natimuk and bought my first house there (for $36,000) in 1995. I’ve seen the influx of climbers to the region and seen the area boom economically, culturally and the skills that have come with it – all because of the climbing.
I actually first started climbing regularly in the Grampians when I was living in Bendigo in the late 1980s. I was studying a Bachelor of Arts in Outdoor Education and would drive over to the Grampians and climb every single chance that I got. As many would know, Outdoor Education uses the minimum impact activities of walking, skiing, canoeing, and, yes, rock climbing, to facilitate numerous environmental education and personal development objectives. I strongly believe in Outdoor Education because as a society we have becomes seriously disconnected from the natural world. How can you care if you never spend much time there? Walling off these places, putting them behind a fence (or a paywall), banning climbing, is seriously the wrong move. It’s completely unnecessary. It takes time in these places to build an understanding and a real appreciation of the natural environment. It’s not just that as climbers we need this, it’s that we as a society need it as well. We can share what we learn. We just need to self-regulate, educate the newcomers, and continue working closely with Parks as we have in the past.
I care deeply about the Grampians and I’m sick of the way Parks Victoria are seriously mis-managing it. It can still be corrected, it must. These bans are dangerous, actually counterproductive and will create a management nightmare. And they are a lazy sledgehammer approach to management. If you find that you have a tick on you, biting you, then the best approach is to pry it out gently with tweezers, you don’t go and jump on a landmine, but hey, oh great, you’ve got attention now, it sure looks like you did something about it!
The fact that Parks has had to resort to a pathetic dirty and dishonest smear campaign against climbers to justify the bans, says it all really. Well, tough luck Parks, you have mis-estimated the love of the global climbing community for this place. Climbers won’t rest until your mess is fixed.