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Call Rebeka to the stand, Your Honour

By 17 February 2020 February 20th, 2020 General News, Grampians Access

Call Rebeka to the stand, Your Honour.

We have now passed a sad one year milestone. On the 4th of February 2019 Parks Victoria COO Simon Talbot signed off on the “Determination” (a formal decision process required under r65 of the Regulations) to prohibit rock climbing throughout the “Special Protection Areas” of the Grampians National Park. Now, a year later, there are still many questions to be answered but we have also learnt a lot. The truth is coming out. But sadly, the way things are heading, everything points to a very grim future for climbing in the Grampians. Even beloved Mount Arapiles is not immune from a process of ever-increasing unnecessary bans, Parks Victoria have already started there too.

This is my second long article on the subject. The first one, Park Victoria’s Dirty War on Rock Climbers, from April last year, is still relevant and recommended if you’d like some background. If you have been following the subject closely, there are a few things I recap on today, but hopefully by the time you get to the end you’ll see how the new information ties a lot of it together.

Two weeks ago some very significant revelations appeared in The Australian newspaper. It appears Parks Victoria managers have misled Lily D’Ambrosio, the Minister for the Environment, in briefing papers regarding climbers impacts. The Australian had also received a draft copy of a paper being written by Parks Victoria’s consultant archeologist Ben Gunn and others. That paper has just now been published and today I’ll be talking about that — as well as an alarming conversation I had with Ben Gunn last year.

Right now Parks Victoria is undertaking Environmental and/or Cultural Heritage Surveys of 126 climbing areas in the Grampians National Park, surveys which will likely go a long way towards determining the future of climbing. I wouldn’t normally be concerned, climbers have a very good record in the Grampians. For example, despite the falsehoods, there appears to be not a single instance of climbers damaging Aboriginal rock art in the Grampians. Some sort of check of climbing areas would not be a problem when we know the process is fair and objective and we have reasonable land managers to work with.

But climbers have a very good reason to be concerned about what is going on. We will start with the simple fact that, so far, every area that has had a Cultural Heritage Survey has been closed. Then we will look at Parks Victoria’s use of the Regulations, which is questionable. Then later on we will come to the paper that Ben Gunn has just published and the alarming conversation I had with him. Admittedly, there is a lot of nit-picking in this article, but sadly to get to the bottom of all this, that’s where we have to go. Let’s begin.

Summer Day Valley is one of the best and safest beginner and family climbing areas in the country. Over the years much work has been done here by Parks Victoria and Cliffcare to “harden” the area and make it suitable for large groups. It now lies deserted by recreational climbers due to the bans.

Stone Quarrying = Exclusion Zones = No Climbing

The precedent set by the Cultural Heritage Survey of Summer Day Valley is concerning. Here the entire area has been closed to recreational climbers due to some stone quarrying on one side of the valley. It was confirmed at the “Cultural Heritage Inductions” for Licensed Tour Operators in November that, as long suspected, the quarrying sites are the reason for the bans on low-impact recreational climbing in Summer Day Valley. Now let us be clear, recreational climbers aren’t damaging these quarry sites. Meanwhile commercial groups and school groups are allowed here; bush walkers and picnickers are allowed here. Apparently some Parks staff are concerned that climbers will damage the quarry sites by “dropping generators on them”!
I.
Kid.
You.
Not.
That is what was stated at the Cultural Heritage Inductions. Just in case I need to spell it out for anyone; climbers do not carry generators to the crag.

Meanwhile, a stone quarry site right on the Hollow Mountain walking track nearby, has been getting walked right-over-the-top-of by bushwalkers for years. This walking track has exposed a quarrying site to far greater traffic than anything climbers do. We can only assume “harm” has not occurred on the Hollow Mountain track, otherwise surely Parks would be taking action to prevent it occurring? So why is climbing deemed such a disproportionate risk compared with other park activities?

Hollow Mountain Track

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A stone quarry site around the corner from Summer Day Valley. This significant site has been virtually trashed by the walkers tourist track that goes right over the top of it. Photo Glenn Tempest.


Exclusion Zones – misused?

Park Victoria’s officials have stated that quarry sites must have a 50m “exclusion zone” around them. Apparently they have applied these “exclusion zones” solely to climbing. The 50m notion comes from the regulations and it doesn’t apply an “exclusion zone”, it actually applies a “zone of cultural heritage sensitivity” around a registered cultural heritage place. And given that under the regulations, r32(2), the entire park is a zone of cultural heritage sensitivity anyway, this 50m rule is meaningless anywhere within the park, registered cultural heritage place or not. And the other thing that appears to be out of order here, is there is nothing in this regulation which allows for the targeting of one particular activity whilst ignoring all others. So if they were “exclusion zones”, which they aren’t, then all activities without permits would have to excluded. It appears you can’t just pick and choose activities with this regulation. Looks like a double fail from Parks Victoria on this one alone.

“Permits to Harm” – misused?

So how is it that Licensed Tour Operators (LTOs, aka commercial operators) get to take large school groups and other groups climbing and abseiling in Summer Day Valley when low-impact recreational climbing is outlawed? Because Parks Victoria (who have legal contracts with Licensed Tour Operators) obtained a “Permit to Harm” from the government department of Aboriginal Victoria. Because there are no officially recognised Traditional Owners, or Registered Aboriginal Party (RAP), for the Grampians, Aboriginal Victoria makes the final decisions about such things. The Permit to Harm comes with conditions but we don’t know the detail of what was negotiated. Were there jobs promised? Is climbing being horse-traded because it is politically convenient?

The thing is, Permits to Harm are an entirely inappropriate mechanism for managing a minimal impact activity like rock climbing. Firstly, as a climber, I don’t want to “harm” anything, the notion is kind of offensive. Secondly, Parks Victoria are never going to be interested in negotiating with Aboriginal Victoria for Permits to Harm for recreational climbers, so this is not a reasonable management option. And thirdly, most importantly, Permits to Harm are entirely the wrong mechanism to be using here. “Permits to Harm” are meant for HIGH-IMPACT activities: infrastructure and large-scale disturbance like roads, railways, shopping centers, or “the construction of 3 or more dwellings… is a high-impact activity” (not one or two). The regulations seem to be pretty clear about what is and isn’t high-impact and rock climbing doesn’t even begin to come close. Once again, it appears Parks Victoria are interpreting regulations to suit their whim. It is not good enough.

Is rock climbing higher impact than constructing two dwellings? Hmmmm, tricky one that… Has anyone at Parks Victoria considered that, maybe, it simply is NOT?

“Shonky” Determination?

And what about that “Determination” that Parks Victoria’s COO Simon Talbot signed off on 4th February 2019? Well, I think it could be “shonky”. I don’t mean the legal basis for it, though that is certainly interesting. We can’t get into the details of the case here but basically the Senior Legal Counsel for the Australian Climbing Association Victoria (ACAV) has advised that, in their opinion 1) The climbing prohibitions are invalid as they currently stand and 2) The climbing prohibitions are “legally unreasonable” and “disproportionate to the supposed mischief to be addressed”. Now while it certainly sounds like it could be shonky on this basis, I’m not saying that it is. This highly qualified advice will actually require a judicial review, a legal challenge, to determine if it’s correct. It’s for a Judge to judge. But maybe Parks themselves are not too sure about this, maybe this is why they say they will not fine anyone found climbing in the SPAs, just “educate”?

However, it does appear that the “bans” probably aren’t enforceable. Even if the Determination is correct, every cliff would have to be sign-posted before they could be enforced. The regulations require this. Can you imagine signs installed at every crag in the Grampians that they want banned? This is why some people refer to the bans as a great big bluff. The concept of being honest, open and working with a user-group to ensure the best and most efficient outcomes all around, seems to have slipped past the current Parks Victoria managers. But hey, what do we know, don’t bother listening to us.

Anyway, no, the real reason I say the bans are shonky is because they are not based on anything that has actually occurred in the Grampians National Park. This is a pretty incredible admission for a government department that is supposed to — actually required to — make decisions based on evidence and facts; it’s called “evidence-based decision making”. But there it is — in the actual Determination itself, “…. it has become apparent through observation and research (undertaken at other locations) that rock climbing is….”.

Other locations = not Grampians.

Yep, “other locations”, as in, not in the Special Protection Areas, not even in the Grampians National Park at all. Just what was the research and where was undertaken? This would indeed be interesting to know. Was it at Lil Lil? We will come to that.

Smear

So Parks Victoria made the decision to ban rock climbing — and this was no spur of the moment decision. These documents obtained under Freedom of Information, show that the plan has always been to “phase out the activity in these areas”. Then, with the decision made, and under pressure for its failure to protect Aboriginal Cultural Heritage, Parks Victoria threw climbers under the bus and commenced what I can only describe as a smear campaign based on falsehoods. In particular, it included the most inflammatory accusation that rock climbers had been placing protection bolts into Aboriginal rock art in the Grampians. It was an accusation that was bound to seriously raise the ire of Traditional Owner groups and destroy the public reputation of rock climbers as well.

Parks Victoria’s COO Simon Talbot kicked it off in the public domain on 18 February 2019 in announcing the bans. Incidentally, there are two things to note here: 1) even though he had signed the Determination to prohibit climbing across the Special Protection Areas only two weeks earlier, all that was mentioned in the announcement was the closure of eight specific “focus” sites. And 2) of those eight focus sites, two are actually not rock climbing sites at all. The randomness of the selection of these areas is a mystery to which I would love to know the answer one day. Were they selected in a bit of a rush? So that Parks Victoria could try to avoid being upfront with the climbing community and revealing the true extent of the bans, or something? Anyway, the announcement:

  • 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…”  Of course it would be unacceptable but wow, actual rock bolting going into some of the paintings, is that so Simon?

And here are some examples of how the fairy tale has spread far and wide:

  • Chairman of the Eastern Marr Aboriginal Corporation, Jason Mifsud, said “We have our own particular cultural heritage matters at the moment that we are trying to find resolution towards, in the Grampians, where rock art is being damaged by the rock climbing community…” 
  • Chairman of the Barengi Gadjin Land Council, Dylan Clarke, said something similar “There are many areas where there are significant sites and rock art is being damaged.”
  • Ken Wyatt, the Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, has bought into it, stating on ABC radio re the Grampians that “There is certainly evidence of some of the ancient artworks being damaged.” Who told ya Ken? Because psssst… it’s almost certainly not true or #notclimbers.
  • And Mike Tomkins, President of the Australian Climbing Association Victoria (ACAV), told me that he had a discussion with the CEO of Parks Victoria after a meeting (the Rock Climbing Round table on 8 October 2019) in which the CEO asked “what about all the damage to the art at Millennium Caves?” (which is one of the eight “focus” sites).

So here we have several senior Parks Victoria managers, the leaders of two Traditional Owner groups in the region and the Federal Minister, all saying rock art in the Grampians is being damaged by climbers. In the near twelve months since the claim was made public, we have seen no evidence from Parks Victoria that the claim is actually true. It just wouldn’t happen. And if it had, we’d know about it by now.

Minister Misled

You can’t entirely blame politicians and others for spreading falsehoods and fairly tales, most people just repeat what they are told. Just look at what was fed to Lily D’Ambrosio, the Victorian Minister for the Environment, when she was briefed on this matter by Parks Victoria managers. The ministerial briefing papers have been obtained under Freedom of Information and the 19 March 2019 paper signed by Parks Victoria CEO Matthew Jackson includes eight photos of “Impact of Climbing Activity within the Grampians National Park”. One of these photos does show climber’s impacts (chalk at The Gallery) but then we have:

  • Four photos which show “vegetation trampling” at the base of some boulders the Venus Baths boulders, in the Wonderland Range near Halls Gap. This area is adjacent to one of the most popular walking tracks in the Grampians. Any vegetation damage or erosion here could be easily managed. And this area is NOT banned, it is not in a Special Protection Area, so why are these photos even being used to “justify” the bans?
  • Two photos from Millennium Caves: one of a massive fireplace and one of stone stacks — which have nothing to do with climbers. We know that large groups, school groups, use this camping cave. Attributing these things to climbers and using them to justify bans is scandalously misleading.
  • A photo of a chain sawed tree trunk. Judging by the weathering, this could be decades old. I did not notice this one tree trunk when I vised Millennium Caves last year, but guess what? Climbers did NOT create the track to Millennium Caves in the first place! I recently checked with one of the first climbers who started going to Millennium Caves and he confirmed that this track existed before climbers started going there in the 1990s. Typically though, climbers will no doubt we will be blamed for it (the Victorian National Parks Association recently blamed climbers for 1000km of informal tracks in the Grampians, the reality is more like 15km). And the other thing, whilst I have never heard or seen evidence of a climber using a chainsaw in the Grampians, in the past Parks Victoria rangers used to use them (probably still do) to clear fallen trees from tracks after storms. Given everything else, the loss of perspective here is staggering. I appreciate that rangers used to do what they used to do to help climbers and walkers, and to keep walkers to established tracks, but if decades later Parks Victoria want to now turn around and falsely blame that on climbers, like they did with the “bolt-in-rock-art” photo, and use it to justify banning climbing, well, that’s just not on.

Ministerial Brief

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Venus Baths, not in a Special Protection Area or banned area.

This is no justification for widespread bans on rock climbing and it appears the Minister has been misled here. I did say you couldn’t really blame politicians for believing this stuff, but to me this misuse of photographs here looks too obvious for anyone to ignore.

So how bad is it?

Back to Aboriginal Cultural Heritage and what about the claims of damage to rock art in Grampians? And yeah, what about “all that damage to all that art at Millennium Caves”?

Well, here you go, we can answer both of those questions in one! Presenting, the only clash with Aboriginal rock art and rock climbers that we know of, in the history of climbing in the Grampians National Park, which happens to be at Millennium Caves:

Millennium Caves emu foot

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The emu foot at Millennium Caves, undamaged as of October 2019, despite near three decades of climbing in the area.

Here we have a faint emu foot in the main cave at Millennium Caves. And after nearly three decades of climbers climbing in this area the artwork remains completely UNDAMAGED.

Repeat, this art is undamaged. This is as bad as it gets. It is bad though, because there is a climb that does start reasonably near this artwork, and there is a protection bolt I would guess about eight meters from it. Personally, I think a good solution would be for the bolts on that particular climb to be removed. But again, this is the worst artwork situation we know of. And there is… NO DAMAGE.

This is actually not the first time this undamaged emu foot art has been made public, the ABC 7:30 Report showed it here in their report, at around 3:30 minutes in. As you see, it’s the worst they could come up with to show the public. Note also, there is NOT a bolt just meters from this artwork as they state, someone could measure it but, like I said, I think the nearest is more like 8 meters away.

By the way, note that at 2:55 minutes in the voice over says “At the end of an unauthorized walking track….”. Yep, that track to Millennium Caves, which I mentioned above was NOT created by climbers, well, climbers are clearly being blamed for it here. The ABC is misleading the public.

Not one of the still photographs that they showed in that section on Millennium Caves, was in fact from Millennium Caves. Take particular note of the “Rebeka” graffiti, shown at 3:17 minutes into the video, that they blame on climbers. “Rebeka” is most significant, I’ll come to that later — but the ABC is misleading the public here too!

The fabrication

So where did the bolt-in-rock-art falsehood come from? And what came first, the chicken or the egg, the falsehood or the fabrication? Well I suspect the falsehood came first but let’s recap about the “fabrication” in case you missed that. In April 2019 Parks Victoria published a now infamous “bolt-in-rock-art” photo on their web site as some sort of evidence of damage that climbers had supposedly done. The photo was incredibly damning but the thing is, the bolt in the photograph hadn’t been placed by rock climbers, it was a bolt which the land managers had themselves placed into the artwork decades earlier (as part of a protective cage).

The infamous (and inflammatory) bolt-in-rock-art photo published on Park Victoria’s website.

Fortunately, we caught Parks out and this scandalous and highly inflammatory image was removed from Parks web site before it was too widely seen in that context. Parks claim that it was “human error” but, given the context of other misleading text and images on that page at the time, that claim appears quite dubious indeed.

Last September I hiked up to the Billimina Art Site in the southern Grampians to check if Parks Victoria had bothered to remove and patch the infamous bolt-in-rock-art bolt. But alas, no. In fact, the situation is worse than I had realised. There is actually a second bolt right there just above the artwork with glue dribbling down into the art. Shame on you Parks Victoria.

Billimina Art Site

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Rock art with land managers bolt in it (#notclimbers). Billimina Art Site, September 2019.

Parliament misled?

Parks Victoria’s vilification of climbers, depicting us as rock-art-bolting-vandals, has created significant problems for the climbing community. Not only has it inflamed public anger against climbers, more importantly it has inflamed Traditional Owner anger, making it very difficult for us to work fairly to reasonably resolve the current problems.

It’s an issue that has made its way to the floor of the Victorian Parliament. On 14 August 2019, Beverley McArthur MP, Member for Western Victoria Region, asked the following question of Lily D’Ambrosio MP, seeking an apology for climbers. Thank you Beverley, I appreciate this. The question was “answered” on the 6th September 2019.

Yeah look, fair play, I know it’s almost in the job description for politicians to avoid answering questions, but that does not mean we can’t call them out for it. And unless the world has gone mad, isn’t it still kind of serious if Parliament has been misled? So I think the question has to be asked, has Parliament been misled here? Has it?

Have a look at this from Parks Victoria’s “Community Workshops” questions and answers document, issued in November 2019.

Cut and paste is cool eh. Couple of points here:

1) As I’ve said earlier, given the context of other falsehoods and images, I do not accept that it was human error. That claim is disingenuous.

2) Simon Talbots letter to the VCC was merely the “apology” you make when you are not making an apology; “sorry for any confusion caused”, seriously? Here is the letter:


3) The letter only addresses the misleading photo, it doesn’t address any of the other misleading images, or the falsehoods, let alone the entire notion that climbers where drilling protection bolts directly into rock art — as spread by Simon Talbot himself!

4) An “admission of error” is not the same thing as an “apology”, obviously. The question is for an apology so it looks as though Parks Victoria are being devious with their answer here. And just where, pray tell, are all these “apologies” in major media outlets? Are they in every one? Has anyone seen them?

So as for Lily D’Ambrosio’s reply on the floor of Parliament, see the points above and make up your own mind. On point 3 she might get away on a technicality, arguing the question was only about the photo, but the question is also about climbers being unfairly maligned — and that has never been addressed.

As a climber, the whole point is not so much the apology per see as the integrity of everything that is going on.

So then, where did the climber’s protection bolt-in-rock-art fallacy come from?

If it has never happened in the Grampians, then where? Well we know from this FOI tranche that a cliff called Burrunj North in the Black Range State Park was the focus of problems prior to the bans. This area is 20km from the Grampians. It is not very popular with rock climbers, it is far more frequented by walkers, tourists… people. The cliff in question is 600 meters long and the base of the cliff is part of a long established walking trail with much evidence of tourist and camping activity.

The Black Range also fits with the “other locations”, rather than the Grampians, referred to in the Determination for the Grampians climbing prohibition. Indeed there were problems at Burrunj North and here’s an interesting thing:

Ben who?

Aboriginal Victoria believed there may have been an offense committed under the Aboriginal Heritage Act. It attracts a fine of $9900 and Aboriginal Victoria are correct, it’s really not hard to figure out who it was. I have absolutely no doubt the climbing community would wholeheartedly condemn any damage to rock art so, if the vehicle number plates were not enough, then I reckon there could be some help there. Was this followed up? I’m actually disappointed if it wasn’t. Because if bolting in rock art was really a problem, if it had really occurred, then there would be no clearer way to send a message. It could have meant avoiding all this waste and counter-productive management that we’re seeing now.

A meeting

Let me now tell you a long (true) story which might answer some of the questions raised earlier.

As we saw above, Parks Victoria produced a “questions and answers document” that resulted from their “Community Workshops”, held last year for the new management plan that they are working on. I attended the first of these meetings, in Halls Gap in the Grampians, on 5 September 2019 . These workshops will enable Parks Victoria to say “But, but, we consulted….”

At the meeting I listened to Parks Victoria planner Stuart Hughes state that “We’ve got a plan for the South West. So, up the Southern part of the Grampians we’ve already got the management direction set.” when climbers have not been consulted over anything (and still haven’t).

So we got the opportunity to write down a question – and Parks selected just five questions to “answer” at one point in the evening. Parks Victoria selected only one rock climbing related question to answer. It’s disappointing this issue received such little attention. Climbers were by far the biggest user group in attendance. The bans are such a huge thing for the community and this was the first chance for Parks Victoria to publicly address some of the many concerns out there — but that opportunity was squibbed. Anyway, the question they read out was that pesky one:

When will Parks Victoria apologise for the dishonest smear campaign against rock climbers?

I had asked it, knowing it’s a question that other climbers also have. Stuart Hughes’ reply to this question was to immediately avoid the issue. So I interjected and attempted to clarify what I was seeking and why and we ended up having a public exchange over this. I pointed out that Simon Talbot’s radio statement alleging climbers had placed protection bolts-into-rock-art had raised the ire of Traditional Owners. I mentioned the misleading photo which Parks had published. Stuart claimed that Parks are working with the rock climbing communities on this issue; I do not accept that they are (I think the Roundtable meetings are actually a farce; stacked and managed in a way to ensure no real consultation). He continued talking about things which made it pretty clear he was not going to address the issue. To this day I don’t know if he was avoiding the issue because he doesn’t understand it and/or the significance of it, or if he actually thinks it’s ok for a government department to spread inflammatory falsehoods. Unfortunately, before we got any further I was cut off by others.

A meeting at a meeting

But then an interesting thing happened after the meeting. As I was packing up a long-bearded fellow with the name tag “Ben” came up to me and told me I was wrong about the “bolt-in-rock-art” thing. He was saying climbers had in fact placed bolts into art. Holding his hands out about shoulder-width apart, he said something like: “I’d say that’s close enough to be ‘in art’, wouldn’t you?”. I quickly established the man was Ben Gunn, who I knew to be an archaeologist who has done Cultural Heritage work in the area. I was most intrigued.

We got into a discussion and Ben revealed the location he was talking about, which was not in the Grampians but, surprise surprise, it was at Burrunj North in the Black Range State Park, 20km to the west of the Grampians. I knew the exact incident he was talking about as this has been discussed a lot in climbing groups. It’s a bad incident, it’s the worst that we know of in all of Victoria. It’s the incident referred to in the 31 October 2017 email from someone at Aboriginal Victoria which I’ve posted above and which I said I’d be happy to see someone prosecuted for. Here it is, this is the situation:I’m certainly not making excuses for it, however I’m here for facts. Firstly, that bolt was removed very soon after it was placed and there is no damage to the faint hand stencil nearby. And secondly, here’s THE THING: the bolt wasn’t ever actually in any art at all! It has, in fact, been measured as 1.9 meters from the art. It is not “in-art” by any s-t-r-e-t-c-h of the imagination or tape measure.

Subsequent email correspondence I had with Ben confirmed that we were talking about the same thing, in that email he states: “I stand corrected me [sic]: a metre from the art, but to get to it you climb with [sic] two feet of the art (see attached pics). ” No, Ben, the bolt was 1.9 meters from the art. It’s the worst incident in the region, it’s bad, it’s wrong, but there it is, these are the facts. The argument always was about the truth of the matter and whether climbers had placed bolts “in” art, as had been claimed. You can’t shift the debate just because you are wrong. This bolt, now removed, was not a metre from art, it simply never was “in” art at all.

In his email Ben also sent me another photo demonstrating his concerns. This photo is from Lil Lil (also known as Black Ian’s Rocks, it’s part of the Red Rock Reserve in the northern part of the Black Range) and concerns the second of the two bad bolting incidences that we know about. Ben also presented this image at his presentation at the Rock Climbing Round Table meeting on 3rd December 2019, along with the caption “Established climb (with bolts) noticed in 2015 – less than 1m from faint art.” Here is his photo which he sent to me on the left, and the actual measurements that have been taken by others on the right:

As with the other incident, this bolt (long since removed) was never “in-art”, nor was it less than 1m; this one is actually 3.5 meters from the art. And if Ben wants to make the argument about line of travel or something like that, well, he’s got that wrong too, the climb doesn’t go where he seems to think it does; it starts well off to the right then traverses in leftwards to get to the bolt. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending the placement of these bolts, it was very bad and should never have happened, fortunately there was no damage. We even ran the art photos through several image enhancement techniques including Dstretch and we have not seen any damage to faint art or art invisible to the naked eye.

So, if this is the worst anyone can come up with, and that certainly seems to be the case, then is it not clear? Climbers have NEVER placed a bolt into Aboriginal rock art in the Grampians — or in the greater Gariwerd region for that matter.

It greatly concerns me that false information about these two isolated incidences may have been used to smear the reputation of climbers and as part of some “justification” for the absolutely massive and completely unnecessary bans nearby.

Yes, unnecessary

“Unnecessary bans”? Yeah I know what some people are thinking. “But aren’t these two incidences still indicative of a threat to Aboriginal rock art in the Grampians?” “Aren’t they indicative of a climbing community out of control?”
I hear you ask. Certainly arguments like this have been used.
The simple answer is “no”. And there are good reasons we can be sure about that:

  1. Nearly all climbing occurs on existing routes at existing areas. The rate of new route development these days is incredibly low; climbers have spent decades scouring the Grampians and the haydays for new routes are long gone. Parks Victoria got the figures about the growth of new routes and areas incredibly wrong, they claimed “The number of climbing sites has risen from approximately 2,000 sites in 2003 to an estimated 8,000 sites in 2018.” but it appears they had mis-interpreted the figures on an online route database (www.thecrag.com). The Save Grampians Climbing website worked out the real figures and puts it at less than 30 areas.
  2. The establishment of new routes is only done by a tiny fraction of the climbing community, they tend to be the very experienced climbers who understand the issues and of course awareness of Cultural Heritage issues has never been higher. 
  3. There is pretty much no reason to place protection bolts that could be easily reached from the ground — they would serve no purpose at all. Even if there was a climber who wanted to establish a new route, and they didn’t see some art, or heaven forbid didn’t care, there would still simply be no reason for them to place bolts anywhere near where you might find art. Ask yourself, if a climber has to climb up to clip a protection bolt, then is there really going to be art there?
  4. And even it was a problem, Aboriginal Victoria’s $9900(?) fine aside, people seem to forget the climbing community has this amazing ability to self-regulate. The concern of the climbing community to do the right thing is going to quickly override any ill-conceived actions of any one individual. Problem bolts can, and would be, quickly removed. Are the bolts at Burrunj North and Lil Lil still a problem? No, they are long gone.

Basically, these two incidents above are actually isolated. Parks Victoria managers and consultants just don’t seem to understand climbers and climbing. This bolts/art clash is a dream and the notion that drastic action was required to protect rock art is wrong. The bans are a (non) solution to a non-problem.

Graffiti Allegations

Anyway, back to my conversation with Ben Gunn that night, which then turned to the subject of graffiti. He told me something about climbers being responsible for a lot of graffiti at Lil Lil too. I was very surprised by Ben’s statement, knowing that Lil Lil is heavily trafficked by walkers, tourists and well, people. It has a popular camp site, even having a “drinking shed” only 100 metres from the cliff.

The “drinking shed” at Lil Lil. #notclimbers

Climbing areas which are only frequented by climbers are impeccably free of graffiti, so I really had a hard time believing Ben’s statement about graffiti. I replied to Ben, saying that the graffiti would not have been from climbers, pointing out lot of walkers and others go there. We debated it back and forth. Still unconvinced I said:

That’s not right. You can’t prove it was climbers.

To which Ben responded “And you can’t prove that it wasn’t“.

Soon after we went on our merry ways but I couldn’t get that last line out of my head “…and you can’t prove that it wasn’t…”. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way. I totally get and really appreciate that Ben would be genuinely concerned about graffiti, it is indeed a real concern, but I don’t understand the attribution to climbers. So a few days later I followed up with an email titled “rock climber’s impacts in the Black Range” and asked Ben to clarify:

“The other thing you mentioned was the graffiti, was that also at Black Ian’s Rocks? I wasn’t talking about climbers chalk, but actual written graffiti, and assume that’s what you meant too. Do you also have any examples or photos of that? I think that only tourists and vandals would do that.”

To which Ben replied:

“Also [attached] a photo of graffiti at Lil Lil (Black Ian’s shelter) in 2015. This site was cleaned in 2018 (at considerable expense and a team of eight).
I am currently working with rock climbers (traditional not sports climbers), Parks staff and a conservator to write a paper on the problem.
Hope these pics indicate my concern.”

So it really was quite clear he was blaming this graffiti on climbers. He are the pics Ben provided of the graffiti at Lil Lil, before and after the clean-up.

Rebeka

Ah “Rebeka”, there you are again. We haven’t seen you since the ABC 7.30 Report used you as an example of climbers impacts in the Grampians! (See the 7.30 Report video above, 3:17 minutes in). How did this it end up on national television as some sort of justification for the bans? This graffiti was not even in the Grampians. Media watch anyone?

And here’s a curious thing. This graffiti did not even exist when the 7:30 Report story was filmed and aired! In his email Ben said it was cleaned in 2018. And the metadata of Ben’s “cleaned” photo shows it was taken on 20th March 2019. The 7.30 Report story aired on 29th April long after the graffiti had been removed.

The graffiti was bad no doubt. The ‘A’ at the end of ‘Rebeka’ covers what appears to be a hand print. If climbers had done this, it would be BY FAR the worst thing climbers had done to rock art in the entire country. It’s terrible that it took a team of eight to clean it up (they did a good job though).

But where is the evidence that this was done by climbers? If there is evidence then please let’s see it — and let’s prosecute them. But there could be no evidence. It is simply wrong to blame this on climbers.

It could have been kids, children, youths, anyone part of a school group, family group or any other group who found themselves unsupervised for a moment. It could have been walkers, tourist, campers, people, drunkards, fools. It could have been anyone, however you want to categorise them. But out of all the groupings of people, rock climbers would be among the last people doing this sort of graffiti anywhere. Using this as a justification to ring-fence vast tracts of public land from rock climbers is simply absurd. And I believe the whole effort is counter-productive. I don’t just mean the whole bans are counter-productive because a whole lot of negative things will flow as a result, though I most certainly believe that’s the case. Here I am just specifically talking about graffiti. Because without responsible recreational climbers around, these things are just more likely to happen. Climbers spend their lives in these places and we care. We help keep an eye on things. Without climbers around, these places will just run more feral. Many climbers feel a sense of responsibility to be custodians and stewards of these natural wonders.

Anyway, the notion that climbers should take the blame for this, just because we “can’t prove that it wasn’t”…. is not up to the professional standard required here.

As I was writing this article, my 10 year old daughter looked over my shoulder and asked “who’s Rebeka?”. After explaining the situation she said, “that’s silly, how can they prove it was climbers?”. I’d like to think my daughter is a genius, but I suspect it’s just not that hard to see the problem here.

An Escalating Conflict

After reading Ben’s email I must admit I was very interested to see the paper that Ben refers to, that he said he was working on. We know he has been working on it for a long time and we can only wonder if an early version was provided to Parks Victoria, and if it informed their decisions regarding the bans? Parks Victoria has not provided any archeological supporting documents, so it is reasonable to assume that this report was their source of their concerns when introducing bans.

Bingo! As I write word has come in that the paper has just been published. The paper appears in the Rock Art Research Journal, volume 37, and is titled Rock Art and Rock Climbing an Escalating Conflict. The journal is produced by the Australian Rock Art Research Association, of which Ben Gunn is listed as a founding member. As I write it has NOT yet appeared on their web site, however Save Grampians Climbing have got their hot little hands on a copy and, once you have finished here, I suggest you pour yourself a strong drink and head over there to read their detailed analysis of the full paper there.

The graffiti at Lil Lil gets a big mention in the paper, and the statement is absolutely extraordinary:

“… in other instances, particularly at Lil-Lil, it is all too apparent that rock climbers are at fault. At Lil-Lil some graffiti have been deliberately placed over rock art, and the damage is permanent. Others elsewhere have been racially offensive or, through the production of pseudo-rock art, deprecating to Aboriginal people and the majority of non-Aboriginal Australians.”

“…graffiti… deliberately placed over rock art…” and “racist…” Wow, just wow!!!!!!!!!!!!

What a load of inflammatory offensive bile. Better have some damn good evidence it was rock climbers. This is not just wrong, it is malicious. I’m getting pretty damn sick of climbers being smeared with falsehoods. This is disgraceful. What is this crap doing in a scientific journal?

Tell you what, the authors of that paper have no business having anything to do with Cultural Heritage Surveys of rock climbing areas in the Grampians. As the Save Grampians Climbing web site put it “There can be no evidence for these claims and this alone discredits the authors as unfit to report to Parks Victoria and the relevant Ministers on matters relating to rock climbing.”

Ah, but guess what, reporting to Parks Victoria is exactly what they do!

Parks Victoria definitely have a graffiti problem but, you know, it is #notclimbers. This is near the Grampians Peaks Trail, just outside Halls Gap. Is bush walking banned? Photo: Dave Kellerman.

Cultural Heritage Surveys

Parks Victoria COO Matthew Jackson recently confirmed to ACAV President Mike Tomkins that Ben Gunn does their Cultural Heritage Surveys. And, as I mentioned at the beginning, right now Parks Victoria is undertaking Environmental and Cultural Heritage Survey’s of 126 climbing areas in the Grampians. Of the 126 areas, apparently some 97 of these areas are located OUTSIDE of the Special Protection Areas. Why bother surveying inside the SPAs when they are already, supposedly, banned? They aim to be finished by March. This is crunch time. But what’s the chance that climbers are actually going to get a fair go?

Parks Victoria have created a massive problem here and they can not claim that they didn’t know. After my conversation and correspondence with Ben Gunn, I wrote to Parks Vitoria with my concerns. Initially I wrote to Mark Dingle, the Deloitte facilitator of Parks Victoria’s “Rock Climbing Round Table” and he confirmed that my concerns had been passed on to Parks Victoria. Not hearing anything back, I wrote to Lucy Marshall (Manager, Stakeholder Relations) and Matthew Jackson (CEO) on 17 October and again on 6 November raising my concerns about this issue. No response. Nadda. Complete white-wash.

One can but wonder as to how much money has been spent on these surveys. We were informed in May 2019 that Parks Victoria had allocated up to $1.2 million for Cultural Heritage Surveys in the Grampians.  What a waste. I don’t think the climbing community can accept the results of these surveys. I don’t think any objective observer would think this is fair. The climbing community has been calling for independent oversight of the survey process all along and now it must insist on it.

I’m glad that Ben Gunn’s paper has now become public. I guess time will tell if Parks Victoria managers will do the right thing now.

So why, oh why?

What we are seeing is a process that appears to have the forgone conclusion of removing rock climbers from the Grampians. It begs the question — why? Given the devious way Parks Victoria have been dealing with this… not being upfront, not consulting, relying on falsehood after dis-proven falsehood, engaging in smear, having a plan all along… makes me wonder whether there is actually a whole lot more behind all this? There is certainly a lot going on. There are many political and practical factors to do with traditional owners and Traditional Owner groups which could lead a desire to remove climbers regardless. Whilst climbers are small in numbers, maybe we have our uses as political leverage for someone. For example, that Parks Victoria have been under pressure for failing to protect Aboriginal Cultural Heritage, there was talk of a threat of a $1.6 million dollar fine, and kicking out climbers would be a great way to make it look as if something was being done – when it wasn’t. Discussing the issues with regards to traditional owners is fraught, it’s a complex, there is a lot that is secretive, and sensitive, and emotions run high and so I’m not really interested in getting into it too much besides being about out of time. Suffice to say, the time I’ve spent with traditional owners in the area was entirely positive and they seemed to have no problem at all with climbers, so it’s not just a simple matter of “go and talk with the Traditional Owners and see what they want”, as some people advise. Since there is actually no Registered Aboriginal Party (RAP) for the Grampians, Aboriginal Victoria handles most of the issues. Of interest though, the Eastern Marr Aboriginal Corporation had a Native Title claim for much of the Grampians before the courts when the climbing bans were announced, that has since been dismissed or withdrawn, however just this week they have been granted RAP status for an area which extends from Anglesea to Port Fairy to Ararat, covering 7% of Victoria but NOT the Grampians. Then there is Treaty. Where climbers fit into the politics of all this is pretty hard to know. The point is, it’s not simple.

If it really was a choice between rock climbing OR Aboriginal Cultural Heritage, then the choice would be a lot simpler. But it is not. They can co-exist.

And then there’s the big one for Parks Victoria; it’s whole push to commodify and commercialise the park. Their signature project of course is the Grampians Peaks Trail, an 160km long 10 day walking trail, running the full length of the park. Costing $30 million and predicted to generate $6 million per annum. I don’t like to be negative but having explored some of the track last year, finding a lot of sections where construction had not even begun, I think this project is in trouble. It’s not just that I don’t see how this can possibly be ready this year as planned, I think the whole thing is ill-conceived and will turn out to be a massive, destructive, white elephant. It’s contrived, crossed by numerous roads, and with lots of long boring sections. It will be nothing like in the same class as the truly world-class walks Parks have compared it to. The environmental destruction being wreaked by this project is utterly appalling. People don’t fully realise what is going on yet because most of the construction is hidden. But take, for example, the tranquil Mt Zero Picnic Area, at the base of Flat Rock, which will be familiar to many climbers. This area, at the start of the walk, will see 24 new carparks, plus mini-bus and coach parking, carved out of the bush. I think it won’t be until the bulldozers start their work here before some people wake up to what is really going on.

It is not just that climbers are an easy scapegoat, and a distraction, whist this is occurring. We simply stand in the way of the whole push to commodify and commercialise the park.

From the Grampians Peaks Trail Master Plan.

Conclusion

I’ve never said that climbers and rock climbing are perfect. Like other user groups such as bush walkers, of course we have our impacts. Working with climbers to manage any environmental impacts and potential Cultural Heritage Impacts is usually not hard. If work is required to control erosion on a track or at the base of a popular cliff, then that can usually be arranged. If need be, areas can be closed, temporarily or permanently. But Parks Victoria’s handling of this will, I think, go down in history as a textbook example to other land managers of how not to do things. Climber groups have proposed a Crag Stewardship Program and a Climbing Management Plan, which includes site by site management, but these proposals have been ignored. Parks Victoria is now coming under increasing pressure from the media and from Parliament to work collaboratively with the rock climbing organisations to develop practical solutions in 2020.

Happy days.

The bans are unnecessary, extraordinarily excessive, hypocritical and counter-productive. These bans will concentrate environmental impacts on areas that are not ready or able to cope with the increased traffic. Closing some of the safest climbing in the state is seriously bad. The bans are hurting tourism, threatening livelihoods, destroying dreams and communities. There are climbers on anti-depressants. This is not going to end well. The excessiveness and unreasonableness of the bans could inflame racism. Local communities are angry; not just climbers. If Parks Victoria wanted to attempt to instigate the biggest climbing bans in history, for whatever reason, then, given history and current social injustice, they had a moral obligation to get it right — and to be seen to be getting it right. They should have been upfront, transparent, decisions should have been entirely “evidence based”, based on facts, as they are required to be. And it’s imperative the regulations are used correctly. They should have consulted and listened to the climbing community who have been repeatedly trying to tell them of problems and have been offering solutions. But now it is entirely clear that the supposed “bans” are based on some absolute falsehoods and the current Cultural Heritage Survey process is flawed. Will there need to be an inquiry? Park Victoria’s use of regulations will at least need to be tested in court.

As Ross Cawley put it: ” “This probably hurts the causes of Traditional Owners and Parks Vic in Gariwerd management way more than it helps them.” I agree but I’m not convinced everyone cares, provided virtue is signaled.

The Queensland climbing legend David Reeve likes to talk about how “we are all but actors on a stage”. And he’s right. The questions for me, once I’m dead and my ashes are scattered in the Grose Valley, is: will my daughter and future generations still have fair, free and responsible access to these unique places and experiences which are so important to individuals and society — and that have meant so much to me? And will the truly significant Aboriginal Cultural Heritage here have been preserved, or will the land managers and politicians have distracted themselves with an agenda to commodify these lands, whilst relying on that which is expedient — and falsehoods? I guess only time will tell.

Thanks for reading. Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

Simon Carter

 


Further reading: I thoroughly recommend the entire Save Grampians Climbing website for much more on this entire sad story.

Join the discussion 25 Comments

  • Luke Weatherstone says:

    Awesome article Simon, well done. 👌

  • Kate says:

    Thank you for investigating this Simon. Thank you for your efforts in finding answers.

  • Glenn Jones says:

    Well stated Simon. Nice to see truth

  • Gavin says:

    Thanks for your in-depth insights and research Simon. Incredibly detailed and thorough examination of the facts is necessary and bias in a ‘scientific survey’ is woefully underhand. I hope this debacle sees a just resolution as soon as possible.

  • Kate Heskett says:

    Thank you for the considerable amount of time and energy you and your team have put into this. I really appreciate the research undertaken to find the facts as the misinformation was doing my head in.

  • Kevin Patterson says:

    I agree. Public land rights must be defended. No special interest group should be allowed to take away the public rights. I don’t care if it’s mining or TO’s, it’s public land that at the same time belongs to no one and belongs to everyone. Kia Kaha Simon.

  • Michael Tonon says:

    Very well written Simon and great to see the truths behind the falsehoods used to portray climbers. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? I guess at this stage we shouldn’t be surprised by malicious defamatory accusations towards climbers. I struggle to see how much longer they can pull the wool over the public’s eyes.

  • Tony says:

    Well done Simon. The frustration is palpable.

  • Mark Witham says:

    Hi Simon
    What you have described is maladministration. Can you report this to the Ombudsman and Victoria’s IBAC. One of these agencies would be bound to investigate at no cost? Thanks for championing access for climbers. Mark

  • Tad Karapetian says:

    A well written response to the ludicrous happenings of the world around us. We all hope that this becomes a positive turning point for access to climbing in Australia.

  • Marty says:

    Fantastic stuff Simon – thank you so much for all your hard work.

    In the ABC clip, Simon Talbot claims there was only one photograph of over a hundred placed by “human error” and it was removed. Do you know about these other photos he refers to? He definitely made it sound like he thinks there is a lot of evidence. I just want to clear that question up… Thanks.

    • Thanks Marty. The “other 99” photos were promised to the ACAV but then they reneged. I’m fairly confident that from the pool of photos he was referring to, we’ve seen some of them on PVs web site among the “examples of climbers impacts”. Perhaps also in the Ministerial Brief and other things we’ve seen. They will definitely have photos of climbers impacts, and there will be a lot more now that they are running around doing surveys, but we also know that they are using photos that, in all logic, have nothing to do with climbers.

      • phil says:

        Excellent article, such a sad and frustrating situation. You jokingly mention referring some of the reporting to Media Watch but might actually be worth sending in to them??

    • Brett Michie says:

      A great piece of writing Simon, thank you for all your efforts and fact finding missions to save climbing from extinction in the Grampians.
      As a teenager, I remember sitting on the shop floor at Jurkie’s watching one of your brilliant slide shows, now some 28 years later your passion for climbing and what it means and does for people has never ever wavered. I truely admire your integrity and passion for climbing and especially for all the wild places in which we are privileged to climb. All the best and keep up the brilliant work.
      Cheers Brett

  • Gus says:

    Thank you Simon.
    Both a heartbreaking and infuriating read on what can only be described as an extremely well planned and executed travesty by PV, solely orchestrated with the intention to remove (non-controlled) climbing from wherever they see fit. Unfortunately, each days passing dwindles my confidence of any resolution in sight. There’s still a long battle ahead, pitched against a well resourced adversary that is narrow minded and evil in its methods of warfare.
    PV simply doesn’t care, can tie this up in red tape and (supposed) committee “talks” for years to come and all with no sense of accountability.

  • Ian Bail says:

    Your passion, time and effort are appreciated Simon. There’s a few places where emotion maybe got the better of you (from an unbiased journalistic stance) but the information you have presented largely appears valid and supports the need for a much more balanced discussion about ongoing management of the grampians. We live in a time when misinformation is propagated quickly and without rigorous journalistic checking, even by the major news sources. Your article certainly points to a sustainable future for climbing in this amazing place, and the need to reset the debate to a mindset of collaboration and mutual respect. I can only hope that this seemingly impossible breakthrough might be attractive to senior Parks executives as an opportunity to make their mark on the future of not only their own organisation and it’s relationship with the Victorian community, but also the landscapes their staff and the climbing community care about so much…

    • Thanks Ian for the great comment (and thanks to everyone else who also commented above!), glad you found it worthwhile. Haha, you are probably right about the emotion. I hope people are smart enough to realise that, either dressing something up to look more scientific, or being more emotive, isn’t going to change the facts. I want people, particularly the Parks Victoria managers reading this, to understand that people are being affected by this and they care. Indeed, let’s hope they do use this new information as an opportunity to reset their approach to this far more positively.

  • Aaron says:

    Hi Simon,

    It’s clear there are key questions that remain unanswered. I think the rigor of your investigation will eventually uncover the facts. I don’t understand what the beef is with rock climbers, in particular? Why not try to get to the bottom of the problem properly?

  • Lee Smith says:

    Dear Simon
    Congratulations on your well researched expose. What we are seeing is Parks Victoria’s dishonesty, an acquiescing government and academic incompetence.
    The wider impacts beyond climbing to the regional economic impacts are major. You cannot “fight city hall” ( Parks Victoria) with honest rebuttals; they have all the resources and reluctance to been seen to be poor managers and incompetent operators. Trying to make change using well considered evidence is clearly a waste of time when dealing with Parks Victoria and the Victorian government they report to. I suspect some radical alternative methods will need to be employed. I’ll convey them separately. Keep up your fight as it is relevant to climbing and outdoors activities across Australia if this Parks Victoria ban succeeds.
    Lee

  • keith lockwood says:

    Great work Simon, much appreciated. We also have a huge fight on our hands to save Arapiles for everyone and every culture. One concern I have is all the unsightly chalk in the climbing photos used to promote how environmentally sensitive we are. I think it shoots our arguments in the foot. Cheers, Nod

  • Kat says:

    Great read, feel like I am up to date on the situation. A spectacular selection of little wrongs coming together in a clusterfuck of unfairness.

    Thanks for your work!

  • Lance Leith says:

    Simon, your article is very well researched and presents a level-headed view of a really strange situation for climbers. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to climb a lot in the Gramps, I would like to know I could if I wanted to. I worry that the same dodgy political bullshit could hit crags across the country, especially in the Blueies. Keep up the good fight amigo, I really appreciate your passion and commitment to an awesome cause.

  • Robert Saunders says:

    Well done Simon, thanks for taking the time to give a full update on the last year of ‘mis-information’ , failed public procedures and unfounded accusation of the climbing community. It is truly astounding that there isn’t accountability here for their false accusations. I share your worry for the future of parks access and protection this is an absurd situation. The wider it is shared the more pressure for honest consultation to address actual issues and actual accountability will arise.

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