Parks Victoria’s Dirty War on Rock Climbers in the Grampians
Simon Carter is a professional outdoors photographer recognized internationally for his distinctive rock climbing photography. Here he shares his thoughts on recently announced bans to rock climbing areas in the Grampians National Park.
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 cultural heritage sites.
The job at hand is to balance the rights of climbers, while maintaining minimal environmental impact and preserving Aboriginal cultural heritage.
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, again, it has—then surely there have to be better ways to approach it than what we have seen of late.
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.
Blanket bans have now been imposed on rock climbing, which affects nearly half of the good crags and the vast majority of the good bouldering areas.These bans have been imposed by Parks Victoria unilaterally, without consultation with the climbing community, without satisfactory justification, without transparency and without sign of due process.
The bans have been accompanied by appalling communication, over-the-top hypocrisy, and a failing in Parks Victoria’s obligations to climbers as a user group.
The Initial Bans
For a lot of climbers, the first sign that there was a real access problem brewing in the Grampians was on November 4, 2018.
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 that had the word “draft” across it to back up his claim.
The climbers were shocked and bewildered but did what they were told—which must have been disappointing, given they had flown halfway 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 actions of the ranger that weekend were not endorsed by management. I thought that would be the end of the matter.
It was not until Monday, February 11, 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 Parks Victoria informed climbers 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 these were.
Finally, at 5 p.m. on the Friday of that week, Parks released maps that identified the eight areas. And on the following Monday in a radio interview, Talbot came out swinging against climbers. The following is the transcript of the radio interview Talbot did with ABC Ballarat’s Steve Martin:
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 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 not, as far as I can best determine,“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 Parks’ cornerstone arguments to justify the Grampians climbing bans.
It is significant because this false accusation has become accepted as factc and may well be influencing decision-making at the highest levels, will have likely damaged climbers’ reputation in the eyes of the public and inflamed Traditional Owners’ anger towards climbers.
But, to make it worse, I discovered something appalling. I recently visited Parks’ Frequently Asked Questions page, which had 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 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 that the bolt in the Parks Victoria photo was not a climber’s safety bolt at all; it was one placed 30-plus 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. Even so, the bolt didn’t need to go there.
Years later, the original cage was removed, a larger cage installed, and the bolt stud was left there sticking into the rock. So in short: someone had taken a photo of this 30-plus year old land managers’ bolt, and Parks Victoria published it on its website as an example of what climbers were allegedly doing in the Grampians.
It was a fabrication being used to back up a false accusation. Coming from a government department no less. It is appalling and inexcusable.
…And Then The Bans Expanded
As I write, it is more than nine weeks since the original bans of the eight target areas were announced, and yet, incredibly, Parks has 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 that climbers doing so?
Over the intervening months since the ban’s announcement, there has been a lot of speculation and angst among climbers, not helped by unclear and often contradictory messaging from Parks.
Messaging started coming out that climbing in the Special Protection Areas (SPA) was actually prohibited, and on March 20, Parks confirmed this in new content published to their FAQs page.
These bans completely fly in the face of recent prior communications from Parks that had declared climbing was open at virtually all of the SPAs. Parks now says you won’t currently be prosecuted for climbing in the SPA, but you may well get “educated,” and fined for anything else.
Rangers have been turning up at legal campsites at 8 a.m. wearing tactical vests, standing over and exchanging terse words with climbers who were eating their breakfast. Climbers have reported feeling intimidated.
So has something been lost in communication? Parks Victoria’s messaging says, “There are still hundreds of known climbing areas in the Grampians National Park available for people to enjoy.” But that is misleading.
I happen to be the publisher of Grampians Climbing, the current Grampians climbing guidebook, and we’ve calculated that roughly 45 percent of the routes in the Grampians guidebook (including many of the best areas) are affected by the ban. And it has been calculated that some 70 percent of the bouldering has been lost.
Other Justifications of the Bans
In addition to “rock bolting going into some of the paintings,” Parks Victoria has been coming up with all sorts of other problematic justifications for the bans.
The Growth of Climbing
Parks claims astronomical growth of climbing, citing 80,000 climbers per year, and 20 percent year-over-year growth. Perhaps the sight of 200 climbers turning up for a bouldering festival spooked them but Parks’ figures are wrong and they have been debunked—for the proper numbers, see here.
There would be few exact ways to measure the growth of climbing in the Grampians, but as publisher of the main Grampians climbing guidebook, I can assure my sales are not going up and average around 500 per year (418 in 2018). I would expect an increase if there was strong growth.
As for the establishment of new routes and areas, this has actually slowed to a trickle in recent years. The good stuff is obvious and was climbed on long ago.
In the Grampians virtually all of the climbing is far away from tourist areas and walking tracks. If tracks ever come close, it is managed appropriately.
The Development of Informal Walking Tracks (using chainsaws?!)
This is another unsubstantiated claim from Parks Victoria. Where? When? The track to The Gallery was rerouted many years ago, in an awesome collaborative effort which had climbers and rangers working together to make a new better track. In that scenario, the rangers used a chainsaw to cut through a few fallen trees for the track. But rangers use chainsaws all the time, too.
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. I’ve not heard of climbers doing so, and if they are they as well should be fined and dealt with accordingly.
Parks refers to “graffiti chalk,” but chalk is not graffiti, it doesn’t even fit the definition of the word. ABC TV’s 7:30 show visited numerous locations in the Grampians with Parks Victoria in this segment. They looked at numerous examples of graffiti that Parks attributes to climbers; but they are clearly the work of actual vandals.
I could go on and further dredge the depths of falsehoods, pettiness and hypocrisy, but suffice to say it’s pretty clear Parks Victoria has been engaging in a dishonest campaign against climbers in a belated effort to justify the bans.
Implications of the Bans
There will be some serious implications if these bans become permanent.
Businesses 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, healthcare workers, teachers, government officers, engineers, etc.) and boosting the area economically and culturally. Parks says they understand the importance of climbing in the region. I don’t think they do.
These bans are actually dangerous. When you close 45 percent of the Grampians’ best climbing, which actually includes some of the safest crags in Victoria for beginners, and force climbers to go elsewhere, they will undoubtedly end up on more dangerous routes. There has not been a climbing fatality in years; let’s hope it stays that way.
Funneling climbers into fewer areas will only increase any impacts on those areas. This is an appalling “management” decision.
Protection of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage will be no better off. After 70 years of climbing in the Grampians, the record of climbers is virtually unblemished, and definitely better than most other user groups and the land managers themselves. But by banning climbers from these areas, you lose our stewardship, our eyes and ears in the bush.
Parks and the Victorian Government are currently spending $30 million to build the Grampians Peaks Trail. This is a major tourism project for the region. The 144-kilometer-long walking super-highway, which extends the length of the park, involves bulldozing 60 kilometers of new trail through virgin bush and upgrading other tracks. It didn’t need to be done, but the government justifies it based on the $6.39 million it is expected to generate each year.
Wreaking this destruction to then be carrying on about a few climbers footpaths in the bush, many of which have been there for decades? The hypocrisy should not be lost on anyone.
Parks Victoria representatives like to talk about “protecting the values of the park,” but they are actually destroying them through a failure to understand what those values actually are, and what the real threats to the park actually are (such as introduced species and fire management).
When people ask me what my favorite place in the world to climb is, I answer the Grampians—or I used to until the bans. 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. I moved to the nearby town of Natimuk and bought my first house there in 1995. I’ve seen the influx of climbers to the region and seen the area boom economically and culturally. The love of the global climbing community for this place has been underestimated.
Many climbers resent the way Parks has engaged in this smear campaign and failed in its obligations to us as a user group. In particular, we resent the way Parks Victoria has dishonestly attempted to inflame tensions with Traditional Owners. We genuinely want to work with them to ensure we are not upsetting anyone and ensure all relevant laws are strictly followed.
At the very least, Parks owes it to climbers to reverse the ban of the SPAs immediately. Climbers won’t rest until this is fixed.
For more information see Save Grampians Climbing and CLIFFCARE VICTORIA.
And if you care, please support and join (and donate to!) the AUSTRALIAN CLIMBING ASSOCIATION VICTORIA.
This is an edited version of the article that first appeared on Simon Carter’s site at www.onsight.com.au.
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