We speak to Dave Reeve, president of the Australian Climbing Association Queensland (ACAQ) about that entity and the formation of the Australian Climbing Association Victoria (ACAV)
Can you tell us what the ACAQ is and what it does?
ACAQ is a Queensland-based incorporated association narrowly focused on climbing access. We accumulate the monies we receive from memberships and donations into a fund that sits ready for that day when we will have to defend the access right of climbers in court. Of course, we’d rather that day didn’t come and, given the credible threat that both the fund and its declared purpose represent, we find meaningful negotiations toward common purpose is what normally happens.
Why did the ACAQ come into being?
Three climbers were fined for placing bolts in Flinders Cave and the cave was shut to climbing activity. That was over a decade ago. It’s a story that is bound to be played out again and again because climbers just want to climb, and as a group of independently-minded folk the idea of leading the charge, or being led, for that matter, doesn’t make any sort of sense. It takes a crisis to pull the group together and for a leader to arise. I had zero interest in access at that point in time when the Cave was closed, but it certainly grabbed my attention.
ACAQ was built upon the organisation that initially formed in response to the closure only to fall away again as it became obvious no one knew how to go about the task in hand. The fact we exist today, and the significant clout we wield, owes much to the incisive, visionary mind of Adam Gibson. Adam grabbed the branding of the failing ACA as it was about to be struck-off and repurposed it for a Queensland subunit of what was designed to become a national access entity. He understood the access body needed to operate as an umbrella organisation with the climbing clubs sitting beneath as associate members so that there could be no doubt that ACAQ was not just another climbing club, but in fact a service provider for the clubs and non-aligned individuals.
As the token old-time Qld climber I got chucked the job of President, but it wasn’t until I came out of my first few meetings with Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service (QPWS) – very fiery meetings I might add – that I realised my career experience had gifted me a suit of armour that was as fireproof as it was BS repellant. This could be a very fun challenge. We had willing people aplenty. We just needed to navigate the maze of the machinery of government.
How would you summarise the ACAQ philosophy?
- All decisions concerning public land must be testable as being in the public interest. The surest way to carve self-interest from the public interest is to frame the issue in terms of future others. This test needs to be applied to all actions concerning public land whether by stakeholders or land managers. It leads naturally to the concept of sustainability.
- Shun the spotlight of the media circus and the political clowns that act in the ring of popular appeal. Instead, zero-in on the machinery of government and the levers of power granted by the State Constitution. The machinery abides whereas the clowns come and go.
- Don’t make deals with individuals. You have no right to bind future others, nor do they. Pursue legislative remedy as the way to ensure the machinery of government operates in the public interest, and is transgenerational in impact.
- Draw everyone close, both friend and, especially enemy.
- Walk quietly but carry a big stick.
What have been some of the major successes of the ACAQ and what were the mechanisms used to achieve them?
There have been a number of battles over access that have come and gone. However, I don’t like to focus too much on any of them, because, although we present a very pugilistic public stance, the fight should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.
My measure of success is that the state of the climbing community in Queensland has shifted from black-ops skulking about in the bushes with a drill, to one where we stand up proudly as good stewards of the crags we love. Our relationship with land managers has changed from lapdog to guard dog.
What are the biggest mistakes that the ACAQ have made?
I’d like to think we have avoided big mistakes, although in hindsight often this was a matter of good luck rather than good management, especially in the early days. A couple of near misses would be a) almost being beguiled into signing an agreement with a land manger, thereby binding future others and b) being tempted to act as the crag policeman. As with all matters political, it is easy to lose sight of the real world when surrounded by your supporters. It is instant death by irrelevance for an access fund to fail to speak for absolutely all climbers. Both the above actions inherently are acts of exclusion.
How have the ACAQ’s tactics evolved over time?
There is no doubt we have sharpened our presentation towards being an access fund with a mission to seek legal and legislative remedy. We altered our Constitution last year to clarify this. My growing experience has convinced me that the problems in public land management both here in Queensland, but especially in other states, result from poorly drafted legislation being foisted upon a naïve civil society. A key future role of access funds will be to leave legislators and administrators in no doubt as to the management requirements for recreation on public lands.
What are the looming access problems in Queensland and what is the ACAQ doing about them?
As the Commonwealth process of settling Native Title on public land has ground slowly onwards, it has given rise to increasing numbers of Aboriginal parties who have standing in terms of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act. Public land manager’s minds are being exercised by the real possibility of a case being brought against them for negligence with respect to their duty of care to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage. This dynamic is starting to play out in all states. It is not going to go away.
There is a real risk that land managers will do what they have done in the past when the threat of legal action looms – close the park. We will do what we have always done in such cases – accuse them of ineptitude and demand they delve back into the ‘too hard basket’.
Aligning the aspirations of Traditional Owners with those of recreational park users is going to be difficult, but to consign it to the ‘too hard’ basket is all the shades of dumb, given that, on one hand, we have a group struggling to maintain connection to land, and on the other, a group reaching out to make connection to land. This is a solvable problem, but requires us to do what has not been done in the past – kick the land manager out of the way, and for us climbers to learn about the values of the areas we climb by walking on country with the genuine knowledge holders of cultural heritage. There is no other way.
What do you think are the critical factors that are contributing to the growing access issues in Australia?
The gyms provide the climbing experience packaged as a product. Entry to the sport is as simple as walking into a ‘shop’ and grabbing what you want.
It should not come as a surprise that a percentage of folks having experienced indoor climbing will seek to go outdoors. However, this is not simply a matter of shifting patronage to a ‘shop’ a bit further afield. It calls for an abrupt mind shift. Whilst the gym provides an experience to be consumed, the outdoor experience is immersive and cannot be consumed in the same way. It requires significant self-reliance, a commitment to the welfare of others and, above all, a sense of stewardship with respect to the environment.
Undoubtedly gyms and clubs have a role in providing the leadership necessary to facilitate the transition from consumer to steward, but there is no avoiding the fact that high volumes of newbies, more consumer than steward, will be hitting a relatively small number of newbie-friendly crags over the next few years. This is an access problem in the making, but one where we can put away the legislative stick, and move into a more cooperative role with land managers to locate and develop newbie-hardened crags to soak up this influx from the gyms.
This approach has been working for us in the Glasshouse Mountains National Park, where we have been employing a policy of sucking the large numbers of beginners down off the main mountains onto newbie-specific crags. Taking the deliberate action to cater for beginners is a winner for all concerned. The environment wins because foot-fall is controlled, the beginners get a safe outdoor environment in which they absorb what it means to be an outdoors climber, and experienced climbers don’t have newbies causing dramas on the big wall climbs.
How many members does the ACAQ have?
Hard figures are difficult to ascertain because the bulk of our membership comes from associate club memberships, and with Uni clubs these fluctuate quite a bit, but it has been fairly stable in the range 450 to 550 for the past few years.
How is that membership engaged in the work the ACAQ does or are they largely passive?
Most of that membership is engaged in the sense they support what we are doing. Our Facebook group maintains active engagement levels of the order of 1500 to 1700. So a lot of people follow access issues, which I find surprising considering that it is pretty dull stuff compared with climbing.
However, the core business is conducted by a small team of maybe five to ten people. This is not surprising given access is a highly technical game, and for many of our supporters, as much as they would love to help out, they are quite normal, well-adjusted types, and lack the quirk that makes legal and administrative technicalities anything other than opaque.
What is the relationship between the ACAQ and other Queensland-based climbing groups?
ACAQ is an umbrella group, and does no more than provide an access advocacy service to the clubs. We have zero input in club affairs.
Does the ACAQ have any strong relationships with international climbing bodies?
No, we don’t. A time might come where it makes sense to do so, but we’d need to be a much larger organisation than we are now to justify the time and effort that would be expended in pursuit of such a goal.
Recently the ACAV was created in Victoria, what do you think the ACAV will be able to achieve that organisations like the VCC (and its associated CliffCare) can’t?
ACAV is taken from the ACAQ template, and thus is an umbrella organisation setup to provide access advocacy services to all clubs and independent climbers, a thing quite apart from the social climbing network provided by clubs like VCC.
Quite apart from the fact that a club should operate for the benefit of its members, and thus cannot, and arguably should not, represent all climbers, there is the major problem of getting the pin-sharp focus on legislative matters. ACAV and ACAQ declare within their respective Constitutions the exact Acts of Parliament that are within the ambit of each. There can be no doubt to those who join these organisations, and to land managers lurking in the background, that the intention is to hold land managers accountable.
Because the ACA organisations have aligned Constitutions, it is possible for the funds and resources of the entire group to be brought to bear on a specific problem. Thus ACAV, although it will focus on Victorian issues, has the rapidly growing clout of the national body. In terms of legislative focus and sheer lawfare capability, there is no way a single social climbing club could achieve this end.
Is your feeling that every state should have an ACAQ-type organisation?
Absolutely. Now is the time to get organised, not waiting until crags are closed. Even if a state has no specific access problems brewing, the act of getting just the shell of an ACA organisation in place is very worthwhile. Funds are everything, and putting money away in a well-regulated access fund is to buy insurance for the future. And, importantly, as I mention above, the structure of the organisations are such that funds can be deployed from between states allowing the combined funds to cast a chill on any over-reaching land manager no matter where they are in the country.
Why is the current movement angling towards independent state entities rather than a single national representative body?
This is the legal/constitutional reality we have in Australia. All apparently national entities are in fact comprised of legally-independent state entities. Ultimately we will effect a national ACA branding, but this will have no legal force as an organisation. Each State organisation functions independently under the appropriate State legislation.
How is the ACAQ responding to environmental impact concerns?
We have very many crags situated on land tenured as national park. If we are to serve future others through our actions, then we must support the national park system. If legislation is inadequate, then we should work to improve it. If land managers fail to execute legislation properly we must hold the responsible Minister accountable. If damage is being done at the crag, then we must cultivate the stewardship to heal it.
How does the ACAQ interpret laws relating to the placing of bolts on public land?
The location of bolting, especially sport-bolting, has a major impact on where environmental and cultural damage will occur. The damage caused by the bolts themselves is minor, but the crowds that they attract are a definite issue.
We have long argued that it is impractical for a land manager to closely control bolting activities for two reasons. A) It is not possible to have rangers positioned partway up a gazillion cliff faces, or behind every bush and boulder. B) The department will not have the domain knowledge, and to pretend to do so is to open the door to potential claims of negligence. It would be much better to push the issue of bolting back onto the climbing community with motherhood statements about best practice, international standards compliance and so forth.
However, just because it is hard for land managers to control bolting, this doesn’t mean the community can then do what the hell they like. We need to work with land managers to ensure high-traffic cliff developments don’t spring up in locations where the conservation values cannot be sustained. At some point, we need to accept, actually more than just accept, be very happy, that the land manager has the teeth to bite the completely irresponsible individual. Whilst an access fund can cajole, it should never act the ‘crag policeman’. This function must remain with the apparatus of State and the land manager.
Though there has been no formal communication about liability on public lands, does the ACAQ have a response to liability issues?
I don’t think there has ever been a meeting between climbing representatives and a land manager where the public liability ‘elephant in the room’ hasn’t distorted the conversation. He frequently comes bearing the charge that climbers are causing damage to natural and/or heritage values. And indeed, there may be damage occurring, but understanding the issue in the context of striking a balance between presentation and preservation is well-nigh impossible with an elephant inserted in the process. Senior bureaucrats care deeply about million-dollar negligence claims landing on their desks, especially when they are five years out from retirement. It doesn’t get much worse than this, and a smart bureaucrat will use the trick of putting a moratorium on a problem activity until he has safely retired, making it someone else’s problem.
ACAQ believe that if the public land manager can be shielded from the public liability associated with bolted infrastructure, we will be able to expel the elephant, and get a bit of oxygen into the room. Only once this is done, will it be possible to talk about balancing recreational values against conservational/heritage values in a way that works for future others.
Within ACAQ, we have been working on a proposal to amend the Qld Civil Liability Act in a way that shields the land manager from the public liability associated with bolts. It is not at all simple to do this, but we believe that the future good management of public and private lands for recreational climbing is dependent upon such a legislative change.
Has the ACAQ had to deal with private landowners to secure access and if so what has it done in this space?
The ACAQ works within the system of laws to build access for future others. We don’t do deals with private landowners simply because there is no way such arrangements can persist. Certainly, individual climbers, or groups of climbers can make informal deals, but, it is worthy of note that SEQ is dotted with closed crags that came about when such arrangements went sour.
There are a number of relatively straight-forward ways in which legally-secure permanent or long-term access could be arranged for crags on private land. However, all of them attract a burden of public liability associated with the bolted infrastructure. The cost of insurance to underwrite such liability is enough to render the approach impractical. However, if the Civil Liability Act was to be amended then a door opens to negotiating access with private landowners.
There are a lot of whispers that the bans put in place in the Grampians are due to PV’s plans to commercialise the park, do you have an opinion on this?
To make sense of what is happening here, you need to look at the wider Australian, and perhaps US experience. Society is becoming more affluent, more urban, and people are more often seeking outdoor recreational experiences that are commodified. Whether you approve or disapprove, is rather beside the point. From an access point of view, we need to understand these large-scale societal changes so that we are better prepared.
There can be no doubt the park system is being steadily commercialised. If you have a scale of camping fees based on a user-pays model, then you are already on that slippery-slope. The fact that an Act enabling further commercialisation of public land, the Parks Victoria Act, passed through Parliament with bipartisan support is a sure indicator of the nature of things to come.
Were the bans put in place by PV to support future commercialisation? I doubt PV are capable of that level of directed thinking. But, having said that, it is unlikely to be pure chance that restrictions on climbing were invoked under the National Parks Regulations just months after the new PV quango (a semi-public administrative body outside the civil service but receiving financial support from the government, which makes senior appointments to it) was constituted. A quick assessment of what recreational climbing brings to the plus side of the ledger, compared with what a penalty under the Aboriginal Heritage Regulations would subtract, makes one think that this action is simply the consequence of commercial logic formed in the mind of upper management, people with no notion of the levels of engagement of recreational climbers with the park. In this matter PV have been woefully misinformed, and will suffer the consequences.