We chat to Vanessa Wills, one of the driving forces behind the formation of the Australian Climbing Association New South Wales
Why does NSW need a climbing access association?
The closures currently affecting the Grampians should be enough to convince climbers that a strategic presence and a credible voice in access is vitally important. Each state has different regulations concerning access to public lands. Therefore although the Australian Climbing Association Queensland (ACAQ) and the Australian Climbing Association Victoria (ACAV) share common objectives, NSW needs to form its own advocacy body, and this needs be incorporated so there is legal protection for its members.
There are differences in the Acts that govern access for climbing between states, for instance the National Parks and Wildlife Act, Crown Lands Act, Forestry Act and Civil Liability Act in NSW are different than those in Queensland and Victoria. The governance of organisations such as Forestry and National Parks and how Aboriginal heritage is recognised and managed also differs. However, there is also much common ground, and the state organisations can share much in the way of information and strategy, and it is anticipated that all the bodies could unite under a single national body if a case needed to be addressed under Federal Law, or for a nationally significant access issue.
NSW has suffered for some time from the lack of a unified and active state-wide climbing access organisation. This became apparent to me when we sought help in 2014 to address the seemingly sudden ban on climbing at Bulahdelah, a well-established crag of 400 routes in state forest 100 km north of Newcastle. The reason the Forestry Corporation could suddenly ban climbing was because they had quietly written into their regulations a decade earlier that climbing without a permit was illegal. Similar dangerous amendments lurk in many land manager’s regulations. Climbing could be legally banned at many of our cliffs at any time.
How do you see an access association functioning in NSW?
NSW has more climbers, more climbing areas and less cohesion at present than any other state. It would be impossible to deal with all these areas as a centralised volunteer organisation.
The structure we are working towards is to have one state wide organisation supported by regional climbing coalitions. The state entity will engage at an official level with government and its departments to ensure fair access through stakeholder meetings, plan of management submissions, regulation amendments and law reform.
The climbing coalition’s regions will roughly align with the current NPWS Park Operation Branches, namely Coffs and North Coast, Hunter and Central Coast, Sydney, Illawarra and South Coast, New England and Northern Slopes and Plains, Blue Mountains, Southern Highlands, Kosciuszko and southern inland. Bouldering needs its own representatives and we need to work closely with existing organisations such as the Sydney Rock Climbing Club, Canberra Climbing Association, Sports Climbing NSW and university clubs, TAFE and Scouts and other outdoor agencies.
Major roles for the coalitions will be to be involved in crag stewardship, education and resolving local issues. We would hope that existing clubs, gyms and crag care groups interact collaboratively in each region.
What are the objectives of a NSW access association?
There are two main aspects to access and our objectives are to work with climbers, and land managers at all levels to achieve fair access and look after the cliff environment.
- Access: dealing with the laws and regulations by which access to public land is granted and denied. Other laws such as the Civil Liability Act also impact on the willingness of land managers to permit inherently dangerous activities on the land under their jurisdiction. An access society must engage at a governmental level to prepare submissions, participate in stakeholder groups and where necessary challenge in the court of law the right for fair access.
- Stewardship: with rights come responsibilities. Climbers must care for the environment, respect Aboriginal and cultural heritage and be respectful of other user groups. Practicing Leave No Trace principles when in a natural environment will help climbing remain sustainable as more people head outdoors. Educating climbers to embrace and protect nature rather than to try and conform it to gym-like familiarity is essential.
Isn’t it best to just keep quiet?
Climbing can no longer fly under the radar as it has for many years. The growing number of climbers, and their potential impacts on our natural places and heritage need to be managed to protect these assets and to make the recreation sustainable. Climbers have perpetuated the concept of terra nullius by feeling entitled to ‘develop’ crags without considering whether they are impacting on areas of cultural heritage important to Aboriginal groups, or on flora or fauna.
It is vitally important that we acknowledge at the start of the process that we are climbing on Country. Areas of stark geological relief are often places of great spiritual importance, and there is the potential for misunderstanding or conflict if these aspects are not addressed proactively by climbers with respectful enquiry.
It is also important that there is protection for flora and fauna as cliff environments provide a fragile and restricted habitat. Climbing should also not have negative impacts on other user groups. This pertains also to us as a user group – infighting between staunch trad climbers and staunch sports climbers or bouldering does nothing to help climbing for all.
It appears to me that land managers still consider climbing a fringe activity that is best managed by restriction. Denying climbers access where there is no legitimate requirement, mostly due to fear of liability, is the ultimate in lazy management and this needs to be contested.
The ease and scale of development with modern bolting equipment does need some checks and balances. Bolts can paradoxically provide protection to the environment and minimise impact, for instance at the tops of routes to protect vegetation above. However, issues such as preservation of wilderness and its intrinsic value need to be considered. Climbers need to grapple with these concepts and work with land managers who often are trying to do their best with limited resources. However, land managers need to change their thinking around bolts. Just as they are prepared to build expensive walkways to cater for a user group who can’t walk on rough tracks, they need to recognise that bolted routes have their place in current climbing and give due consideration to the use of bolts in areas where it is appropriate rather than respond with a blanket ‘no’ to bolts.
What are some of the issues currently occurring in NSW?
Without going into specifics, the major current issues revolve around:
- improved cultural awareness in respect to Aboriginal groups and trying to demystify climbing;
- Land managers concern about public liability;
- The push by Government to corporatise management of public land and assign a dollar value to everything;
- uniting climbers for a common good; and
- gaining traction as a legitimate user group.
What are the next steps?
The association will need to form and become incorporated. This is a process currently taking place with a broad working party behind it. It needs only five members and a constitution to initiate the process.
From there the association will be open for people to join as members, and hopefully many people will feel motivated to help create and define their regional groups and participate in local stewardship activities. These coalitions are already starting to form in some areas ahead of incorporation with Crag Care activities scheduled in Sydney, the Hunter, Illawarra and, as has happened for many years, the Blue Mountains. We will be starting to invite people to help with these activities. I am sure the structure of the coalitions will evolve quite rapidly, and be different between areas, but there are Facebook discussions on a daily basis around stewardship, so hopefully a coalition can move these in a direction that is educative and promotes change where needed, rather than just degenerating into dog fights.
The state wide organisation has need for people with skills across many areas such as law, finance, botany, bush regeneration, marketing, film production, track work, geology, computing and so on.
As a volunteer operation, everyone is busy and would rather be climbing, but hopefully the community can come together and work towards protecting the activity that we love and the landscape in which we do it. Hopefully some of the talented people can volunteer their skills in helping the organisation develop.
I am fortunate to just be starting nine weeks vacation, so hopefully will have some time to coordinate paperwork to the Department of Fair Trading. We aim to be incorporated and accepting members by October.
Even before incorporation we have been quite busy putting in submissions for National Parks and pursuing other local access issues. We will disseminate submissions prior to the due date, and ask people to add their own submissions. Hopefully this will give people an introduction to some of the workings of an access organisation. Climbers are a talented bunch and we are hoping many people will be keen to get involved.
The plan is to have an annual general meeting within six months and have all positions open for election.