Parks Victoria (PV) rangers once again seem to be overreaching their powers when it comes to interacting with climbers
Just under two weeks ago, on the Melbourne Cup weekend, a friend of VL’s was heading into Ruined Castle in the southern Grampians/Gariwerd. In a group with four other climbers, they had parked their car at the corner of the Glenelg River Rd and the Waterworks Track and were making their way into the crag when they were stopped by two PV rangers.
Just to be clear, Ruined Castle and the crags around it are not in any Special Protection Area (SPA) and climbing is allowed there.
This pair of rangers informed the group of climbers that they were not allowed to climb in the area, saying ‘Just so you know this whole area is in an SPA, so no climbing’. The climbers were wary of causing a confrontation describing the interaction as ‘icy’. When questioned one of the rangers admitted that he didn’t know the area. The rangers stood around looking intimidating and then drove off very fast. The climbers left the area.
Rangers are not legally obliged to give out their names, so our friend only found out their first names (and even then one was a nickname). An interesting detail was that one of the rangers was wearing a now-infamous tactical vest, which included a pair of handcuffs hanging off it.
We emailed PV asking specifically why rangers would be patrolling this area, why they didn’t appear to be familiar with the boundaries of the SPAs, why the rangers were dressed like paramilitary and also inquiring as to what powers they have (ie can they make arrests?).
In response, we received the following email from PV’s communications team for Western Victoria:
Parks Victoria regularly undertakes compliance operations to educate visitors about their potential impact on Victoria’s special places and, where required, enforce the regulations that protect cultural heritage and native plants and animals.
Over the Melbourne Cup weekend, Parks Victoria staff spoke with a handful of people with climbing equipment near Special Protection Areas who were advised about the restrictions on climbing.
This included three people illegally camping in a van on Harrop Track beyond a road closed sign, who were also advised about camping at a designated area but were not asked to leave.
Obviously these nothing-words are deflective. It addresses none of the questions we asked, questions that seem entirely reasonable in light of climbers being told that they are not allowed to climb in an area that they are legally allowed to climb in.
We pushed back on this answer from PV and received a second email with slightly more details:
No park visitors were directed to leave a Special Protection Area.
Some people near a Special Protection Area were given information about climbing restrictions.
Only Parks Victoria employees participate in Parks Victoria compliance operations.
There is no requirement for an Authorised Officer to be in uniform and there are operational reasons why officers may work out of uniform.
Sometimes Authorised Officers from other regions support compliance operations. These officers are accompanied by staff familiar with the area.
Advanced Authorised Officers are trained and authorised under law (Control of Weapons Act 1990) to carry and use operational safety equipment (including handcuffs). This is sometimes required to deal with offenders who are violent and obstructive.
It is deeply concerning that PV have taken ‘Near Special Protection Areas’ as grounds for intimidating climbers into leaving an area. This ‘Near enough is good enough’ approach could also be influenced by the fact that the rangers allegedly admitted they didn’t know the area in which they were patrolling.
Given the non-answers from PV’s communications team, we spoke to an ex-ranger who explained the reason for the tactical vest and handcuffs. In the past PV employees who were involved in compliance operations worked hand-in-hand with Victoria Police. In the course of those operations it became an Occupation Heath & Safety issue that there was a big discrepancy in the protection offered to Victoria Police employees (who have bullet-proof vests, etc) and that of PV employees, so the decision was made to create a compliance team who are equipped equivalently to Victoria Police. This compliance team is then sent around the state to deal with compliance issues that vary from more serious cases to low level compliance issues. This explains the paramilitary uniform , it also explains why the rangers who stopped our friend didn’t know the area – they weren’t local rangers. The obvious dissonance here is that there was a discrepancy between the two rangers in question, one of who was dressed in flak jacket and had handcuffs, and one who wasn’t.
Why the PV communication team hasn’t explained the uniforms of compliance officers earlier seems odd, as many climbers have been confused and agitated by the seemingly heavy-handed approach to compliance.
The paramilitarisation of public officers who engage with the community can easily be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate the public into being more compliant.
What you can do;
- Be polite. No one wants to end up in handcuffs being extraordinarily rendered in a black-ops Hilux.
- Know where you are. Make sure that you are not in an SPA and educate rangers about your rights. There is no question about climbing in areas that are not in SPAs.
- Remember climbing is not an evil pursuit that is destroying the world and you are allowed to do it.
Finally, if you’re interested in finding out about PV’s enforcement and compliance powers on its website, this is what you will find, which seems somewhat symbolic of PV’s communication strategy in general.