Parks Victoria released its new draft management plan for Gariwerd/Grampians last year. We take a look at the draft from a climbing perspective.
What does the Greater Gariwerd Landscape Management Plan mean for climbing?
It vastly decreases the opportunities for roped climbing – particularly hard, quality climbing – and it basically eliminates bouldering.
We truly believe that the cultural and environmental values of the park need to be protected, because they are the very things that make us want to spend time in Gariwerd. We support Traditional Owners as co-managers of the park, we’d be particularly interested to see how Indigenous burning practices may be re-introduced. At present Park Victoria’s (PV) fire management is a disaster, and we worry intensely about the future of the park as our climate warms.
It is important to note that this is a draft, it is not set in stone. If PV is true to the process of consultation then submissions that contain reasoned arguments for change should result in the draft being amended before the plan is implemented. Which is all the more reasons why every climber should be putting in a submission or signing onto a submission (see the end of this article).
However, if this draft becomes The Plan, rock climbing in Victoria may be well on the way to becoming an indoor sport, particularly if the same approach is extended to nearby Mt Arapiles/Dyurrite.
The plan is a policy failure. Parks Victoria’s failure to manage climbing within the park over the past 30+ years has resulted in Parks rushing to institute wide spread bans as their major tool of management. Banning is not managing. This plan is an excessive response to a problem that could be managed in consultation with climbers, who have extensive knowledge and the will – if we were used as a resource – to apply a workable plan that less drastically alters our access to climbing while still protecting the cultural heritage and environmental values of the park.
But we also have to own our part. Climbers have largely had the run of Gariwerd and that has resulted in many of the issues cited by land managers. Erosion, the proliferation of fixed protection, track cutting, chalk use, have contributed to the concern of land managers and only a small number of climbers have tried to address these issues. We understand that climbing can’t go on the way it always has, but we also think that the management of climbers could be done far more fairly and effectively than the way proposed in the Draft, in a way that protects cultural and environmental values through a more granular approach to access based on site-specific regulations rather than lazy and ill-conceived blanket bans.
Some of the headlines of this draft plan: about 20% of roped climbing and six percent of bouldering will remain (in the very best case scenario, likely it will be less). Not all routes are created equal and most of the best climbing areas will be closed, while an ocean of choss that no one normally bothers to climb will remain open. To quote the Victorian Climbing Club’s submission on the draft plan:
At first glance, the fact that climbing is allowed at 86 out of 281 areas listed would indicate that climbing is still allowed at 31 percent of climbing areas. However, over 200 climbing sites have been overlooked and are not in the Plan. Climbs in Designated Climbing Areas account for only 20% of all climbs in Gariwerd.
We like the analogy that the VCC uses (which we’ve used ourselves): it’s a bit like saying surfing is closed at Bells Beach, Johanna, Winki Pop and Gunnamatta, but don’t worry you can still surf in Port Phillip Bay.
Furthermore, no new climbing areas may be established, no additional fixed protection placed, white chalk will be outlawed and (possibly) replaced with coloured chalk, bouldering mats will be banned in most places (although it’s probably irrelevant as bouldering will mostly have ceased to exist), climbers will only be able to access cliffs along Parks Victoria-managed tracks and climbers will require a yearly permit (that while free is something that no other parks users are required to have).
Rather than designating Special Protection Areas (SPAs) where climbers cannot climb, the draft plan introduces a traffic light system: red (Climbing Not Permitted) designates areas where climbing is banned, orange (Possible Climbing Areas, under review) where the status of climbing is still to be determined and green-means-go areas (Designated Climbing Areas). Somewhat confusing the traffic light metaphor, there are also crags designated blue, which are open only to fee-paying Licenced Tour Operators (Designated Climbing Areas, LTOs only); there are three of these areas (mostly in Summerday Valley). Blue may be symbolic of the way many climbers feel about this draft plan.
While roped climbing is severely curtailed, particularly hard sport climbing, under the proposed plan bouldering is basically dead.
The two main bouldering areas around Halls Gap, the Bleachers and the Valley of the Giants, will be closed, while more bouldering areas around Mt Stapylton will be closed, including Trackside and the Snakepit, which increased in popularity in response to the initial bans. In fact there actually doesn’t seem to be any designated climbing area where boulderers can go. Estimates suggest that of the existing published bouldering areas around six percent will still remain free to climb. This highlights one of the big problems with the plan, which pushes the growing bouldering population into a small area, all but guaranteeing an increase in environmental impact as a result. It’s hard to see how this does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to yet more closures. This does not appear to be a sustainable solution.
The plan has a host of inconsistencies. Climbers are barred from visiting crags that are not on official tracks, yet bushwalkers, birdwatchers or any other member of the public may go off-track. Bushwalkers often visit popular off-track areas in the same way that climbers visit crags, i.e. they create a footpad. This unequal application of the rules is discriminatory.
Other inconsistencies have been visible for some time. Hollow Mountain Cave is closed to climbing and yet a major walking trail continues to go right past and the cave is full of graffiti (see the photo below) that’s clearly been scratched or painted onto the rock by walkers (just before the Hollow Mountain Cave the PV track also goes straight over rock quarry sites, a fact PV conveniently continues to ignore).
No other user group will be required to get a permit. A permit that focuses on cultural heritage education, safety, best practice and individual responsibility might have some positive impact, but it is another matter if the main purpose of a free permit would be simply to have the opportunity to take it away. There are obvious privacy concerns with this registering of all climbers and it is not unreasonable to think that the permit register is preparation for the dolling out punishments.
National parks are increasingly seen as economic assets as much as natural ones. Current trends suggest that land managers see two main options when viewing parks as economic assets: they may spend a lot of money in an attempt to capture the lucrative mountain bike market, competing in an increasingly cluttered field to become the “next Derby”. Or they create a wilderness walk that is accessible to any moderately fit person – see the Three Capes in Tasmania – doing so by building high impact tracks and camping infrastructure that attracts a broad range of people prepared to pay a premium for the experience. Prima facie neither of these is bad, having more people more active more often in the outdoors is good for physical and mental health as well as generating a connection with the environment that can spur action to protect it. The drawback is that if cheaper or free options are not available then public assets ostensibly for the use of everyone are not actually for the use of everyone, just those who can afford to pay. There are also reasons to be suspicious of the interface of public land and private enterprise in our parks.
But the draft is further proof that PV accepts some environmental damage to the park for one set of high-value users – bushwalkers, for whom a 160km track is being built, along with highly visible campsites with permanent structures and plans for four-bed luxe cabins – while similar allowances are not going to be made for climbers. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that rather than trying to manage climbers as a user group PV wants to take what they view as an easier option, which is simply to mostly ban climbing. And it’s easy to ban us as we’re relatively small in number and currently divided, whereas the day-visit tourism that creates so much damage within the park is massive and impossible to ban without a huge uproar.
Incidentally, bushwalkers may be surprised and saddened to learn that they can no longer wild camp. Instead, if you want to go overnight bushwalking in Gariwerd the only place you will be permitted to do so will be on the Grampians Peaks Trail, which you will have to book and pay for. There will be no camping in solitude in some wild nook of Gariwerd, instead you’ll be forking out cash to camp on a platform with a bunch of strangers. PV’s motto is ‘Healthy Parks, Healthy People’ but not all people will be able to afford to pay to camp on the Grampians Peaks Trail and even if they were the numbers for this ‘wild’ experience will be restricted by campsite capacity. It’s a discriminatory and exclusionary policy that reduces the public’s access to the natural world.
This draft plan makes you wonder about the future of human engagement with the natural environment in Victoria. To climbers, just as it is to many park users, engagement with the natural environment away from the hard infrastructure of tourist trails and lookouts is a big part of what makes our lives good. Is the future of visiting Gariwerd – and we’re not just talking climbers here – all about being funneled onto PV’s increasingly small number of tourist superhighways?
The management strategies in the plan also make you wonder about the future of other climbing areas. As an example, when most of the bouldering around Mt Stapylton was shut down, it pushed boulderers into a much smaller area. In particular to Trackside in the Amphitheatre. Because of this, Trackside has suffered further erosion, and it’s notable that in the draft plan climbing at Trackside would no longer be allowed. So it’s a catch 22. If you force people into a small number of locations, the potential for impact becomes much greater, which in turn means an area is more likely to be closed. If you close almost all of the state’s largest climbing area, you wonder what flow on effect that might have on Mt Arapiles/Dyurrite or to other even smaller areas like Camels Hump or Werribee Gorge closer to Melbourne? We could foresee a cascade of closures.
The plan also demonstrates the deliberate ignoring of the advice and accumulated knowledge of the climbing community.
Climbers have been shouting about making the closures more granular by taking advantage of our on-ground knowledge of crags. In response PV has used the logic of climbers without using our knowledge. The plan incorporates climbers’ place names without understanding the condition on the ground, the VCC uses Gilhams Crag as an example of this. The entire crag has been banned because of a small Indigenous shelter at its left end which should definitely be protected, and yet in reality there are many crags that fall under the Gilhams umbrella, most are hundreds of metres from the shelter. A granular approach to access could see the cultural heritage in the area protected whilst allowing climbing at cliffs that are a safe distance away. A similar thing has happened in the Victoria Range with the banning of Gondwanaland, a crag which is on a different cliffline and several hundred metres away from the shelter that led to the ban.
There are numerous management practices that could be incorporated with the expertise and cooperation of climbers: some areas could be open only to trad climbers, or targeted sections of crags could be closed or there could be periods of time where crags or boulders could be closed to let the bush regenerate. Fixed hardware replacement and new development could occur in consultation with PV, Traditional Owners and climbers. Track care and maintenance could be undertaken in the same way. Working groups could clean chalk off popular cliffs. Crag stewardship groups could be bought into the park management fold. There are an almost endless number of ways that climbing areas can be managed with a bit of creativity if PV had the will and allocated the resources. This plan embraces almost none of them.
The lack of granularity extends to treating all forms of climbing the same.
Trad climbers have no more impact than bushwalkers, so why treat them so differently? The vast majority of trad crags probably receive none to a handful of visits every year, to these crags there’s no more impact than is created by bushwalkers. To take as an example, all climbing that takes place in the escarpment that holds the Bleachers, known to roped climbers as the Guardians, has been banned. And yet, trad climbers have been climbing at the Guardians since the mid-1960s and you’d struggle to find any sign that climbers have ever climbed there. Boulderers have definitely left more of an impact on the area, but we still think there that in the same way that we build tracks for bushwalkers, similar allowances could be made for boulderers, particularly with creative management (perhaps something like periodic closures to allow the bush regenerate). The combined footprint of bouldering areas in relation to the size of Gariwerd is very small.
We worry such a heavy handed approach will lead to compliance issues. Climbers have a long history of successfully self-regulating in Gariwerd, with multiple examples of climbers staying out of areas for more than a year after major bushfires and floods, while climbers didn’t climb in the area around Muline for three or four years while PV thought that there was still the possibility that there was a remnant rock wallaby population. Hopefully one of the positive outcomes of the climbing bans is that climbers can become more organised and proactive when it comes to being custodians of our crags; at present, only a very small number of climbers are actually involved in crag care but the climbing community is a resource that is waiting to be activated.
Large parts of the plan stink of the commercialisation of parks. It’s strange to talk about the visibility of chalk and bolts when you’re building campsites and huts that are highly visible. Take a look from the summit of Mt Rosea these days and invariably one of the first things you will notice is the structure of Bugiga camp below. If you’re charging people to use the park it’s okay to alter the landscape in ways that are visible, but if you’re a climber it’s not. Parks Victoria has also published plans to build four-bed luxe cabins (see the artist visualisation below). On the plan it also says that the toilets will require helicopters to empty them, which is definitely not low impact for other park users.
The ban on fixed protection seems shortsighted. Here at VL we’ve advocated a different way of establishing new routes for some time, we believe there does need to be more consultation around the development of new routes and the management of fixed protection, but it would be best done in conjunction with climbers. PV has neither the capacity nor the skills to manage fixed protection. They need climbers. Equally, we completely agree that climbers should no longer just be able to bolt where they want. But bolts need to be replaced. Anchors need to be rethought and added if necessary, particularly if as has been discussed there is the potential for rap-access to some crags/routes, if traffic increases in some areas or if risk is recalculated.
Some people are pretty happy to give up chalk, but for anyone who climbs anything harder than very easy climbs, chalk is not just about performance, it’s also about safety. By reducing the amount of moisture between you and the rock, chalk makes climbing more predictable. Taking chalk from the climber’s armoury makes it less predictable – think about how much more likely you are to slip over on a wet surface when you’re just walking or running. We can’t really imagine climbing on Taipan Wall with its long run-outs and slopers without chalk, because there are simply places you don’t want to fall off unexpectedly. Ninety percent of chalk is probably washed off in the next rain, it’s the ten percent that stays in steep areas that is at issue. Even then, most people are not aware of chalk, they mix it up with guano or, in the case of Parks Victoria, they confuse it for the natural colour of the rock. In areas where there are issues with chalk, as a community we could organise cleaning days or use coloured chalk if appropriate. There are more creative solutions than just banning it but again they require will and resources, two things that are in short supply.
Economic impact for us is a secondary consideration, though it is the language of the bureaucracy and so it is easy for arguments to be framed in economic terms. The primacy of the protection of the park’s cultural and environmental values are paramount, but we genuinely believe climbing can be managed with zero harm to cultural heritage and an acceptable environmental impact – certainly far less than bushwalkers with their 160-km superhighway complete with toilets, platforms, shelters and, soon, cabins. However, there’s no doubt that climbing tourism will be severely diminished, particularly in Natimuk. The largest impact, though, will be felt by local communities, because it’s hard to imagine that climbing locals will stay put. Climbers move to the Wimmera because of Gariwerd and Dyurrite, it’s definitely not for the culture or the coffee or the food or the schools or health care. If you remove access to climbing, then most will go somewhere else. Climbers, generally a highly mobile, educated bunch, bring many skills most in shortage in the Wimmera. They have been a part of the fabric of the community for decades. We personally know many of them, they’re doctors, psychologists, ambos, nurses, cafe owners, teachers, town planners, engineers, electricians, artists, financial advisors, climbing instructors, high access workers, the list goes on.
We are at a point where climbing needs more management, but this draft is so draconian that it generates larger questions than simply the right to climb: what is the future of human movement in national parks? Is the future of park use that people are only allowed on the very hardest of hardened tourist infrastructure? There are genuine environmental concerns that need to be weighed against our right to access parks. It’s a debate we need to have, because this view of nature tourism is more akin to a museum where you pass through between the ropes, than a place where you genuinely interact with the bush.
The draft also once again highlights the need for climbers to become more united and professional as a user group. The current divisions mean that our power to advocate for ourselves is diminished. As a community, we need to accept that climbing has changed irrevocably and we need to focus on moving forward in a proactive, creative and positive fashion. Whatever the flaws in the current draft plan, we can all embrace the central focus that places the protection of cultural heritage and the environment as its fundamental foundation, we just need to push for access to climbing in a way that respects these values.
The question is now, what can you do? Well, you can download and read the draft plan and give feedback here. The deadline is 24 January 2021, so you have days left to give feedback.
You can also send Parks Victoria an email directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are struggling to find time to put together a submission, Mike Rockell has put together an excellent submission that climbers can sign onto. You can download his submission below and contact Mike on email@example.com to add your name – the more names the better.
You can also read the VCC’s submission here, which is highly detailed and may provide a framework for you to think through what you agree with and what you disagree with.