Round Table 4 – Part 2 plus Legal Updates

This comprehensive report covers Round Table 4 – Part 2 including: Headlines – Information regarding Parks Victoria’s “Current Management Protection Regime” – Cultural Heritage Survey Progress – Environmental Survey Progress – Survey Scope and Cost

This is followed by a section on Legal Updates including a Legal Action Timeline reporting on significant events that have occurred since July 2019.

Parks Victoria issued this official Round Table 4 Communique on 11th March 2020. Further meeting notes are expected soon, including copies of the environmental and cultural presentations made at the meeting.

The Parks Victoria Rock Climbing Round Table 4 meeting on 5th March 2020 was once again attended by big guns: Parks Victoria Chairman, CEO, 3 Directors and a Deloitte facilitator. Plus a cohort of climbing/outdoor administrators – see Part 1 of this report for the list of attendees.

Headlines

  • The February 2019 legal determination regarding climbing restrictions in the Grampians will remain in place, pending new conditions to be incorporated in the Grampians Landscape Management Plan (GLMP)
  • “The current management protection regime is unchanged”
  • The draft GLMP is due for issue to the Environment Minister in July
  • There will be an 8 week period of public consultation over the draft GLMP
  • The final GLMP is due to be issued in December 2020
  • Special Protection Area (SPA) details will be updated in the 2020 GLMP
  • Parks Victoria remains engaged in extensive Grampians surveys, focused on measuring rock climbing impacts

Current Management Protection Regime

8 focus sites – enforcement and fines apply for anyone found to be climbing at: The Gallery, Millennium Caves, Billywing Buttress, Billimina Area, Cave of Man Hands, Little Hands Cave, Manja Area, Gondwanaland. Signage is in place at the trail heads on the approaches to these 8 sites.

Special Protection Areas comprising 100 further climbing locations – climbing “restrictions” apply in accordance with Parks Victoria website advice. The wording on this web page is ambiguous. Fines do not apply for climbing in SPAs.

Refer to this page at Save Grampians Climbing for a list of crags affected by the above restrictions.

Signage

The photo above shows one of the 8 signs that Parks Victoria installed 12 months ago. The white SPA sign at the top cites National Parks Regulation 65 across Special Protection Areas. The grey sign at the bottom refers to prohibition at the 8 focus sites. These 8 signs are the only physical indicators of any work done over the last 12 months to protect cultural heritage. This sign is at the locked gate at the head of the Yanganaginj Njawi Track “camp of the emu foot track” several kilometres from the Gondwanaland focus site.

The photo above shows the grey focus site sign, showing that climbing is “prohibited” at the 8 focus sites.

Cultural Heritage Survey Progress, RT4

  1. Project 1 – Cultural Heritage Surveys. These surveys have been completed at 125 Grampians climbing sites – list of 125 climbing sites surveyed
  2. This represents 40% of the climbing sites in the Grampians, comprising 4,300 routes
  3. Further data on specific findings will be issued to the climbing community shortly
  4. Observed impacts – not all attributed to climbing: litter, chalk, bolts, rock breakage exfoliation, vegetation clearance, illegal tracks
  5. Tangible cultural heritage was found at 27 of the 125 sites surveyed
  6. Assessments have not yet been carried out for intangible cultural heritage at these sites. Representatives from each of 3 Registered Aboriginal Parties have attended each cultural survey to date and will attend each review of intangible heritage.
  7. 100 further climbing sites will be surveyed in the coming months
  8. Parks Victoria also carried out Project 2 – Impact Assessments at Rock Art Places to investigate climbing impacts at 29 new SPAs that were created in 2019. Evidence of chalking, bolting or rock breakage was present at 5 of the 29 sites. The 5 sites of concern are all in the northern Grampians. Photographs will be published as part of the presentations that were given at round table 4. Chalk marks were found within 1.8m of hand stencil art.
  9. Parks Victoria is seeking a $400,000 federal grant to carry out a LIDAR aerial photography survey of the Grampians, showing details of ground conditions to a resolution of 2 cm.

Environmental Survey Progress, RT4

Parks Victoria has completed environmental survey work at 8 climbing locations:

Mt Zero, Andersens, The Watchtower, Venus Baths, Lookout Wall / Sundial, Bundaleer, Gilhams (shelter not the main cliffs), Mountain Lion

  • Parks Victoria acknowledged that the “7 hectares environmental damage” previously alleged at 8 climbing sites was incorrect. The correct assessment was given as 0.7 hectares vegetation damage at 8 sites. A media correction has been issued.
  • Parks Victoria then extrapolated from this, an estimate across 200 sites to allege that there is likely to be 18 hectares of vegetation damage across 200 climbing sites and an estimated 108 km of unofficial tracks created to access these 200 climbing sites.
  • Categories of environmental impact: vegetation removal or damage, evidence of fires, rubbish, toilet waste, track formation, weeds.

Parks Victoria stated that environmental damage found at rock climbing sites was not necessarily attributable to rock climbers.

Further environmental survey work was done in the Eastern Wall / Peking Face area, following a request made by the VCC at a previous round table meeting. There were concerns that a shiny Wild Country No. 3 Stopper was recently found in an area that was the subject of a long standing voluntary closure to protect brush tailed rock wallabies. There was some confusion over boundaries and location names in this area.

Survey Scope and Costs

The cost and scale of the Grampians surveys is enormous, considering the low-impact nature of rock climbing in comparison with other user groups, particularly day visitors on the main tourist trails. It appears that Parks Victoria is attempting to reinforce it’s 2019 position that climbers damage rock art in the Grampians as alleged in this academic paper Rock Art and Rock Climbing: An Escalating Conflict. However, despite the studies and all the surveys, Parks Victoria has been unable to produce evidence to support this notion.

Further reading:

There is no evidence of damage to rock art by climbers yet there is ample evidence of damage by tourists to paintings and ancient hand stencils along some of the popular tourist trails. The question of climber damage or harm to Aboriginal places is mired in terminology and inferred exclusion zones. Climbing impacts have certainly occurred in the vicinity of cultural heritage sites. Acceptable exclusion zones have not been established. The whole Park is deemed to be an area of cultural sensitivity. A Cultural Heritage Management Plan covering the entire Park would be necessary to properly protect cultural heritage under the terms of the Aboriginal Heritage Act. This would be an expensive exercise.

Every human activity has impact. The relatively minor impacts of recreational climbing are currently under a powerful microscope in the Parks Victoria boardroom. A verdict on the future of recreational climbing in the Grampians will be handed down later this year as part of the Grampians Landscape Management Plan. Climbers continue to have very little input to this process.

What’s happening with the Grampians legal action?

Note that any climbing legal dispute is against Parks Victoria. ACAV wishes to emphasise that great respect is intended towards cultural heritage sensitivities in the Grampians.

The set aside determination used by Parks Victoria to exclude climbers is invalid and a more fine-grained cliff-by-cliff, boulder-by-boulder approach is required to allow respectful recreational climbing to coexist alongside locations holding special cultural and environmental significance.

The invalid use of Regulation 65 of the National Park Regulations has caused Parks Victoria to place single signs to cover large areas and set up a blanket bans for one user group (climbers) while allowing other user groups (tourists, walkers, everyone except climbers) to continue to access cultural sites and cause harm. The use of Regulation 65 allows Parks Victoria to give the appearance of protecting cultural heritage, without any worthwhile management work taking place to properly protect the cultural sites. Day tourists remain free to visit these sites without restraint. Valuable cultural artifacts are all at ground level and are at great risk of harm that may be caused deliberately or accidentally.

A successful legal challenge against Regulation 65 would force Parks Victoria to invoke a more appropriate Regulation that would bring about a focused approach to protecting individual cultural sites while accepting respectful recreational activities in the vicinity. Parks Victoria has been applying major resources to outlaw rock climbing for the last 12 months. A more effective use of resources would be to spend money on more comprehensive educational strategies and practical physical measures to protect cultural heritage against all threats (without locking up the park).

ACAV Legal Timeline – regarding ACAV proposed legal action against Parks Victoria over restrictions on rock climbing across 550 sq km of the Grampians National Park.

July 2019 – ACAV engaged a law firm to advise on legal opportunities in regard to challenging the overreaching Grampians bans.

August 2019 – ACAV met with lawyers along with Junior and Senior Counsel to develop a legal case to challenge the set aside determination made by Parks Victoria in attempting to exclude climbers from large areas of the Grampians National Park.

September 2019 – This letter was sent from our lawyers to Parks Victoria, challenging the Grampians set aside determination and the invalid use of Regulation 65. A substantive response was not received. The legal team then prepared to file legal action against Parks Victoria on the basis that “the set aside determination is invalid”.

October 2019 – ACAV received legal advice that ACAV would not be able to show legal standing in court as the Association had not been established for a long enough time period. A typical duration of operation required to establish legal standing was indicated as approximately two years. Hence ACAV could not be the plaintiff in the proposed legal case. One or more individual climbers with a history of climbing in the region could conceivably act as plaintiff with ACAV backing but the plaintiffs would bear financial risk.

November 2019 – ACAV entered discussions with the Victorian Climbing Club (VCC) over the potential for the VCC to act as plaintiff as the club was established in 1952.

December 2019 – ACAV paid for professional legal work to gain QC advice that the VCC would be likely to achieve legal standing and hence the VCC could act as the plaintiff in a joint action with ACAV.

January 2020The VCC Committee voted to take legal action. The ACAV committee voted to donate the majority of ACAV funds raised to date, towards a VCC/ACAV legal challenge against Parks Victoria. This money was paid into the lawyer’s trust account along with similar funding from the VCC.

February 2020 – The law firm, along with Junior and Senior Counsel prepared the necessary legal documentation under the direction of the VCC, including affidavits to file proceedings against Parks Victoria.

March 2020the VCC Committee voted to suspend the legal challenge, anticipating good faith being shown by Parks Victoria towards the climbing community in the form of positive engagement over the management of rock climbing in the Grampians and at Arapiles. The ACAV funds previously donated will now be returned to ACAV to allow the implementation of alternative strategies.

Since the VCC has opted to suspend legal action, ACAV has no opportunity to bring about legal action at present. The legal action proposed above would benefit from the support of the VCC in two ways. Firstly as a plaintiff with legal standing and secondly to show broader support for a legal challenge within the climbing community.

While some track work is occurring with rangers at local level, we have not seen “good faith” consultation from Parks Victoria at executive level. One of the critical missing components is attendance by climbing representatives at site surveys to allow climbing-focused solutions to be put forward in a collaborative environment. This is standard practice at similar climbing locations around the world.

ACAV will continue to lobby for constructive consultation with Parks Victoria, including via mainstream media and at a political level. We are also working on alternative strategies with a long term aim to bring about properly managed climbing access across the State.

– report by Mike Tomkins

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