As you’ll be aware, the VCC has been deliberating for some months on whether or not to file legal proceedings against Parks Victoria (PV) in relation to the Grampians climbing bans.
We have been holding off until after the fourth of a series of Roundtable meetings was held. We had been hoping that PV might show an appetite for exploring other climbing management approaches. Specifically, approaches that could achieve strong protection of environment and cultural heritage without the need for the wide-spread exclusions that currently prohibit climbing in 551 square kilometres of the Park.
That meeting took place last week. There were some significant positive signs that came out of that meeting and subsequent communications between PV reps, Traditional Owners and the VCC.
For this reason, the VCC Committee has decided to hold off on taking legal action, at least for the moment.
So, what was revealed?
One of the items on the agenda was a presentation of a summary of results of site assessments undertaken by PV. Sticking just to this agenda item, and without letting any contentious cats out of bags or divulging who said what (‘officially approved’ notes from PV are still to follow), it is fair to report the following:
- The 125 site assessments that we knew were being conducted by PV have now been completed. Some sites are in Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and some outside of SPAs.
- Without quoting numbers,
- a significant number of sites were found to contain tangible cultural heritage, including a number of sites where cultural heritage was ‘re-discovered’ outside the current SPAs;
- most of the sites assessed were found to have no tangible cultural heritage.
- Intangible cultural heritage was not assessed (i.e. is still to be assessed) at these sites.
- So, predictably, some sites will be problematic for climbing, some won’t be. The details of the assessment findings for particular sites can be used by PV as the basis of informed management decisions. There will inevitably be some sites within the current SPAs where no tangible cultural heritage has been identified and which have been deemed to be low risk environmentally. PV has not yet divulged these sites (this detail is promised ‘soon’).
- VCC has advocated that the new Grampians Land Management Plan (GLMP) should flag a process for consultations and decisions regarding ongoing management of climber access (and the access of other recreational user groups). PV has acknowledged that this could be a useful inclusion. Such consultations with climbers could be informed by the site-specific assessments that have been carried out and that will continue to be carried out after the GLMP is adopted. This could take the form of something like a Stakeholder Engagement Plan to consult about ongoing issues.
- There are more assessments – perhaps a hundred outside of current SPAs – still to be done. These will take quite a while to roll out. Therefore, the need for a process that explores management options in an ongoing manner with recreational user groups such as climbers seems sensible.
What can we make of this?
- PV suggests it is open to further conversations about appropriate management of climbing at various sites. These could progress in light of the assessments already obtained and in light of information related to sites still to be assessed. PV reps gave some indications that options could/should be more than a binary ‘allowed in’ or ‘locked out’ but could encompass some restricted access (i.e. with conditions) to some sites.
- The option of including something like a Stakeholder Engagement Plan in the new GLMP, which commits land managers to consult with relevant recreational user groups about ongoing issues, would certainly be better than what we have (don’t have) in the current (2003) Management Plan. The availability of such a mechanism could well have enabled avoidance of some of the current antagonisms.
- PV is open to further discussions with LTOs or their reps about whether the current 3-month licences might be replaced with something of longer duration, which would enable LTOs to plan further ahead and run their businesses more effectively.
- PV has indicated the desire to pull a lot of these threads together in a fifth Roundtable meeting in May. Both it (and climbers) want to be able to come up with agreed specifics about climbing access that can be fed into the draft GLMP.
- Roundtable Chair Mark Dingle has offered to liaise with VCC about the detail of specific proposals that we might put in writing to PV before RT5 (particularly, in light of the site-specific detail that will be circulated to RT4 participants soon).
- Mark Dingle will follow up with PV and Traditional Owners about the possibility of initiating assessments of intangible cultural heritage for a limited number of sites (ones that, from a climbing perspective, are of great significance) – sites where no tangible cultural heritage has been identified and where environmental risks have been assessed as low. While this process is much slower than doing an assessment for tangible cultural heritage, a willingness to start ASAP would be a concrete show of good faith by PV to the climbing community.
Ideally, we would want:
- Release of / access to more detail on the site assessments already undertaken, ASAP. For example, information outlining which cliffs were found to contain tangible cultural heritage, and which sites were found to not contain tangible cultural heritage (subject to Traditional Owner approval, given possible sensitivities of site disclosures, understanding that there are some legal constraints on divulging the specific locations of any cultural heritage on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register).
- For those sites in SPAs where no tangible cultural heritage has been identified, and where it has been deemed that the site is low-risk environmentally, intangible cultural heritage assessments should be carried out as a matter of priority.
- If there is no intangible cultural heritage identified, access to these sites should be allowed ASAP.
- A mechanism built into any future management plan whereby PV commits to consultations with climbers regarding issues concerning climbing impacts or potential impacts, options to pre-empt or mitigate such impacts, and related climbing access issues (a Stakeholder Engagement Plan).
- It seems that we are moving toward all of the above. The contentious issues seem to relate more to timing – we want it all now, but we are being told that it can’t happen now, that it will take time. So what level of patience is reasonable? When does adopting a patient and cooperative demeanour become counterproductive (i.e. undercuts any urgency and feeds the land manager’s bureaucratic inertia)?
In the opinion of the VCC Committee, the best way forward, for the moment, is:
- to continue to engage with PV, and to endeavour to forge constructive relationships with Traditional Owners.
- to continue to make constructive suggestions, in writing, to PV, prior to RT5, including:
- suggestions in relation to access to site-specific assessment information;
- suggestions/options, in the light of such assessment information, to access to specific climbing sites; and
- in relation to the process that should be embedded into the new GLMP, suggestions that detail how ongoing consultations about climbing impacts or potential impacts, options for pre-empting or mitigating these impacts, and recommendations on climbing management and access, should occur.
- to insist that any instances still existing in PV literature or online posts of unsubstantiated attributions to climbers of harm caused to the environment or cultural heritage be retracted immediately.
- to make it clear to PV that we reserve the right to file legal proceedings. We intend to exercise this right in the event that PV is not enabling significant and timely progress to climbers regaining access to sites where no cultural heritage is identified and where the sites are deemed as low risk environmentally.
Such progress should include:
- timely release by PV of the detail of the assessments already undertaken – whether or not tangible cultural heritage was identified at each of the crags assessed and whether or not these crags were assessed as being high or low risk in regard to environmental impact;
- timely progress in regard to formulating an outline of an appropriate consultative process (such as a Stakeholder Engagement Plan), for inclusion in the new GLMP.