In February 2019, Parks Victoria (PV) announced it had made a Set-aside Determination that prohibited climbing in a huge section of Gariwerd / the Grampians National Park.
Over the next two months, PV endeavoured to justify the rationale for the prohibition in two ‘after-the-fact’ ministerial briefing papers, sent to the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, Lily D’Ambrosio.
The following information, originally collated in two appendices to a letter sent to the Minister by the VCC, details a litany of factual errors, distortions, unjustified (and unjustifiable) assertions and false attributions that PV included in the aforementioned ministerial briefing papers.
Misleading information in Ministerial Briefing Report MBR038732 (signed by PV CEO Matthew Jackson on 1 March, 2019)
In the key information section of the briefing report,
Point 2 notes “…the number of climbing sites within the Grampians National Park have risen exponentially in recent years – from approximately 2,000 sites in 2003 to an estimated 8,000 sites in 2018. This has been accompanied by an increase in annual rock climbing visitations from an estimated 8,000 people in 2003 to 80,000 people in 2018.”
Parks Victoria’s figures are based, by their own admission, on one online geo-wiki ‘theCrag’ www.thecrag.com (see Ministerial Briefing Report MBR038945 – key information point 6). Parks Victoria mistakenly assumed that the date when a climbing route was first established corresponded to the date when the route was first entered onto theCrag.
Most routes established between 1960 and 2000 weren’t entered onto that database until the mid-2000s. Collation of data from a raft of rock climbing guidebooks to the Grampians indicates that there were in the order of 7,000 climbs already established by the year 2000. Climbing development has been steady across the decades, with a slight surge during the 1990s. Parks Victoria’s claim that development has been “exponential in recent years” is not merely unsubstantiated, it is demonstrably false.
The figures quoted for rock climbing visitations “from an estimated 8,000 people in 2003 to 80,000 in 2018” is similarly flawed. As the internet has become more popular, the number of climbers logging their ascents on theCrag has inevitably increased. This increase does not correlate to any increase in climbing visits to the Grampians. Nor does the number of different climbs logged by an individual climber on any particular day correspond to the number of visits made to the Park. Other measures of the popularity of climbing in the Park (such as climbing guidebook sales) indicate a far more modest increase in climber visitations for the period 2003 – 2018 (in the order of 20%) than the 10-fold increase suggested by Parks Victoria.
Point 3 notes “In addition to the increase in visitation, the nature of rock climbing activities has evolved to include the increased use of fixed protection (such as permanent climbing bolts and climbing/abseil anchors) as well as the introduction of a newer climbing activity known as bouldering.”
The reference to fixed protection implies that this is a recent phenomenon. In fact, the use of fixed protection was developed approximately 100 years ago. In the 1970s an attitude evolved among the climbing community worldwide (in keeping with the environmental awareness of the times) that resulted in a move away from unnecessary fixed protection and an increase in the use of re-usable/removable forms of protection that left no trace on the rock. It is true that small protection bolts are still used on some climbs (typically the bolt head protruding from the rock is the size of the tip of one’s little finger and usually very hard to discern from the ground), but only on those routes lacking features that could be used for natural protection or on routes that are severely overhung. Such climbs naturally tend to be devoid of lichen or other vegetation. Abseil anchors are generally only fixed when abseil descent is used to avoid the risk of erosion that might occur if climbers had to scramble down from the tops of climbs via steep gullies.
In other words, use of fixed protection is not new, is typically limited to sections of cliff where there is no vegetation to damage, and is often (in the case of descent anchors) used to mitigate potential environmental impact.
Point 4 notes “Bouldering … requires protective mats to be placed below the climber which leads to significant damage to and loss of vegetation.”
Contrary to the suggestion in point 3 that bouldering is a “newer climbing activity”, climbers have been bouldering in the Grampians for well over 50 years.
Not all boulderers use mats and not all those who use mats use them all the time. Mats are more likely to be used when the base below the boulder is a rock platform or is strewn with rocks that might cause injury to the person bouldering in the event of a fall.
Ground compaction and impact on vegetation is possible, as it is with any off-track walking, but it is not inevitable. The use by Parks Victoria of the words “which leads” (with its implication of inevitability) rather than “which can lead” gives the wrong impression.
Point 5 notes “The increased popularity of rock climbing has also led to the establishment of informal bush camps and networks of walking tracks as climbers seek to access more remote parts of the Grampians National Park.”
Climbers have not “established” any camps. They have partaken of dispersed/bush camping, as they are allowed to do in the National Park with the usual caveats (“campfires not permitted / fuel stoves only; only bush camp in previously cleared areas; leave no trace of your visit / take all rubbish home with you; camp at least 25m from waterways and 1km from campgrounds” and not within particular designated areas) as per the Grampians National Park Visitors Guide, downloadable from Parks Victoria’s website.
Most of the walking access to crags is along established tracks for most of the approach. Generally, the off-track component is short. Where cliffs aren’t that popular, walking through the bush leaves minimal trace. Where cliffs are very popular, climbers have traditionally worked with Parks Victoria (through organisations such as the VCC’s environmental arm, CliffCare) to ensure appropriate tracks are built. These tracks avoid environmentally sensitive areas or places of significant cultural heritage and are constructed to minimise the potential for erosion. Climbers have supplied volunteers to work under Parks Victoria direction in carrying out many such micro-infrastructural projects over the last two decades.
Point 6 notes “This [the issues raised in points 1 to 5] has significant implications for the Park’s environmental and cultural values. To ensure that the environmental and cultural values of the Park are maintained, Parks Victoria needs to implement Special Protection Areas (SPAs) across the Grampians, that will exclude some areas from climbing activities.”
SPAs are described and defined in the 2003 Grampians Management Plan. Parks Victoria has not only ignored the proscribing of climbing in SPAs as outlined in the 2003 plan, but has actively collaborated with climbers in the realigning of tracks to cliffs in these SPAs and the hardening of staging areas at the foot of popular climbs. It has even worked with climbers and Traditional Owners to ensure protection of cultural sites at cliffs popular with climbers. Presumably, Parks Victoria staff and management would not have done so if they had believed that climbing was not a minimal impact activity.
Point 11 notes “Over a number of years, the scale of climbing activity has significantly increased and the nature of the activities has changed. In combination, these factors have caused significant impacts to irreplaceable cultural and environmental assets, as well as increasing risks around visitor safety.”
See the comments pertaining to points 2 and 3 regarding incorrect climber numbers. Claims for significant deleterious impacts due to changes in how people climb safely are also hugely overstated; they are based on misunderstandings of how climbing “works”, as well as numerous unsubstantiated false attributions to climbers of instances of harm at sites co-frequented by non-climbers and non-climbing groups.
Parks Victoria has traditionally worked with walkers, climbers, 4WD enthusiasts, fisher-folk and other recreational groups. When there is the potential for the environmental impacts of such groups to become pronounced, because of the sheer weight of numbers enjoying their recreation in the Park, Parks Victoria has traditionally pre-empted such impacts by working with groups to come up with mutually beneficial solutions.
It is therefore disappointing and disingenuous of Parks Victoria to manufacture statistics as a basis for claims of an explosion in the popularity of a pastime, to misrepresent how that pastime “works”, and to falsely attribute instances of harm to participants of the pastime in question without evidence to substantiate these attributions, all seemingly to justify poorly framed ‘solutions’ to the perceived problems.
Misleading information in Ministerial Briefing Report MBR038945 (signed by PV CEO Matthew Jackson on 19th March 2019)
In the key information section of this report, under the subheading Impacts of Rock Climbing on the Park (points 20 – 23), some of the false claims made in Ministerial Briefing Report MBR038732 are repeated (see above).
Point 22, referring to bouldering, notes that “protective mats to be placed below the climber … leads to significant damage and loss of vegetation” and refers to eight photos in an attachment to the report.
The first four of these photos are of ground at the base of, or adjacent to, boulders along the track to Venus Baths area. The short flat walk to Venus Baths from the tourist epicentre Halls Gap is possibly the most popular walking track in the whole of the Grampians. The amount of litter, including tissues left by tourists seeking a discreet place behind boulders near the track where they can urinate unseen, has to be seen to be believed. To attribute areas of ground compaction or trampling of vegetation to climbers simply because they co-frequent these areas is disingenuous.
The fifth, sixth and seventh photos are all taken at the Millenium Cave area. They are of a makeshift ring of stones (fireplace – see above) under the overhanging cliff serving as a shelter from the weather, a tree stump seemingly clean-sawn (see above), and some small piles of stacked stones. Millenium Cave is a site co-frequented by walkers, general tourists and climbers. I have personally witnessed large school groups camping there. For Parks Victoria to automatically assume that climbers have made and used the makeshift fireplaces or sawn a tree, or stacked the stones, at sites where climbers among others happen to frequent, is illogical and unprofessional.
The final photo, taken at a cliff in the Victoria Range called The Gallery, shows a chalk-marked sector of cliff. Gymnasts chalk is commonly used by climbers and normally washes off after rain. In four cliffs of the 600-plus climbing sites in the Grampians where a severely overhanging rock face happens to coincide with a predominantly bright, ochre-coloured rock (not the usual grey rock that is more characteristic of the Grampians) chalk residue on popular routes can be far more visible and, because of the fact that rain does not reach under the steep overhangs, is not readily washed away.
Chalk on overhanging sections of rock can be noticeable but does not affect the rock nor does it have any significant impact on vegetation – on steeply overhanging rock faces, not even lichen grows. The implied impact of the use of chalk by climbers in the Grampians is hugely overstated. Subsequent communications by Parks Victoria give a clue to its misunderstandings on this issue, and show its inability to discern the difference between chalk, the huge, naturally occurring white streaks in the rock, and the white discolouration caused by raptor guano (see https://savegrampiansclimbing.org/2020/06/17/expert-advice-chalk-or-nature/).
Whilst the Ministerial Briefing Papers referred to above are nearly a year-and-a-half old, ongoing communications and assertions by Parks Victoria during the intervening time, such as those referred to in relation to ‘chalk wash’, indicate that most PV executives still do not really get how climbing ‘works’.
It is also apparent that PV seems to have a huge blind spot about damage done by casual tourists walking to and across cultural heritage. For example, walking along a PV-made track up to Hollow Mountain, across rock that has been quarried by indigenous Australians, is allowed. However, climbing within a few hundred metres of that cultural heritage is not.
As far as we are aware, PV has still not sought to disabuse the Minister of the misleading information that its execs had presented to her – even after many of their errors and inconsistencies had been pointed out to them –hence our decision to write to the Minister and do this for them.