The Grampians rock climbing industry has been thrown a lifeline by Parks Victoria, with the agency announcing a section of the park will be reopened for climbing and abseiling, for three months.
The agency left open the door for further extensions, if climbers adhere to “strict conditions”.
But solo climbers who are not part of a registered tour group will still be banned, with Parks Victoria saying they can join a tour group.
But the climbing community has rejected the changes as “an unworkable solution”.
“This only applies to three small cliffs. And it only applies to licensed tour operators. Parks Victoria has given the climbing community absolutely nothing,” Mike Tomkins, a spokesman for the Australian Climbing Association of Victoria, said.
In March, Parks Victoria closed large parts of the national park to rock climbers, over claims they were damaging rock art up to 20,000 years old, sparking heated protests.
The agency says that more than half the national park is still available for “no-impact climbing” that does not involve chalk or climbing bolts.
Licensed tour operators had been permitted to operate in one small section known as Summerday Valley until June 30 when their permits ran out. On Friday, Parks Victoria announced it would extend those permits for another three months.
The Grampians is one of the world’s great rock climbing spots and in recent years has become something of a Mecca for climbers all around the world.
Parks Victoria says that has led to a huge surge in the number of people visiting the area, which is damaging the environment.
The Grampians, known as “Gariwerd” in local Djab Wurrung and Jardwadjali languages, has about 200 rock art sites – more than anywhere else in south-eastern Australia.
Parks Victoria says the booming numbers of climbers had damaged rock art – through the use of chalk and drills, which climbers reject – and squashed native plants.
Dylan Clarke, chairman of the Barengi Gadjin Land Council, which represents the traditional owners of the national park said in April that there had been damage to “significant sites and rock art”.
“There are things like graffiti and racist drawings on sacred colours. That just makes a mockery of our culture and heritage. When you see that stuff in our sacred areas, it really impacts you – that’s heartbreaking,” he said.
Rock climbers have ferociously protested the ban, claiming Parks Victoria is framing them. The announcement some parts of the park would be reopened appears to have done nothing to quell that anger.
“The licensed tour operator businesses will be unable to carry out their business under the conditions proposed,” said Mr Tomkins.
“There are various restrictions placed on them, including the limitation of only a three-month licence. That single fact alone ensures that future bookings will not be possible. And there are insurance implications, because the tour operators would have to pay for 12-month insurance with no certainty of future business.”
Climbing bans remain in place for Special Protection Areas in the park.
Any tour providers hoping to use the Summerday Valley area will need to complete an Aboriginal cultural heritage induction, Parks Victoria says. A booking system will also be implemented to manage access. Bolting and chalking will be banned.
“The Grampians National Park has long held a place in the hearts of Victorians and visitors from further afield as a place where they can enjoy a range of activities, like bushwalking, camping, rock climbing and cycling,” Parks Victoria chief executive officer Matthew Jackson said.
“Summerday Valley is located in a Special Protection Area that excludes activities like rock climbing and abseiling, and traditional owners understand the pressure licensed tour operators might face while we work through the long-term future of the park, so we thank them for their consent.”