The Access Conundrum

Published in The Climber, Autumn 2020

With multiple crag closures across the North Island and uncertainty over future access to crags around the country, a new New Zealand access entity is set to emerge, while the NZAC looks to take a leadership role in nurturing relationships with landowners—including iwi.

A recent Facebook post asking about access to North Island crags prompted some good-humoured comments about moving the giant rock pebble outside Homer Hut, in Fiordland, to the North Island.

Others quipped that there are so many closures in the North Island that the new local was Arapiles—in Australia.

Other comments were less hilarious. Some openly questioned the right of iwi to have a say over climber access to land, prompting responses about how such publicly-visible comments could only hinder the cause.

Access issues seem to have become more acute in recent years with the closure of Whanganui Bay, Mangaokewa, Castle Rock and the Auckland Grammar School Rockwall—among others.

And then, in December, Declaration Crag at Arapiles was closed until further notice after the discovery of some indigenous art, sparking fears about future access to the trad-Mecca.

Those fears are partly due to the closure last year of almost 40 per cent of the climbing areas in the Grampians—including renown areas such as The Gallery, Eureka, Millennium Caves and Hollow Mountain Cave—in order to protect ‘natural or cultural values’ including rock art, according to the area’s management plan.

So what is happening to our beloved climbing areas, why, and what can we do about it?

The crux of many issues seems to be the relationship between land- owners/managers and the climbing community, which hasn’t exactly endeared itself towards iwi, farmers or conservationists over the decades.

Some fear that the cultural divide between climbers and these groups is too great and the future will only see more closures. Others see enough cultural crossover—a love of the land and one’s interaction with it—to be more optimistic.

But the current, dire situation could use a helping hand, and one seems to be on its way.

What’s the problem?

Closures can be for a number of reasons, and each area has its own unique issues.

Poor behaviour of land users, regardless of whether they’re climbers, has been cited for the closure of Mangaokewa last year pending a review of the management of the reserve. Drivers doing donuts in the carpark and the toilets being vandalised were suggested as reasons for the review.

Iwi also often have a hand to play. Climbers have been in negotiations with the Mauao trust about the future of climbing on Mount Maunganui, while a trial period for Whanganui Bay has been postponed after some of the Ngāti Te Maunga Trust Board wanted further hapu consultation.

Meanwhile Ngāti Huarere placed a rahui on Castle Rock following a climbing fatality in 2018. The rahui has since been lifted, but climbing remains banned while negotiations between climbers and mana whenua continue.

Legal liability has also been an issue, and came into sharp focus with changes to health and safety legislation in 2015. Legal advice on those changes contributed to the closure of the Auckland Grammar School Rockwall, which remains closed as the school looks to stabilise the wall to ensure its safety.

WorkSafe NZ—the health and safety regulator—clarified the law changes last year, saying that a landowner/manager is only responsible for risks arising from the work and workplace, and not for those arising from recreational activities.

But former NZAC president and current NZAC board member John Palmer, who has discussed legal liability with WorkSafe, says the law could be clearer for land managers such as DOC.

‘If a business manages the land, then there is an obligation to take “all practicable steps” to ensure that the business’ work does not harm anyone, including visitors,’ Palmer says.

‘If a land manager asks a lawyer about the risk of letting climbers onto land under its management, the lawyer is not going to say that there is no risk because the legislation is vague.’

Even if behaviour is perfectly angelic or the relationship is built on mutual understanding and friendship, new landowners/managers—or existing ones—may simply decide that they don’t want climbers on their land anymore, which has happened at Smith Rock in the Wharepapa region.

‘Public access for walking or climbing or any other activity can’t be forced,’ Palmer says. ‘You’re completely at mercy of the landowner or manager, or whoever interests they have to have regard to.’

He says while access issues are not new, they are becoming more acute due to the sport’s increasing popularity.

‘We have more rock climbers than ever. And it’s only going to get worse as climbing gets more popular and the remaining crags are getting more stretched.’

Compounding matters is that there is no single organisation that speaks or acts for the climbing community. But such an entity, which could have a definitive list of closed crags and offer guidance to climbers who want to help, is in the works.

An access fund or trust

Palmer has been at the forefront of efforts to address access issues and has proposed a New Zealand organisation similar to the Access Fund in the US and elsewhere around the world.

He put a proposal before the NZAC board last year that was supported in principle, and is now putting a more detailed proposal together for the board’s consideration.

His vision is for the NZAC to fund its initial creation. It would then use that money to hire an access officer, perhaps part-time at first, who would source ongoing funding, such as from corporates—The North Face or Black Diamond, for example—or from subscribers who pay an annual fee.

There are, for example, thousands of rock climbers who are not NZAC members because they find it doesn’t offer enough for the $115 annual fee, but who might pay something like $20 a year to an entity to help keep crags open.

‘Once a good level of funding is achieved, the access officer would act as an aid resource to coordinate and advise access efforts across the country,’ Palmer says.

‘I might have rung that person and said I have an issue at Whanganui Bay. They can say they have this knowledge in relation to crag behaviour, a code of conduct and a sample access agreement, a web-based system where climbers pay and agree to the code of conduct etc, and a history of the negotiations with iwi—useful resources that can be used to resolve issues. What the entity can actually achieve would be directly related to how well funded it is.

‘And some of those funds could come from the Government—the Backcountry Trust (which is mainly funded by DOC and seeks to maintain huts and tracks for outdoor enthusiasts) has got millions of dollars.’

An access entity with deep pockets could also contribute, for example, to track creation and maintenance in an area, as well as composting toilets.

‘And in a dreamland, the purchase of crags,’ Palmer adds.

This has happened in the US, where the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition has teamed up with the US Access Fund to buy land and preserve access in perpetuity for recreational purposes—though this costs millions.

Palmer also points to the QEII trust model, which protects private land for its cultural and natural value. This is now in place for the Jardines boulder field after Dick and Jillian Jardine gifted the land to ensure pub- lic access.

NZAC president Lindsay Smith says that the previous interim NZAC board had been lukewarm on an access entity, but the current board, which took charge in October last year, is supportive.

The board will meet again in March 2020 and consider the club’s annual plan and budget, including how much money might be needed to set up the access entity.

‘I’m reluctant to put a figure on it because that’s what we’ve asked John to do for our next board meeting,’ Smith says. ‘But to be fair, we’re looking at $20,000 to $40,000 for the first year, and that would fund an access officer half-time.’

‘What’s worried me for the last five or six years is this sort of creeping inaction, that we’re just quietly seeing crag after crag disappear and fire-fighting on a case-by-case basis.’

The fire-fighting tends to come from caring volunteers who try to negotiate with landowners with whatever resources they can muster, he says.

‘The power of an access entity is that it becomes a proactive body that constantly thinks about the issue. Five or six years ago, here in Dunedin, we had no idea who owned the land where all the crags out at Long Beach were on. We hadn’t even thought about whose land we were climbing on. If you don’t know that, then you’ve got no idea what could possibly go right or wrong.

‘I’d like to think one of the key things that would come from this organisation is a much more planned approach, where someone could do ownership checks of common crags—things like that.’

The access entity could also approach farmers to clarify legal liability.

‘My daughter and son-in-law are farmers who think if a climber falls on their land, they’ll get sued,’ Smith says.

‘When the guy came round and did their health and safety plan, he told them not to let visitors on their land. So there are all these consultants telling farmers not to let anyone onto their land, and we’re sitting here passively not doing anything about it. And then the crags close and you’re on the back foot.’

Smith says that although access is always one of highest priorities in the NZAC members’ survey, it has been ‘well down the list in terms of planned activities’—but that is changing.

‘In our new strategic plan, access is one of the things that sits right at the top.’

Palmer says it will take half a year or so to put together a proper proposal and, if NZAC approves, to get the entity up and running.

Nurturing relationships with landowners/managers, including iwi

Many closures are linked to iwi and, whether you like it or not, iwi have certain rights towards land and land use that are enshrined in New Zealand law.

That means that iwi will often have a say on the use of land where crags are based, if not as the private landowner then as the land managers or as holders of customary rights to that land.

NZAC board member and Simpson Grierson environmental lawyer Gerald Lanning says while some climbers treat access as a privilege, others need to wise up.

‘We need to get smarter and more respectful in understanding that it’s not our land, and it’s a real privilege to climb there. The history is that we’ve treated these areas effectively as public, and we’re entitled to go there no matter what. That needs to change.

‘Whanganui Bay, for example, I’m aware of stories from the early days. We just didn’t think about it as someone else’s land, basically. We now understand that it’s not only of deep cultural significance, but it’s where people live, and if I had people traipsing across the back of my land and going climbing, without respecting my concerns or relationships with the land, I’d probably get a bit pissed off as well. And for tangata whenua, the concerns and relationships are deeply significant.’

When he was NZAC President, Palmer says he was somewhat surprised to find that the club had no formal strategy around iwi engagement and relationships.

‘For whatever reason, NZAC does not present an especially iwi-conscious public face. From the outside looking in, it is difficult to see what weight or thought is given by the club to these issues.

‘But that is also true of the wider climbing community. It just hasn’t been a priority.’

Smith agrees that the NZAC—which leans heavily on volunteers and volunteers’ time—has not had a strong focus on fostering relationships with iwi at an organisational level. But that is also changing, as the board finalises a five-year strategic plan that is now available for feedback.

‘One item we’ve put in there is a specific line item which talks about building relationships with iwi and hapu in each area. That’s something the new board is very aware of. We have been very passive about forming relationships with iwi in particular.’

A clash of cultures?

Crag closures are hard to take for climbers who often feel they are respectful stewards of the land who bring money, environmental values and good vibes to the communities they visit.

But that is not how climbers are often perceived by non-climbers, Palmer says.

‘Climbing is seen as a dangerous fringe activity. It has low validity in the minds of non-climbers. Climbers are frustrated as they feel dismissed and not taken seriously as a group, even though they feel they leave no trace and handle the environment very responsibly, that they should be trusted, that they’re spiritually connected to the land.

‘The way we communicate that to other stakeholder groups is where we have fallen down.’

While many climbers may like to think that iwi interests and climbers’ interests align, Palmer describes this as an ‘inevitable cultural clash’.

‘Both groups care deeply and have deep connections with the landscape, but those connections arise in totally different contexts.

‘We need to find a way to bridge that gap, like introducing climbing to the hapu and their culture. We could introduce the young kids there to climbing to build that common understanding. The reverse is also important—exposing climbers to iwi culture to build understanding and respect.

‘It requires a mutual exchange to be beneficial in the long term. That, to me, is the best way to solve long-term the inevitable difference in perspective.’

Is it already too late? As well as the crag closures in Australia, ostensibly to protect indigenous art, some land around Murrin Park in Squamish, Canada, is being returned to indigenous peoples. The land includes the world-class crag Petrifying Wall, prompting concern that access may be jeopardised.

Palmer says the climbing community is at least now trying to address these issues. Historically, climbers have ignored them and hoped for the best.

It is similar to the often frazzled relationship between climbers and conservationists, he says.

‘Generally climbers will avoid having to speak to anyone from DOC. When it comes to getting permission to develop routes, there is no established practice of working with the land manager based on a long-term relationship. I’m as guilty of this as the next person, but the established practice is actually “develop first, ask for forgiveness later”.

‘That’s one of the things about Whanganui Bay—and I include myself in this—but regular climbers there haven’t really nurtured relationships in a broader sense. There are relationships with individuals within the hapu, but not between the communities. That really shows now. We have accumulated no capital or good will.

‘When you have a community that has that approach, including towards indigenous communities, eventually what goes around comes around.’

Smith says he is more positive about the crossover in values between climbers and landowners/iwi, citing the Aspinall family who farm on Mt Aspiring Station and who have greatly supported climbing throughout the Aspiring region for four generations, while the club has provided the family with access to Cascade Hut whenever helpful.

‘Just that partnership, the absolute passion for the land, stopping in for a cup of tea to keep the relationship going, them giving us a call if the hut needs attending to—that’s my model of what we should be doing,’ Smith says.

‘You can’t do it everywhere, but there are lots of places we could do it better. There’s going to be cases where there is a clash, obviously, but there are also cases where, if we had for example sat down with iwi before we even started, then there might be a different outcome.’

Palmer says it is all climbers’ responsibility to nurture relationships with landowners and iwi.

‘There is a subset of users who treat crags like facilities that they’ve paid to use. Once you pay your entry fee to a climbing gym, you feel like you can do what you like there. You can’t take that attitude to a cliff, but you do get people who go there and assume that it’s all been set up by little crag fairies for their amusement.

‘The starting point of any access issue is: what are the local crag users doing about access? Are they enforcing the access rules? Are they playing nice? Are they building relationships with the landowners?’

Both Palmer and Lanning point to last year’s Reel Rock movie about Joe’s Valley, where climbers joined in the town clean-up and later took locals to the boulders to show them what climbing was all about.

‘It was the simple act of putting something back into the community so people don’t perceive climbers as selfish people who just want to use an area and then bugger off,’ Lanning says.

There is also a financial carrot that can be dangled, as kombucha- and chalk-selling stores in Joe’s Valley discovered. Retailers and service providers in Australia’s Blue Mountains have been hurting due to the recent fires, while a recent report estimated that climbers bring $5.5 million to the Red River Gorge region every year.

Meanwhile, Palmer continues to press the case for Whanganui Bay.

‘If we get the chance, I think we can show we can be outstanding and respectful visitors, building relationships and mutual understanding of each others’ cultural perspectives, and enriching everyone’s experience as a result. That’s the holy grail, right?

‘But it will take more than just an access officer, who can help with guidance and documentation and all the rest. At the end of the day, it will take a group of people investing in the relationship.

‘That’s what it takes.’

About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at
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