ROCK climbers could be allowed to return to some of the Grampians' restricted cliff faces after Parks Victoria brokered a truce with tour operators and Aboriginal Victoria, over fears that precious rock art sites had been damaged by tourism.
At a crisis meeting at Halls Gap on Tuesday, attended by about 15 licensed tour operators, Parks Victoria and Aboriginal Victoria representatives, the government opened the window to the possibility of allowing groups to return to sites that have been recently declared off limits.
The stoush began in March when Parks Victoria closed "special protection areas" of the national park to climbers, over claims they were damaging rock art up to 20,000 years old.
Known as Gariwerd in local Djab Wurrung and Jardwardjali languages, the Grampians 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.
Daniel Earl, who organises climbs for operator Hangin' Out, said about one third of his business was "already compromised" by the bans.
"Already, since the closures, I've had many of my school customers and general public customers ring up and ask me if I'm still allowed to take people rock climbing in the Mount Grampians," Mr Earl said on Monday.
Licensed operators will be barred from popular climbing spot Summerday Valley after June 30 when their permits run out.
But Mr Earl said Parks Victoria appeared to be focussed on reopening the site to licensed tours in some capacity as part of a review of the park management plan.
Summerday Valley would remain a special protection area, but he said Parks appeared to be looking for solutions that could work for both tour operators and traditional owners.
A Parks Victoria spokesman said they had "a positive and constructive meeting" on Tuesday.
"We will continue to talk with rock climbers, tour operators and park users on how they can continue to enjoy the park in a way that ensures it is protected as a national treasure."
Dylan Clarke, chairman of the Barengi Gadjin Land Council, which represents the traditional owners, in April said 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."
Fines of up to $1.612 million could be slapped on corporations - including Parks Victoria - for damaging cultural heritage. A government spokesperson confirmed fines could be as big as $290,142 for individuals under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006.
Climbers acknowledged invaluable rock art may not have been properly cared for in the past, but wanted to work with traditional owners to protect the area.
"There needs to be some recognition, I think, personally, to the traditional owners because this is their spiritual land and it has been compromised and we need to acknowledge that, assess it, and apologise for what's happened," Mr Earl said.
"For me it's like walking on someone's grave, to do that and not say sorry is pretty disrespectful."
The biggest stoush between climbers and authorities was over a single picture, released by Parks Victoria when they announced the bans. It shows what looks like a climbing bolt in rock art.
But Parks got it wrong. The bolt was part of an old safety cage installed to protect the rock art. Parks apologised and pulled the image, but it soured the relationship.
The Grampians Bouldering Festival was cancelled last Wednesday because of what the directors described as "the shit show", conceding they would not be able to get the necessary permits to go ahead.
Ross Taylor, a co-director and editor of climbing magazine Vertical Life, said he thought the bans had been mismanaged.
Parks Victoria is running a 12-month review of its Grampians Management Plan, last updated in 2003, to cover the next 15 years.
More than 25,000 people have signed a petition to reverse the ban.
The Age,with Liam Mannix