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After Years Of Debate, Australia's Iconic Red Rock Will Be Off-Limits To Climbers

A view of Uluru in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia in 2013. Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, is a large sandstone formation situated in central Australia approximately 335 kilometers from Alice Springs. The site and its surrounding area is scared to the Anangu, the Indigenous people of this area, and is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.

For years, visitors to Uluru — Australia's iconic sandstone rock — have been greeted with a trail to the top and a sign with a simple request: "Please don't climb."

Climbing the rock is permitted under the rules of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, but it violated the traditional law of the Aboriginal owners of the rock.

Now park policy and Aboriginal principles are, finally, coming into alignment.

Beginning on Oct. 26, 2019, climbing Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) will be prohibited.

The park's Board of Management voted unanimously to approve the change, which has been the subject of lengthy discussion.

The board had previously indicated it wouldn't ban climbing until fewer than 20 percent of visitors to the park chose to climb the rock, or it was otherwise clear that the park could attract visitors even with a ban.

Now the park management says there has been "a significant reduction" in climbers, and that the time has come to make the policy change. The nearly two-year delay in implementation is part of a commitment to give at least 18 months' notice to the tourism industry. And the date of Oct. 26 was chosen because it's an anniversary; on Oct. 26 in 1985, custodianship of the park was transferred back to its Aboriginal owners, the Anangu.

Anangu owners make up a majority of the park's board and would have been able to institute a policy change without the backing of the non-Anangu board members.

However, The Guardian reports, "it's understood they have always sought unanimity on closing the climb."

The Guardian has more on the vote:

"The chair of the board, traditional owner Sammy Wilson, made an impassioned speech to the board before the vote, describing the pressure he and other Indigenous people felt over the issue.

" 'Over the years Anangu have felt a sense of intimidation, as if someone is holding a gun to our heads to keep it open. Please don't hold us to ransom,' he said."

In a statement from the park board, Wilson said the decision was something to "feel proud about."

"Closing the climb is not something to feel upset about but a cause for celebration. Let's come together; let's close it together," he said. "If I travel to another country and there is a sacred site, an area of restricted access, I don't enter or climb it, I respect it. It is the same here for Anangu. We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity."

In the Anangu tradition, Uluru is a sacred place and climbing it is inherently disrespectful. But that's not the only objection, as Australia's ABC Radio National reported in 2015:

"The path left by rubber from the soles of climbers' shoes is visible from kilometres away and some tourists leave litter and damage the rock. Moreover, extreme heat and a lack of toilet facilities mean that large amounts of evaporated, concentrated human urine flow into the area's waterholes whenever it rains.

"Perhaps most disturbingly, many people die climbing Uluru. Thirty people have died in recent decades, a fact that the site's traditional owners reportedly find very distressing."

There have also been individual incidents of disrespect by climbers, including a woman who climbed to the top of Uluru and stripped. (She said it was "a tribute to the greatness of the Rock," not an act of disrespect.) There have also been reports of people defecating on the sacred site.

A chain on the path to the top of the rock was installed before the custodianship of the site was returned to the Anangu.

One element of enforcing a ban might be to remove the chain, "which would make climbing Uluru physically difficult," Australia's ABC News reports. The walking tracks on the rock could be removed, and steep fines levied for people who step on Uluru.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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