• Tony Bosworth

Horse riders saddling up to take on NPWS on ancient forest trails

Trails as old as 60,000 years at risk if horse riders get banned from using them, say supporters

An army of horse riders and their supporters are forming to see off National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) over its plans to formalise and manage horse-riding trails in the area around Wheeny Creek and Mountain Lagoon.

The horse lovers say the proposed changes – which are in a consultation period until March 14 - would see current trails fractured – would mean riders having to get from one trail to another on often busy roads – and it could also mean many trails as old as 60,000 years would disappear altogether.

The NPWS has published a draft management plan that proposes a number of recreational trails in the south-east area of Wollemi National Park - a 28,000-hectare area that was not heavily impacted by last summer's bushfires, according to NPWS.

The plan identifies proposed authorised horse riding routes in the National Park areas next to Mountain Lagoon, Upper Colo, Wheeny Creek, Blaxlands Ridge Road and Kurrajong, and outlines conditions for horse-riding in those areas.

But horse riders are not at all happy with the plans and they are determined not to let NPWS ride roughshod over them.

Pic - Eberhard Grossgasteiger

Brian Swan is a seasoned endurance competition rider based in Wilberforce and he knows the Hawkesbury trails well. He says without horse riders continuing on the tracks - which he says in many cases go right back to Aboriginal times – they would disappear with neglect.

“Horse riders help keep these ancient trails open. If we are limited in the way NPWS are suggesting, many of these trails will soon get overgrown and disappear. In many cases, lantana just spreads and then the track is gone. NPWS simply don’t have the budget or the manpower to keep these historic trails open.”

Mr Swan says in the Colonial era, settlers would have moved their herds along what were originally Aboriginal trails and he adds that is a heritage which must be preserved. Mr Swan says there are also practical considerations.

“The concession of less than 20km of fragmented tracks scattered from Putty Rd to Bilpin from a potential area of 500,000 hectares does not seem reasonable.”

Endurance riding events in the Hawkesbury can involve up to 150 riders and are an exercise in speed, endurance and skill. They are highly regulated events, with vets on hand to ensure riders are doing the right thing by their horses, and great care is taken of the environment too.

“The continuum of history, by immersion in the environment, is important as a connection to the land and country,” says Mr Swan who has put a submission into NPWS.

“First Australians, descendants of the early settlers and anyone who feels an

affinity with our land will be denied this access. And is it reasonable to ban the use of a track and force horses to use formed council roads? The ever increasing 4WD traffic, motorcycles, and other users, particularly on weekends, puts horse riders at risk.”

Bilpin resident Mrs Bronwen Hawkins has lived in the area for 35 years and married a sixth generation local and she has also put a submission into the NPWS.

“Members of my husband’s family over the years have used some of these trails throughout the park to drive cattle through the mountains and into the valleys to graze, as it was a way of life back then,” Mrs Hawkins said.

This picture and its words has been put together by Brian Swan. He says it's an example of how horses and riders may well have to regularly share the road with 4WDs, trail bikers and cyclists if the proposed track changes go ahead

“These trails are currently in use by horse riders like myself. This saddens me immensely as these trails have been there for many, many, many years and are part of a network of trails keeping many people like myself fit, healthy and active in which is a very important point in itself in these times.

“These trails provide a safe place for my family and friends to ride in our beautiful bush in which we love and care passionately about! The last thing we want is to be locked out. How can we share our admiration and love with our younger generations to come of the boundless beauty and the importance of our flora and fauna if they are not allowed to enter and see this wonderland for themselves?

“If we no longer use these trails we will lose them forever, along with important historical significance to the bush men and women, local farmers, Indigenous people and others that lived here for the generations before us, forging these tracks on foot with nothing but hard work, blood, sweat and tears, which is what has kept them going,” said Mrs Hawkins.

One of the ancient horse trails in Wollemi National Park. Pic - Brian Swan

Well known Mountain Lagoon resident Charlie Gauci is also adding his weight against the proposals as they currently stand. Mr Gauci is a member of the NSW Endurance Riders Association (NSWERA) and he organises the annual Mountain Lagoon endurance ride. He is also a Deputy Captain in the Mountain Lagoon RFS and is the brigade’s community engagement officer.

“I have walked Wards track with park rangers to assess the track and regularly come across, and have conversations with park rangers whilst riding my horses,” Mr Gauci says.

“While it is great to see that National Parks recognises the importance and significance of horse riding in this part of the Wollemi National Park it is disappointing that the end result of seven years of planning for the release of this document only results in significantly less trails for horse riders to use than are currently in use and have been for at least the last 20 years that I have been riding in this part of the Wollemi.”

According to Brian Swan, who took this picture, here's an example of how invasive weeds can take over when tracks are not used

Mr Gauci says if the proposed draft proposals were put into action it would mean he was breaking the law by moving his seven horses – sometimes he has as many as 14 on his property - between properties along Long Ridge Fire Trail.

“In its current form, it will be illegal for me to ride my horse from my property onto Long Ridge fire trail as Long Ridge is to be an events only trail. I use Long Ridge to move my horses from property to property within Mountain Lagoon so as not to have to use the public road, which will also be illegal if the draft is accepted in its current form.”

NPWS Director David Crust says there is “a long history” of horse-riding in the area and under the draft management plan - which aims to identify authorised horse riding routes and decide on their future management - riders would continue to be able to use the area.

“We're proposing to formalise a series of low-impact riding trails that essentially follow existing park management trails,” Mr Crust.

“Doing so will minimise impacts on threatened species and the conservation values of the area, as well as tie into our existing trail maintenance program.

“The draft plan will ensure we have management arrangements in place to support unique and enjoyable horse-riding opportunities for the community."

Feedback on the Draft Horse Riding Management Plan: South East Wollemi National Park can be made online at bit.ly/3sQJtBf until March 14.

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