Canberra horse riders may have noticed a certain amount of noise in the last couple of weeks about the failure of Coombs Parkrun to receive a permit to restart its activities at North-Weston Ponds when the other five in Canberra did. The Coombs Parkrun Facebook has been especially unhappy and we know Parkrunners have been contacting MLAs and the Press. The ACTEA President features in a Canberra Times article in need of a good editor and a much better ABC 666 interview with AnnVidot.
The Parkrun argument can be summarised as: the route is a shared path, they only use it for an hour on a Saturday and Parkrun is a community building activity so has special value. Some also argue that horses can go somewhere else.
While the Parkrun event is not lengthy it takes place in the morning when horse riders want to get out and back before the heat, especially in Summer. Although the fastest runners complete the course in around half an hour the majority are slower and will take inside an hour. The slowest, who sometimes walk or who are pushing strollers, have been timed at longer.
ACTEA and the BNT Coordinator have been in discussions with the ACT Government since late 2018 when we discovered that City Services had issued an annual permit for a running event on the BNT route through the North-Weston Ponds without discussing the matter with us or even informing us of the decision. It transpired that the permit officer did not agree that the BNT went where we said it did and did not agree that the BNT MOU a) applied to City Services or b) was even current. We have never succeeded in getting this individual to change his mind on these matters but it is clear that City Services has now moved on since Parks & Conservation confirmed our version of the BNT route.
North Weston Ponds is not a destination for the local horse riders; as part of the Bicentennial National Trail it is the only connecting route they can use to cross the Molonglo River to the safe riding trails in the Arboretum. For close to 12 months it has not been possible to get to the Arboretum at all unless you are riding from north of the lake or using the causeway behind Equestrian Park.
The Parkrun route has changed since the permit was initially issued. In 2018 the route used the BNT from near the northern pond and then along the Coombs sewer maintenance track past the access track to Southwells Crossing. When the Suburban Land Agency erected security fencing around Coombs to undertake landscaping at the beginning of 2020 they closed access to Southwells Crossing. Parkrun was moved entirely over on to the BNT route.
In an effort to ameliorate the impact of this permit Place Management officers in City Services offered to erect signage at pinch points and required Parkrun organisers to include advice about the possibility of meeting horses in their pre-run briefing. They were also asked to include mention of horses on their website. Although the offer of signs was made in January 2019 ACTEA received advice that the signs were about to be installed just as all permits were cancelled by Covid in early 2020. Parkrun has in fact included the one word ‘horses’ on their Coombs Parkrun website.
At no stage were we able to make either Parkrun or City Services understand that, regardless of sign, very few horses were ever going to stand their ground in the face of 100+ people running in their direction, some of them pushing kids in strollers or with dogs lashed to their waists. They were no more likely to want to walk past such a group if they stopped and jogged on the spot. It was like talking to a brick wall.
Although Parkrun spends a short time at the Ponds on a Saturday, and that is clearly uppermost in the minds of people upset by recent developments, the very fact of their regular permit pushes many of the other (and there are many) one-off and irregular running, orienteering, masters etc events on to the Sunday. Since the fiasco of the Terra in the Berra bike race on the BNT last year, the Permits and Licencing people have been very conscientious about requiring community events to contact us if they want to use any part of the BNT. So we know just how many events are using this same route on a Sunday. Given the high participation in sporting activities in Canberra, a permanent booking on the BNT on one day of the weekend can mean there are entire weekends a month when horse riders would not feel it is safe to risk trying to traverse the Ponds.
When Parkrun applied for a new group permit to return to running at the end of October they were issued with a new twelve month permit for all events except Coombs. For the first time since all this began ACTEA was actually invited to provide comments on the issuing of the permit which of course we did. City Services have finally realised that sticking up signs provides no level of safety, they have an obligation to keep the Bicentennial National Trail open and safe, and the COVID hiatus has provided an opportunity to find a more mutually suitable arrangement.
The big game changer in all this, which gives us hope for a better outcome, is that the Suburban Land Agency is about to take down its security fencing and unveil their nice new community paths around Coombs. They have also been talking and walking with ACTEA about a horse trail along the River from North Weston Ponds around to Stromlo Forest Park. They are going out of their way to assist in finding a solution that maintains a very wide separation between the new BNT trail and the community paths.
At last checking Parkrun had not got back to City Services about the offer of an alternate route so we are still waiting to see what the outcome will be. Hopefully a ride across the Molonglo to the Arboretum horse yards will be on the cards by Xmas.