Stringybark Ridge, once the site of a long abandoned pony club, is part of the Berowra Valley National Park (BVNP). The main parties involved seemed then to be in agreement that this is how it should remain. All NSW national parks are governed by a legally binding Plan of Management (PoM).
After more than two years of community consultation with a wide range of local sporting and recreational groups, neighbours and other community groups a new Regional Park PoM was supported by both Hornsby Council and NPWS. This PoM stated that the main recreational use of the park was for bush walking, with some provision for limited dog walking on three management trails.
Hornsby Council, after a careful review of potential sports grounds in the Shire, adopted a Sports Facility Strategy Plan, which specifically discounted the possibility of ever again using the old pony club site for active sporting purposes. All of which would seem to indicate that the future of Stringybark Ridge as an easily accessible urban lung for the local community, rather than as a basis for team sporting ovals, was assured.
Despite the agreements reached above, then mayor, Nick Berman, unilaterally wrote to local state MPs asking for their support for the Stringybark Ridge site to be made available to provide additional team sporting facilities for soccer, cricket, AFL, netball and ‘other sports’, including attendant amenity blocks and spectator support arrangements and parking (see STEP Matters 165, p2–4 for full details of the ensuring events).
NPWS issued a new draft PoM which, while specifically required under the relevant legislation ‘to protect and conserve’ the area, in point of fact proposed a spectacular reversal of their own previous policy.
Page 18 identified Stringybark Ridge as a potential area for a number of purposes, including ‘activities of a recreational, sporting, educational or cultural nature’ and Hornsby Council proposed building change rooms, amenities buildings, kiosks, parking and to erect tower lighting. The facilities would be used both mid-week and over weekends.
The draft PoM went on to state that NPWS would, in consultation with the community and Hornsby Council, prepare a precinct plan for Stringybark Ridge to articulate the specific activities and facilities for future use, including possible planned future use.
STEP understands and is sympathetic to the fact that local sporting groups sometimes wish for additional sporting facilities. However, our primary purpose has always been, and remains, the protection of our remaining natural urban bushland. No-one is making any more urban bushland and with Sydney’s population set to grow substantially over the next two decades, Stringybark Ridge is in many respects a test of how our local society and political leadership will address the competing interests of urban growth and urban bushland protection.
We all know that it is bad debt management to pay off one credit card by racking up the debt on another and the same goes for our management of our ecological debt. Ultimately the quality of our urban life style is a wholly owned subsidiary of the health and quality of our natural environment and we as a society need to protect both. Taking our local environment for granted is no more sensible that taking our global environment for granted. One is simply a subset of the other and we can no longer plunder either with impunity. With human population impacts now so large in urban environments such as Sydney, past ways of thinking that there is always going to be enough ‘free land’ for all requirements can no longer prevail.
Stringybark Ridge is ideally suited to provide the vast majority of local residents safe and close contact with the natural bushland. The PoM quotes research which has time and again indicated the health advantages of this type of exercise.
Stringybark Ridge is also one of the relatively few significant ridge top sites still located within urban national park boundaries, making for easier walking by the many middle-aged locals.
The PoM (p20) also confirms that in terms of physical activities in NSW, walking is by far the most popular undertaken by any group (55%). Hornsby Council’s own Unstructured Recreation Facility Plan (2009) reflects essentially the same finding, this time across the totality of the shire as a whole.
While the Environmental Defenders Office NSW has questioned the legality of the proposed sports fields’ construction, if approved Stringybark Ridge will establish a precedent which other well-organised pressure groups will likely use in an attempt to have new team sporting facilities and amenities built in national parks throughout NSW. A netball complex here, a BMX track there, more space for team sports somewhere else.
All perfectly understandable in one sense, but signalling the death of a thousand cuts for our already small amount of land set aside for conservation. It is common knowledge that there are currently ‘on hold’ well-developed plans to also have an extensive mountain bike track system built around the Stringybark Ridge site, for which initial site planning has already commenced, and there is little doubt that this will be the next cab off the rank if the sports fields are approved.
After that, what? Quad bikes and motorised trail bikes?
STEP understands that in a civil society all groups are free to approach local elected officials to help them achieve their goals. We however also expect our elected representatives to fully represent our interest in protecting urban bushland and with regard to the Stringybark Ridge that effort seems to have been manifestly absent. While the bushland has no vote, the mass of local walkers who do so all want to have their interests protected, but we need to remind them. After all, the team sporting lobby groups do so all the time.
The PoM was on public exhibition until 6 July 2015. Submissions are now being reviewed (with input from the Metro North East Regional Advisory Committee and NPWS). A final plan will be considered for adoption by the Minister for the Environment.