Accessing public places through private land

Canyons are all on public land right, so our continued access to them isn’t a problem? Well, the more you canyon, or bushwalk, or do any other outdoor pursuits, the more often you discover that there are many amazing areas that require private land to be crossed to reach them. In fact, it is surprising how many popular places are accessed by crossing private land — with consent — without most people even realising.

But the problem with this is that legally we have no right to be there. The ongoing good behaviour of other canyoners is the only thing sustaining our access, and the actions of one group of idiots could potentially close off large areas. In recent years the canyoning community had to deal with this issue when a new landholder at Mt Tomah closed the long-running access to Claustral — one of the most beautiful canyons in the Blue Mountains. After two years an alternative was found, but it certainly caused a lot of angst during that time.

Interestingly, it seems this problem is only going to become a bigger one. The NSW Government quietly announced in 2012 that it was going to speed up the process of selling off “paper roads” — those little strips of land that actually allow public access into many areas. According to their announcement, over the next four years they want to finalise the sale of almost 10,000 of these sections of public land to neighbouring landholders.

All this means two things for people who, like us, love visiting wild places. Firstly, we need to put some pressure on the government to ensure existing access by bushwalkers and canyoners is considered in any land sales (which can be as simple as sending a letter to your local MP). Secondly, we need to look at how we interact with private landholders in key areas to ensure we create cooperative relationships that can sustain future access. Unfortunately, gaining permission to cross private land looks like something that will increasingly be required.

The origin of this post was actually an email I sent to the OzCanyons group, but I’ve expanded it substantially based on the feedback I received. In fact, this was something I had been meaning to write for a while but was finally inspired by Adrian’s four day exploratory trip over the Australia Day long weekend. His trip to some remote wilderness canyons around Numietta Creek in the northern Wollemi — like many in this region — required access through private property.

For a huge distance north of Glen Davis, the western boundary of the Wollemi is bordered by private property. Even where there are fire trails, they often have locked gates and also traverse through private land. As in the case of the old Claustral access route, this can only be done with the consent of landowners.

While the number of canyoners heading into this area is still relatively small, it is growing, and the actions of each group can have profound impacts on how future canyoners are treated by local landholders. Given people in country areas like this generally know each other, one stuff-up has the potential to have all of us locked out of huge areas. On the other side, concerted efforts to do the right thing will pay dividends, and confirm that canyoners are good people that can be trusted. It is something we all need to play a part in.

Interestingly, this situation is technically the same for some of our most popular canyons. As Pete Raines reminded me, access tracks to many of the Mt Wilson canyons also cross private property and some of these access tracks have had problems with owners at various times. Like Claustral, if these properties are sold, subdivided, or developed in future, these new owners could decide they do not want canyoners crossing their land.

Much of the exit track for Wollangambe 2 is on private property (pretty much once you’re on the basalt soil it is all private property). The Northern Fire Trail, which runs from the Cathedral of Ferns back to the Wollangambe 1 exit also crosses the bottom of about 10 private properties — including one belonging to someone that has previously tried stop walkers using the track. The Mill Road / Southern Fire Trail access to Bowens Creek North Canyon also crosses private property for several kilometres. And the Wollangambe 1 entrance track from near the fire station also crosses private properties.

Recently, I received an enquiry from someone looking for contact details for certain properties in the Numietta area. This got me thinking a bit more about the appropriate ethics, and practicalities, of crossing private land. To get a better perspective on it I had a more substantial conversation with a local to clarify their feelings, and a few things came out of it:

  1. Private landholders in these areas are genuinely concerned about our welfare. Over the years they have seen countless searches — and even body removals — involving outdoor enthusiasts. Given that, a strange car left in their paddock for several days is a great worry.
  2. They have been burnt in the past by outdoor enthusiasts. In recent times the owners of The Nile received a commendation from several government agencies for their work in a rescue. Despite the seriousness of the incident, and their efforts, the “victims” apparently never even made contact to offer a simple thanks. You can imagine how that kind of behaviour went down!
  3. Canyoners and bushwalkers need to remember that these properties are not only people’s businesses, they are also their homes. Understanding it is someone’s “backyard” (yes, it’s a bloody big yard), means treating it as you expect your own yard to be treated. How many of us would like cars left in our yard, or strangers traipsing through without permission?
  4. Many people who access these properties without consent are actually up to no good. Many of these landholders have problems with hoons illegally hunting or driving 4WD vehicles on their properties. Given that, any strangers are legitimately considered high risk.
  5. There are a number of property owners who are already pissed off. The owners of Numietta do not want anyone going on their land, including canyoners. Other families have been previously burnt, including by having their contact details or property details published online (I won’t name them, because that will only inflame their concerns).
  6. Even those who are happy to facilitate our enquiries are concerned that they will be overrun by people going canyoning every weekend. Their fear is that with growing numbers, sooner or later something will go amiss and spoil it for everyone.

So what can we, as canyoners and bushwalkers, do to protect access to these canyons and prevent a repeat of the Claustral access situation?

Personally, I think there are a couple of really simple rules worth following that will hopefully create positive relationships and confirm that we outdoorsy folk are actually good people who treat local landholders, and the bush, with respect:

  1. If at all possible, plan your route so that it avoids private land. For the example of the canyons in the northern Wollemi, access the region from Glen Davis, or from the north via Dunns Swamp. Neither route requires you to cross private land. Going north in particular allows you to access vast swathes of the region via publicly owned State Forest.
  2. If you must cross private land, make every effort to contact the landholders first to ask for permission. (If you can’t find a phone number, send a letter). If all else fails, make an approach directly by driving up and knocking on the door of the house.
  3. Respect the wishes of locals. If you request access, and it is denied, don’t go sneaking in. It might get you through this trip, but it will make it so much harder for future groups. Make sure you have a fallback plan.
  4. When you finish the trip, take a few minutes to drop in, let them know you have returned safely, and thank them for their hospitality. It doesn’t take much effort but it is appreciated. If they’re not home, put a note under their door. At least that saves them any worry.
  5. Do not publish names, contact details, or other personal information relating to private landholders. If you want to visit an area, find someone who has been there and discretely ask for a contact.
  6. Leave gates as you find them. If it was open, leave it that way, and if it was closed, re-close it.
  7. Make sure you don’t leave any rubbish behind. Also take the effort to pick up any rubbish that you see, leaving the property cleaner than you found it.
  8. Avoid making toilet stops on private property. Often the land will be part of their water supplies. If you absolutely must go, ensure you do it away from watercourses and bury your waste at least 15cms down (as per the Bushwalkers Code of Ethics).
  9. Limit the noise of your group. Even loud voices can ruin the tranquility that many people living in these areas are seeking. Be even more aware if you are camping near private property, and planning to have a rowdy night around the camp fire!
  10. Keep on existing tracks. Whether you are driving or walking, avoid making new tracks or eroding the sides of existing tracks. Causing visible damage to the land provides a perfectly valid reason for owners looking to close off access.
  11. If you happen to find a locked gate open, that isn’t an excuse to drive further than you know you are permitted.

Ensuring future access for canyoners and bushwalkers requires us to all play our part. Being respectful and showing some simple consideration will see us all far more welcome when we head out to explore these amazing parts of the world. On the other side of the coin, failure to get this right will only mean we will all lose out.

I’ll finish with some feedback from Joe Mack — an old time SUBW member now living in the USA. He was planning an amateur geology field trip recently, and on his reconnaissance he discovered a great spot just below a dam on a farm where erosion had exposed the junction between two layers of rock. He went to the nearest house to ask permission, but found it was a B&B that was closed for the winter. That was the last he thought of it.

Then, after receiving my initial email discussing this issue, he realised he hadn’t made a good enough effort to ask permission and decided to have another go contacting the owners. He eventually tracked down the owner’s daughter-in-law and explained who they were, and why they wanted to go on the farm. It turned out that on the day they were planning the trip, the owner’s son-in-law was due to be there, working on a barn, so had they turned up unannounced they would certainly have been spotted, and likely kicked off the property. Instead they had the opportunity to explain why the areas was so significant, carry out some public education, and build good will for future trips by amateur geologists.

I was really encouraged by this summary of the situation from Joe:

“I’ve never had to deal with private land before. I’m mortified to think that except for your e-mail, I wouldn’t have done anything, risking getting us thrown off the land, giving me a black eye with the people in the club and creating ill-will with the locals. This has been an interesting positive lesson for me.”

In the end, it turned out he had actually been seen on the initial reconnaissance trip, but that by doing the right thing and making contact with the owner’s family, everything worked out fine.

As someone who has sailed a little close to the wind at times on access issues, these recent experiences have really cemented my views about the importance of doing the right thing when it comes to access. Sure, you might get away with it on this trip, but as a canyoner who passionately believes in ensuring my pursuit is sustainable — both environmentally and socially — doing the right thing by the humans we come across is also an absolute necessity to guarantee others can have the same experiences in future.

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Do you have any other tips for maintaining good relationships with private landholders? What have your experiences been — both with what works, and what doesn’t? And are you aware of access issues that threaten to close off canyoning or bushwalking regions?

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