Environment & Health HKFP Voices Sport

Protect our country parks from developers, not runners

If we are to listen to CY Leung and his cohorts, our country parks are a commodity that we have to trade for reasonably priced housing.  Fortunately, this view isn’t shared by many. For most, they are a place where we can enjoy the great outdoors and participate in a wide variety of sports just a stone’s throw from the city.

But even this broad definition still falls foul of the government, and one such battle line that is now being drawn is between the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) and the trail racing community. When I say battle line, what I really mean are confused, black-box regulations that are being applied to trail races with no clear direction or reasons.

Country parks in Hong Kong. Photo: Wikicommons.

Sai Kung West Country Park. Photo: Wikicommons.

As yet, the trail racing community has been more than accommodating of the new AFCD restrictions imposed on races, with long-standing races having to re-route traditional course with respected history due to the new opaque rules. Just what exactly is motivating these rules is less than clear. Some say it’s to protect delicate trails, other reasons have been cited as, to not disturb the wildlife or most recently, because the AFCD is worried about the personal safety of racers.

All admirable goals, that clearly come under the AFCD’s remit. But one has to stress, if these truly are the reasons, then there are clearly better fixes than the AFCD acting like a nanny state and telling tax-paying Hong Kong residents they can’t run on x trail or y trail.

East Dam, High Island Reservoir

East Dam, High Island Reservoir. Photo: Wikicommons.

By some estimates, HK Country Parks are used up to 12 million times per year, but based on a fair estimate of fewer than 100 races each year and assuming most races have only a couple of hundred participants. With only a handful maxing out at 1,000 participants, trail racing only accounts for approximately 0.6% of total Park usage. Meaning that by any measure, the impact of trail racing is infinitesimally small on the environment in the grand scheme of things.

My personal speculation is that the recent pushback on trail races by the AFCD is more administrative than environmental. Just a few years ago, there was just a handful of races happening during the colder months. Now the racing scene has exploded, and there are sometimes multiple races every weekend. One local website lists 70 trail races in Hong Kong during the peak season from September to March.

Certainly the AFCD has to spend a lot more man-hours monitoring such races than it has ever done before, but it is important to note, this is not commensurate with the environmental impact races are having on the ground. The mushroom in races and time allocation by AFCD officers does not automatically imply higher rates of trail degradation and environmental damage being caused by the racers. It is true that race organizers look for routes that are off the beaten track. But these tracks are used just once a year per race. With the lion share of all races taking place on main trails that are open to all.

Hong Kong Trail

Hong Kong Trail. Photo: Wikicommons.

The solution to moving forward is that the AFCD needs to embrace the trail racing community still further and partner with it more deeply. Preventing a few hundred weekend warriors from going off the beaten track is not environmental management as the numbers are just too small and the frequency too little to make any difference on parks that host a million users per month.

The AFCD needs to realize that the public will not stay on side if it is on one hand taking a hard-line with the certain sectors of the general public, yet stands by while the government moves to allocate vast tracks of prime country park for development. This direction is not the type of guardianship people had in mind.

First and foremost the country parks should be something that the public can use freely without over regulation from a nanny-state – with the priority for any hardline regulations directed at those that wish to destroy the country parks for development and not at those who wish to use them for recreation.

Protect our country parks from developers, not runners