Orienteering and the environment

Posted on January 7, 2010


I am an organiser (course setter or planner) for one of the events held during the Easter Twenty10 orienteering carnival. I have also been involved in orienteering for many years, and last year stood down from the National Board as a Director of Development. This is part of the reason why the recent press release from the National Parks Association (NPA) regarding day 1 of the Easter Twenty10 orienteering carnival, which will be held in Namadgi National Park really frustrated me.

From the Orienteering ACT website:

The NPA has expressed concerns regarding the potential for environmental damage to the park. In response, Orienteering ACT (OACT) would like to make the following points:

  • Orienteering is an environmentally managed sport that allows people of all ages to enjoy the National Park in a manner consistent with the principles of the park management. In particular, orienteers enjoy visiting areas of natural beauty and are firmly committed to conservation of these areas.
  • The dispersed nature of orienteering (competitors start at different times and take different routes between key checkpoints) means that the impacts upon vegetation in any one location are very small. Previous environmental monitoring carried out by OACT in Namadgi National Park following large events confirms minimal impact.
  • Permission for this event has been granted on the condition that rigorous environmental monitoring will be carried out pre-, during and post-event. This monitoring will be independently verified and OACT has offered NPA the opportunity to oversee the study.
  • Large orienteering events like this are held only occasionally in the park (approximately every 3 years on average), but play a great role in promoting Namadgi to visitors from outside the ACT, bringing visitors to ACT, improving health and educating people with regards to the natural environment.
  • Similar large events have been held in previous years (specifically 1994 and 2000) with no observable effect on the environment or other park users.

The ignorance displayed by the NPA is typical of many of the barriers that hurt small National Sporting Organisations along with the increasing red tape. I thought the OACT response was good, but there is more evidence, so I thought I would expand on the environmental impact and orienteering debate, focussing on the potential flora and fauna impact within the orienteering area (the specific orienteering impact, as opposed to issues such as car parking, transport to/from events, recycling, litter, use of materials etc standard with most outdoor activities).

The Research

It appears there has been similar frustration in the UK. In response, the International Orienteering Federation Environment Commission issued a report in May 2005 from a survey of 12 off-track recreations in the Dartmoor National Park (Parker, 2005a). The report showed considerable discrepancies in the attitude towards and management of the different activities by the National Park Authority. In a direct comparison, the report concluded that were club orienteering events permitted during the bird nesting season, their ecological impact on nesting birds would be at least 28000 times less than that of another activity promoted by the Authority. Responsibility on the part of the Commission however recommended that the agreement in Sweden between the environmental authorities and the orienteering federation, concerning the critical elk breeding season, in which club orienteering events are permitted and larger events deferred, provides an example of equitable management practice (Barklund 1987, updated Lundkvist 2002). It should be pointed out though that the scales of events are not really comparable, as a club orienteering event in Sweden may attract the same number of competitors as a major national event in the UK or indeed Australia.

Australian orienteering events are not large (see statistics) and comparable sized studies have concluded that orienteering leaves little or no impact on the environment. In a UK based event with 1200 competitors on a National Heritage area and considered to be of international importance for nature conservation and biological science, most vegetation recovered within three weeks, exceptions; wet sites took longer than six months and a moss site longer than one year (Douglas, 1990). Interestingly, fauna reaction was affected by hunting on the previous day, in my opinion making a bit of a mockery about the concern over an orienteering event.

An important consideration in the effect of orienteering on the environment is that orienteers take their own route through the forest, and only converge at certain points (control points) and different courses utilize different control points meaning the “foot load” on a certain area can be managed very well. This also means fewer individuals than the masses will pass though a certain area. Research by Bader et al (1998) investigated whether trampling by orienteers negatively influenced conservation values in the form of spruce logs in natural-like spruce forest. Ten logs within an area of 20 m x 40 m at a control where 102 adult male competitors passed were inventoried before and after the competition. As a result of trampling, the coverage of bark or mosses decreased by 5 per cent on three 2 m sections. No species of mosses or fungi disappeared from the studied logs. From a conservation point of view the impact must be considered insignificant.

An independent biological survey on routes in the 2001 World Orienteering Championships (Tampere, Finland) showed no harm to any significant or valuable area (Environmental Audit Team, 2002). Some new minor trails in places were visible but these were expected to disappear within a year or so as supported by the previous research. Moss dislodged from rock would take longer to recover fully but the overall impact of the competition was considered to be minor.

An orienteering event with over 1000 competitors that has recorded an impact on fauna was an event in the UK in 1999 (Parker, 2005b). The event had no observable effect of the migrant Northern Wheatear breeding success of the nests within the competition area. However, four nests were abandoned in the derelict quarry used for the car parking and the competition facilities. In this case the propensity for Wheatear to nest in such man-made terrain was unknown to the event organisers. Nevertheless it was concluded that breeding Wheatear are very tolerant of transient disturbance.

Australian research investigating the impact of orienteering on the environment has derived similar low to no impact conclusions. There is low to no impact of orienteering on lichen covered rocks (Moore, 1988), vegetation (Friend and Napier, 1987) and even specifically within Namadgi National Park (Moore, 2007). I also recall a ranger in the Coorong National Park stating that there was very minimal disturbance (“I can’t even tell where they ran”) after a major national orienteering event over sand dunes, although I cant find any reference to it.

A full review of scientific studies into the environmental impact of orienteering has been compiled by the International Orienteering Federation (Parker, 2005c).There is a limitation to this article, and these reviews in that almost all these studies are published by a group with a vested interest. Some of them have been conducted independently, but many not. Unfortuntalely there is little interest in others conducting this research either because they don’t care, or they would rather deny access through nievety rather than evidence.

Policy and Practices

Orienteers tend to be very environmentally conscious and include policy and practices that serve to minimize environmental impact. Orienteering South Australia is even a member of the Conservation Council of South Australia. Orienteering Australia provides a site dedicated to these environmental type issues. Orienteering Australia’s environmental policy reflects this, as do those of other nations such as British Orienteering, and USA Orienteering. Even at the highest level, World Championships, environmental issues are considered during the 2001 World Orienteering Championships, some confidential sensitive zone information was noted by the course planner but not recorded on any maps, in order to preserve its confidentiality (Environmental Audit Team, 2002). All these zones were designated out of bounds and avoided by the courses. Practices such as these are common as shown in these examples of management plan or submissions from orienteers about ways to manage issues between orienteering associations and landowners. This practice just requires open communication, and not nieve, blanket hostile responses.

Human Nature

After all outdoor recreation is the best way to build relationship between people and nature (Zakaria et al 2008). According to Jaffry, Md Amin and Benderi (2005), the environment is damaged when individuals do not have an awareness and care towards maintaining the whole ecosystem.

Orienteering images from http://www.orienteering.asn.au/environment

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