Some thoughts on the re-opening of Mt Coonowrin

posted by Dave Reeve


I was asked by a poster on Qurank, why I was so confident that Coonowrin would be re-opened for climbing, and what I thought the steps should be to achieve that goal.

So, I sat down to compose an answer, but as I did so, a monster began to emerge. As I followed down each twist and turn, descended into each rabbit hole, it became clear that I had already given the only simple answer possible – ‘because it will’. The full answer proved convoluted and is only for those that like paper more than rock.

Why do I think Coonowrin will be re-opened?

Easy….. because there is no reason for it to be closed, and every reason for it to be open. Fortify this reality with an ever increasing number of the voting public who would see value in it being open and you have the impetus for change.

Why is it closed?

Because of the risk to the public from rock fall. You can read the official position here.

Viewed from todays standpoint, the closure makes no sense. Coonowrin is no more, or no less, likely to drop rocks on those below than any other steep cliff situated on the public estate. We have seen this fact clearly illustrated in the wider Glasshouse park where Crooky was closed, ostensibly for reasons of public safety, but in the event, it was Beerwah that actually let fly with several potentially lethal barrages.

Why was it closed (a different question)?

To understand the closure, we need to go back a few decades and look at the history of park administration. This is a history I covered in my essay linked here. I’ll crib a few paragraphs to save typing –

Several other societal trends over this period play into the story. In the fifties, such National Parks as existed were managed by a state apparatus whose motivation was primary production and the exploitation of the state’s resources. Under these circumstances, located as they were on “worthless” land, NPs inevitably acquired Cinderella status, and there was no clear vision and no underpinning legislation to guide their management.

However, with growing affluence came “green” ideology, which began to impact the political discourse. In 1975 the National Parks and Wildlife Service was formed leading to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service a few years later. Although, no clear legislative framework was in place as to how QPWS should manage the parks under its supervision, a shift occurred within the public service whereby conservation values gained primacy in the formulation of management policy. There followed a phase of management best likened to locking the public library for fear of people damaging the contents through the wilful act of reading.

In 1992, the Nature Conservation Act came into force, and for the first time, we see articulated in the state legislation a clear vision for the role of National Parks, and the principles by which they should be managed. Underlying this legislation, one of several eminently practical principles can be seen at play. Namely, the best outcome for the preservation of the natural environment within the National Parks will ensue if every effort is made to present to the public that which is considered worthy of preservation.

However, clear as it was that the QPWS had a duty to present the estate containing Coonowrin, and clear as it was that there was no question of compromise to the park’s conservation values, the administration pulled the trick (one that they have since used on two other occasions) of closing the park under the subordinate legislation of the NCA relevant to the safety of visitors. This was achieved by the simple dodge of having geotechnical engineers report on the likelihood of the cliff dropping rocks on people below. Not surprisingly, any such report will point to the obvious and ever present risk of rock fall.

Thus we have an administration with a history of shutting out climbers and bushwalkers now finding a reason to close the park at Coonowrin. I guess this is hardly surprising, but why Coonowrin and not any of the other peaks?  Well, there is also the fact that there was an active quarry situated at the base of the mountain, and plenty of rumours abound concerning the risk posed to the stability of the mountain from blasting operations close to its base, versus a desire within the body politic to keep the quarry operational…. but as I say, rumours and not facts.

This closure was peculiar in other ways. Quoting again from my essay

In the closing days of 1999, a profound hiatus opened between the climbing community and land managers when Mt Coonowrin, a major and unique facet of South East Queensland climbing, was closed to public access. The closure was pre-emptive, with no public consultation period, and I believe, without the knowledge of the public servants who were actively engaging the climbing community via the South East Queensland Rockclimbing and Abseiling Site Management Forum. This unfortunate mis-step destroyed the trust that had been built up, and pushed  the new surging interest in sport climbing “underground”, with the subsequent development of sport crags being carried out “below the radar” of the land management.

I have little doubt the closure was a politically naïve misstep by someone who had no idea of the burgeoning outdoor recreation movement that would soon appear on the scene to demand access to what, after all, is a public space.

The distinction between why Crooky was closed, and why it should remain closed, is important, because it points to the fact that the current closure is little more than an unfortunate artefact from earlier times when bureaucratic overreach was cultivated for its labour-saving excellence.

Is Coonowrin less stable than other Glasshouse peaks?

The nature of the peak is to present a rack of hexagonally jointed columns which are oriented predominantly in the vertical plane. This means that within geological, not human, timescales it will erode by sloughing-off parts of columns and large blocks. In this sense, it is similar to Ngungun, but unlike say Tibrogargan, which is more massive, but definitely no more stable, on its steeper aspects. As with Ngungun, the presence of vertical joints adds a important component to the recreational climbing value of the mountain.

There is also the issue of the large slip block on the NW aspect which is slowly (geological timescales again) grinding its way down the mountain. My old traddie horror-show , “Mank Master”, has one pitch contained entirely within the slip face…. very cool and very unusual. Is it active? You betcha. Is is dangerous? Yep, in the same way as an impacting meteorite is dangerous….. probably not worth worrying about, but undoubtedly an awesome, if fleeting, experience.

For a number of years, SEQ climber, Rob Manthey, patiently surveyed old Crooky (with QPWS consent) looking for signs of instability. You can access his risk assessment here.  The main conclusion was –

In summary, from both theoretical extensions to Coffey Coonowrin 1999 [1] estimations of rock fall frequencies and intensive observations on site, the risk to any individual visiting the site falls within common guidelines for personal risk acceptability.

So the upshot is that there is no evidence that Coonowrin poses any more of a danger to visitors than other peaks within the Glasshouse NP. The attributes that make these mountains attractive to the visitor are the very ones that manifest the hazard of rock fall, and consequently it is not possible to present the unique values of the Glasshouse peaks without elevating the risk profile for the adventurous visitor. QPWS are charged with presenting the park, and shutting it to visitors is a lazy response to the problem of public liability, a cop-out that  a growing and increasingly outdoor-active population are starting to question.

The spectre of public liability

Having just called the act of shutting of Crooky a lazy management response, in fairness to QPWS, I should point out that there is a knotty problem here for the land manager. In my essay I show how societal changes began to make the management of visitor safety difficult.

A further societal trend worthy of comment is as follows.  With growing affluence there has been a parallel growth of the Nanny State, and with it, a shift in society’s perceptions of negligence and public liability. When I was a lad in the fifties, we were well warned of the hazards of diving into swimming holes, and yet everyone knew of someone, who knew of someone now wheelchair-bound, serving as testament to the folly of such actions. These people received no financial recompense, and nor did anyone think that they should….. it was simply what happened when you did stupid things.

However, within a matter of decades the landscape shifted to embrace a new idea whereby people weren’t always responsible for their own judgment calls, and the land manager was negligent if he failed to warn of even the most clear and evident danger. Couple this with an unending supply of youth, a percentage of whom will always rise to the dare of their peers, and you have opened a channel by which the more entrepreneurial of the legal profession will help themselves to the largess of the state. A situation was created under which young men still continued to break their necks by diving into rock pools, but the state now compensated them and their families for those fleeting seconds of errant thought.

The debate about how much of a Nanny the state should be is not relevant here. What is relevant is the fact that the apparatus of state needs to manage the estates for which it is responsible in a way that does not result in a bleeding of the public purse through liability claims. As we will see, this one issue rose to dominate the discussion of management of climbing on the public estate.

The problem for QPWS lies in the fact that the act of presentation of a ‘wild place’ inevitably results in an elevated, visitor-risk-profile. Add to this, the further fact that accidents in ‘wild places’, though of low frequency, often have serious consequences, and it becomes clear that in presenting a park we have created something that is certain to tweak Nanny’s apron strings, and to draw disapproval from the armchair-bound voyeurs of public affairs. However, it is exactly this low frequency, high consequence scenario that gives meaning to all activities that illuminate the spirit of adventure. Remove the risk and you eviscerate the sport.

In the case of Coonowrin, there can be no doubt that the State has an obligation to maximise the value of the Park for its public owners, and if that is not to quarry it, then the only other possibility is to open it to recreational stakeholders. And of course, the act of opening it will draw additional potential liabilities under the tort of negligence, but so what? Deal with them by warning as appropriate, then get back to executing the NCA. Let’s get back to managing the estate such that a good balance is struck between recreational and conservation values.

“But, but…. look at what happened with the L. Wabby ruling… look at the way warning signs failed to halt an action of breach of negligence.”  True, and I understand what happened here. QPWS did the right thing, and built a track down to L. Wabby on Fraser Is. to present its unique values. The public loved it, millions of them loved it. The track greatly enhanced the asset value of Fraser Is. And yes, history shows 1 in 100,000 will break their necks while running down the dune to jump or dive into the lake , but by any standard, such is not a dangerous activity. It is arguable that more people have died on the roads travelling to Fraser Is than have broken their necks at L Wabby.

I object to what is happening here, and I think every taxpayer likewise should object. The State is being used as insurer of last resort. This is doubly wrong. Not only is it wrong in matter of principle, it is wrong because it is disabling a important piece of State legislation, the NCA, and although the recent amendments to the act should work against such interference, the fact the Civil Liability Act stood for nought in the above judgement makes me cynical.

Life is risky. People do not expect, and are not entitled to expect, to live in a risk-free environment. The measure of careful behaviour is reasonableness, not elimination of risk. Where people are subject to a duty of care, they are to some extent their neighbours’ keepers, but they are not their neighbours’ insurers.

Swain v Waverley Municipal Council (2005) HCA 4 at [5] , per Gleeson, C.J.

It is time to weigh Nanny on the scales at the High Court of Australia.

Why should it be opened (not the opposite of why was it closed)?

The short answer is that we have here, in plain view of the thousands-strong outdoor recreation community, an iconic public asset, the value of which has been degraded through a decade or more of neglect, masquerading as ‘duty of care’.

I believe that, if opened to the public, this peak alone could draw in excess of 100,000 visitors per annum and have an asset value of well over $2M per annum. It’s contribution to the adventure tourism spend within the Glasshouse Mountains could be very significant.

If I am wrong, and indeed there are very special and compelling reasons for the continued closure of Coonowrin as compared with the other Glasshouse peaks, then with several million dollars per annum riding on the decision, and a thousands-strong outdoor recreation community knocking at the gates, I would expect the department to tell us those reasons, or point to a process by which public access might be resumed. To date, this has not happened.