Australian mountain biking will grab global attention later this month – not for the high-flying exploits of its riders but instead for a Victorian council’s capacity for jumping through hoops.
Yarra Ranges Council’s executive project manager for the Warburton MTB Destination, Matt Harrington, will be the opening keynote speaker at next week’s International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) Europe Summit in Switzerland.
Matt has been invited to outline the Yarra council’s ongoing, multi-million-dollar campaign to get approval for the Warburton complex, which the council set out to create as Australia’s first ‘gold-level’ mountain bike facility – one of only three outside the US.
The ambitious project to build nearly 180km of trails set – within state forest and scenic national park on Mt Donna Buang, Mt Little Joe and Mt Tugwell – became the first MTB facility in Australia required to submit an environmental effects statement (ES).
The Victorian Government last October gave conditional approval for the facility, with the exception of four trails through Yarra Ranges National Park, after assessing the ES and community submissions in response to the document.
The Minister for Planning, Sonya Kilkenny, supported the findings of an inquiry and advisory committee – formed to consider the statement and hold a public hearing – that the four trails in national park presented an unacceptable risk to flora and fauna with a high conservation value.
“It’s been a real eye opener how the ES process has put us on a global stage.”
Matt said the remaining 160km of trails that were approved, subject to some modifications and an environmental management regime, would still provide an extremely viable destination close to Melbourne and the council was just glad to have a final decision so the project could proceed.
$5 Million Campaign
He said the scale and nature of the campaign to produce the statement, costing around $5 million and taking several months, caught the attention of the international MTB community and prompted an invitation to address an online German mountain bike tourism forum earlier this year.
“People involved in the German forum were then keen for me to speak at the IMBA summit, being held in Valposhiavo, in southern Switzerland, from 25th May,” Matt said.
“It’s been a real eye opener how the ES process has put us on a global stage.
“We’ve had enquiries from around the world about the project. It has really helped from a marketing perspective. It’s given us these avenues to a global market.”
He said his discussions with peers around the world have revealed the increasing scrutiny regulators are applying to MTB developments in many countries.
“But no one I’ve spoken to so far has gone through anything like we have. Not even close,” he explained.
To satisfy the Victorian Government’s requirements for the ES, Yarra Ranges Council has spent more on the approvals process than it cost the Tasmanian town of Derby to build its entire trail network, which is a benchmark for MTB facilities in Australia.
Matt said he believed international interest in the Warburton approvals experience was a mixture of sheer curiosity and wanting to be prepared for the potential of similar approval requirements in own countries.
“We are certainly a novelty. We sit at the extreme end of what can happen going through an approvals process. But there is definitely genuine interest in wanting to understand the knowledge we’ve gathered over time.
“Across all trail systems, we’re faced with similar issues and the growing interest from regulators seems to be pretty universal.
“In Australia, that is pretty easy to understand because we’ve gone from a situation, prior to the creation of Derby, where investment across Australia on mountain bike trails maybe totalled less than $10 million. Now, across the industry, there’s more than $100 million worth of jobs being delivered or have been delivered in the past couple of years.
“Of course, government and regulators are going to start paying more attention to that and it’s similar in the States and in Europe, as mountain biking comes out of being a niche sport and gets a lot more recognition and participation, with a lot more trails being built.
“We were lumped into a process that is really for open-cut mines, freeways, those really large infrastructure projects”
“I also appreciate we need to take a more thorough approach to how we plan and deliver trails. Portions of the Warburton trails are in national park and state forest with really important environmental values that need to be protected.
“Did that warrant the expense of money and time for the process we went through? It’s probably a bit over the top but it does set us up to be uniquely positioned with the product, to really stand by the credentials we developed and use them as a promotional asset.
“Part of the problem for us is the ES process is really not designed for a project like ours. From a bureaucratic perspective, there was no other tool to satisfy the needs for our particularly process. We were lumped into a process that is really for open-cut mines, freeways, those really large infrastructure projects, so it is challenging.”
Matt said a couple of government audits of the ES process had since been undertaken and identified opportunities to streamline the process and make it clearer.
“I would generally concur with findings like the Auditor General’s report that it could be streamlined, less costly and more transparent,” he said.
“We developed a lot of unique information that other Australina projects can rely on because it has been tested and then supported by a very thorough government process”
“Another challenge we faced, even when we went through the referral process, was a lack of evidence of the impact of mountain bike trails or even walking trails, so we could say ‘the impact is going to be ‘x’ based on work previously done’.
“Hopefully the work we’ve done provides that evidence for others when they’re going through a referral process like ours.
“From the outset, we’ve always had ambitions to set a new benchmark for environmental and social sustainability in the development of a project. We’ve always set out to make the information we’ve produced available to the industry, especially after we spent $5 million on the process.
“We developed a lot of unique information that other Australina projects can rely on because it has been tested and then supported by a very thorough government process.”
Matt said his IMBA conference presentation would outline the ES process and why Yarra Ranges Council had to go down that path.
“IMBA is keen to understand why, when faced with this process, we decided to go ahead with it. Why did we deem the investment valuable?,” he explained.
“The project, from the outset, was never essentially a mountain bike project. It’s really about providing renewal and sustainability for a community that has some real economic and jobs challenges.
“The outcomes are about economic and job stimulation for the region, particularly in light of transitions away from the native timber industry the Victorian Government has launched into by 2030.
“The conference organisers also wanted to understand some of the key findings through producing the technical reports.
“However, one of the most important takeaways was not a technical takeaway. It’s more about social licence for mountain bike trails and how things like perceptions of mountain biking in the community can influence their reception.
“If you open any mountain bike magazine or jump on any mountain bike website, you’ll see a picture of Red Bull Rampage or someone sliding into a berm with a big cloud of dust ballooning out. These images and the way we sell mountain biking isn’t really representative of the vast majority of us who ride.
“But it’s what the community sees and what the regulators see and it influences how they feel about the sport.
“Parks Victoria made a presentation during the inquiry process and one of the images they presented – and they claimed was representative of the trails we would be developing – showed a 1990s mountain biker coming down an eroded gully with dust flying everywhere. They presented that as an illustration of professionally built trails and they did that because it’s what they believe.
“I’m thinking there’s a lot of work we need to do as project managers to reset and recalibrate what the community’s understanding is of the sport and on the impact of trails.”
Matt said countering this misperception was difficult without a central industry body to present a unified voice for Australia’s MTB sector as a whole.
The time was right to create a national MTB organisation that represented all sections of the industry, including trail builders, MTB facility operators, event organisers and other businesses that benefitted from the industry.
He said works on the trail head for Warburton MTB are well underway and on schedule to be completed by the end of this month.
“Trail head works started a couple of weeks ago: carparking, toilet upgrades, and those sorts of things at Wesburn Park. Then hopefully, in the second half of this calendar year, we’ll get digging on trails,” he outlined.
In the meantime, the council is continuing to make the trail design adjustments required by the Minister’s assessment, to get the formal approval to proceed with their construction.
And while the project’s Trail 1 and connecting trails were taken off the ledger by the Planning Minister, Matt said the council has not entirely given up on having trails through the national park.
“Give up is very strong term and not generally something in my vocabulary, but we can say we’ve parked the idea of a summit trail for the time being.
“The Minister’s assessment does provide a bit of a pathway if we wanted to have a fresh look at trails going from the summit but we don’t want to complicate anything at the moment.
“We’re genuinely excited to get this off the ground and we just want to crack on and get some trails delivered.
“Anything in the national park is part of Stage 2 for the project. It’s a few years away before we start Stage 2 and that’s subject to funding.”