Mountain biking was “on trial” during an intense four-week inquiry hearing for the proposed Warburton Mountain Bike Destination, according to its executive project manager, Matt Harrington.
Victoria’s Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, is expected to announce a decision on the project in late June or early July, after the enquiry applied intense scrutiny to the project and mountain biking in general.
“Mountain biking was very much on trial, in particular its acceptability in a national park setting,” Matt said.
However, Matt said the project team remains optimistic the venture Environmental Effects Statement (EES) and presentations to the inquiry satisfactorily address all the potential concerns.
“We put a really strong case forward to clearly demonstrate we understand the potential impacts of this project, and that these impacts will not be significant.
Preparations for November Start for Construction
The team is forging ahead with the other necessarily planning processes, including building permits and cultural heritage plans, so construction could potentially start in November if it is approved by the Minister.
“We certainly can’t afford to sit on our hands at the moment,” he added.
In May 2020, the State Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, ruled the Warburton project would be the first mountain bike facility to require an Environmental Effects Statement, under Victorian environmental protection laws, because many of the proposed facility’s 177km of trails would be located within the Yarra Ranges National Park.
An extraordinary total of 2707 submissions have been received on the mountain bike destination proposal and its EES, an unprecedented level of response to a cycling issue according to We Ride Australia’s director – national advocacy, Stephen Hodge.
The public hearing was held on 15th March to 7th April to give people a chance to speak on their submission.
The inquiry was initially expected to take two weeks but that grew to four as 70 people registered to speak at the hearing.
The majority of speakers were in favour of the development. The trend was in line with the written submissions, with around 84% of submissions expressing support for the proposal.
“EESs are usually lucky to get a handful of positive submissions and we had over 2,300 positive submissions,” Matt said.
Fierce Opposition From Parks Association
However, the project’s most vehement opposition during the submission process and inquiry came from the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA), which claimed the development presented an unacceptable level of risk to the Yarra Ranges National Park conservation values, even with the mitigation measures proposed.
The Victorian Government formed an Inquiry and Advisory Committee to review the proposal and the VNPA urged the committee to “find that the impacts of the project on the park are both significant and unacceptable”.
The association opposed all the proposed trials except one.
“Trail 2 is not opposed in principle. This is because the trail uses existing infrastructure and recognised in the Park Management Plan,” the YNPA says in its written statement.
But it says the project posed an unacceptable risk to listed threatened rainforest communities and threatened species, particularly the Mount Donna Buang Wingless Stonefly.
“National Parks exist to preserve and protect these values, and ought to be the one place where these threatened species and communities have their best chance of surviving a challenging future without having this chance traded off against other social and economic objectives, however worthy those other objectives may be,” its submission says.
The association enlisted a barrister, a solicitor and three expert witnesses for the hearing, to oppose any development of the mountain bike facility in the national park.
Matt said it was a particularly adversarial hearing at times, with members of the Yarra Ranges Council project team and its legal representatives working around the clock for much of the four weeks.
“Our legal team is highly experienced with EESs but even they said this hearing was particularly intense,” he said.
Mountain of Documentation
As part of the hearing, the project team produced 50 pages of maps, 400 pages of expert witness statements, 230 pages of technical notes, responded to 206 requests for information and compiled 350 pages of their own submissions.
“Just during the hearing, we prepared 1,400 pages of information, to go with the 3,500 pages of our Environmental Effect Statement documentation,” Matt added.
“That’s astounding for a ribbon of dirt that will run through the bush.
“But I don’t think there was anything that emerged during the hearing that will put Stage 1 of the project at risk.”
He said concerns about the project were definitely focused on the prospect of development in the national park.
“It will certainly be a litmus test of the government’s appetite for trails in national park settings,” Matt remarked.
“There is certainly political momentum behind the project at the moment but anything we can do to stoke that momentum is going to be a good thing.
“Personally, I’m not a big believer that we should have lots of mountain bike tracks scattered through national parks, given all the other land tenures that are available – with state forests, forestry plantations, private land – but there should be room for appropriate development – and the project we are putting on the table here is a nationally significant development.
“It’s similar to the Grampians Peaks Trail and the Three Capes Walk in Tasmania.
“People want to experience these beautiful areas, they want to connect with nature and they want to experience it in a different way.
“This project is a test of mountain biking going from being a niche extreme sport to being something more recognised and valued by the broader community.”
Prime Opportunity for Ecotourism
Matt said he would have thought the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination would be in line with the VNPA’s push for a Great Forest National Park, absorbing State forests around the Yarra Range National Park and the Upper Yarra Valley. The association has advocated the removal of timber harvesting from this expanded national park, to be replaced by ecotourism.
“But for some reason they don’t see mountain biking in the same vein. They probably see it more akin to illegal motor bikes in the bush,” Matt said.
“It’s well documented that the return on investment to the community, in terms of jobs and economic outcomes, is far greater with mountain biking than something like bushwalking – and it has about the same level of impact on trails.
“The Grampians Peaks Trail cost $33 million and it’s about 160km of trail. It’s returning about $6 million a year to the local community.
“Compare that to the full project for the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination, which is about $24 million and 177km of trail.
“It will return $48 million to the local economy annually and create 230 jobs,”
so there is a stark difference between the two investment models.”
The inquiry hearing alone has cost around $1.3 million and the council, as the developer, has been required to foot the bill.
Matt says information presented during the hearing has prompted the project team to adjust some of its construction and operation methodologies, including its construction environmental management plan.
“However, they don’t fundamentally change how we will go about developing the project,” he explained.
“We’ve now put together a staging plan that clearly articulates which trails would be developed in which order.
“We will keep all our fingers and toes crossed in the hope there are not too many changes required by the Minister.”