NSW Parks and Wildlife launch new Cycling Strategy, so what is it all about?

A few weeks ago, NSW National Parks and Wildlife quietly announced a new cycling strategy that will have long-reaching effects on just about every mountain biker within the state, and could set a precedent beyond state borders.

It’s no secret that mountain bikers and National Parks have not always been on the same page, and the amount of legal singletrack in NSW — especially around Greater Sydney — is woefully inadequate for the population of riders. And so, the game of cat and mouse between trail fairies building singletrack and parks officials remediating trails has spiralled. For the unsanctioned trails that remain open, local clubs and rider groups cannot organise trail care days without the risk of fines or worse.

With the Covid boom of people getting out on bikes, the population of riders has increased substantially, and so with that, NSW Parks and Wildlife, with this new document, has seemingly reformed its approach. Let’s dive in.


Why should you care?

This new strategy essentially defines how parks will approach mountain bike trails when it comes to building new singletrack and the process for closing down existing illegal tracks.

“If you’d read the document from the point of view of a mountain biker, you’d read through, and there’s nothing that’s going to be overtly offensive, and it seems like a pretty good framework to getting things done,” says Matt Ward from Trail Care in Sydney.

“If you were to read this from the point of view of a NIMBY that hates mountain biking, you would probably also not find anything that’s particularly offensive and say this is a sensible framework to get trails shut down.

On that level, the document is a wonderfully balanced framework,” he says.

NSW Parks Cycling Strategy
It’s no secret there are hundreds of kilometres of mountain bike trails in National Parks across NSW. Lots have been there for decades, some good and some really bad. Hopefully, this new strategy will mean better outcomes for everyone.

The document creates a transparent process for getting singletrack approved, but even more importantly, it acknowledges that simply shutting down trails does not solve the problem at hand.

Dirt Art Managing Director Simon French says he wasn’t surprised to see the directives within the strategy and is happy to see concrete pathways being established.

“Much of it was formalising development pathways that have been in place for some time now. I think it is generally positive to see parks formalising approvals processes, and in particular recognising the high demand for mountain biking,” he tells Flow.

Mick Plummer from the Glenrock Trail Alliance tells Flow that he’s happy to see Parks taking some action. Things tend to move slowly, and to his reading, the previous strategy was unrealistic in its evaluation and inclusion of cycling.

NSW Parks Cycling Strategy
The trails in Glenrock were never planned and have been formalised over the years, allowing events like Port to Port to come through.

This document has been in the works for quite a long time. In the past year-or-so, we have seen the land manager put out documents great for mountain bikers, like the REF addressing a formal trail network on the Illawarra Escarpment and some that are a mixed bag, like the draft plan of management for Royal National Park.

There has clearly been a change of tune when it comes to Parks and its relationship with mountain bikers, and Ward believes this has come in large part from what has happened in Wollongong.

NPWS recognises that demand for singletrack and more technical cycling experiences has driven the creation of unauthorised tracks in some parks.

“I think National Parks have learned a lot about transitioning from illegal trails to legal trails through that process. They’ve lived it, they have breathed it, and this document reflects that they have learned a lot from that process,” says Ward.

“We are seven years into that project, and there have been a lot of lessons learned. They are going to be the proverbial guinea pigs, I would say,” he continues.

NSW Parks Cycling Strategy
By all accounts by the folks working on the latest effort to legalise trails on the Illawarra Escarpment, Parks has done a 180 when it comes to its views on mountain biking.

What does the NSW Parks and Wildlife cycling strategy lay out?

The new cycling strategy identifies seven objectives which NSW Parks and Wildlife say allow it to be ‘strategic and transparent when assessing, enabling, providing and managing sustainable cycling experiences.’

Those seven objectives are:

The implementation strategy outlines that from 2010 to 2018, park visitation almost doubled, and this has stressed infrastructure on all fronts. Parks also acknowledges that the number of unauthorised tracks has skyrocketed, and it’s happening because there is not enough trail to meet demand.

“NPWS recognises that demand for singletrack and more technical cycling experiences has driven the creation of unauthorised tracks in some parks. As NPWS looks to establish sustainable track networks in selected parks, we will be engaging early with stakeholders to explore sustainable experiences that protect the natural and cultural values of our parks and ensure NPWS legislative requirements are being met,” the implementation guidelines say.

NSW Parks Cycling Strategy
Mountain bikers have known for a long time, if illegal singletrack or jumps are popping up, it’s because there are not enough legal infrastructure in the area. It seems Parks has finally cottoned onto this fact.

Previously Parks has tried to pass off infrastructure like management trails and fire roads as a viable solution for mountain bikers. Geoff Parker from the Illawarra Mountain Bike Alliance, which has worked extensively with Parks when it comes to trails on the Escarpment, is glad to see that Parks is taking into account the actual riding experience.

“High quality experiences means we as riders should get better trails to ride. A key factor in convincing people not to ride informal trails will be providing better trails to ride,” he says.

The document even goes as far as noting, while not all National Parks are suitable for “highly technical gravity runs,” where possible “, NPWS will seek to support a number of highly technical trails and gravity experiences in a range of parks in New South Wales…”

This is a MASSIVE change of tune from Parks.

“We (and I’m sure many others) have been working hard over a number of years to dispel the myth within parks that gravity riding is downhill racing. It is very positive to see this shift within the strategy. I think parks have now recognised the growth of enduro in particular and realise that this must be catered for. We’ve certainly been developing plans for gravity-focused trails in parks in NSW for a number of years now, without major pushback from parks,” says French.

Parker also noted that the focus on accessible infrastructure is particularly rad, and it will allow folks on adaptive mountain bikes to access areas they may not have ever seen before.

NSW Parks Cycling Strategy
Mountain bike advocates across the country have been trying to convert the fact that gravity riding doesn’t have to look like a World Cup DH course. It seems that effort is finally paying off.

“With the fast pace of e-Bike development, this is a really exciting area for MTB to grow as a sport,” he says.

This focus on accessibility could also translate into a broader range of trails across the gamut.

“I think the processes for consideration and approval are generally sound, we just need them to happen quicker. I’d love to see a day where Greater Sydney, in particular, has abundant access to high-quality trails. There are so few beginner-friendly trails in Greater Sydney in particular that this is a massive blockage to growing the sport,” says French.

The reality is that some places just aren’t suitable for trail development. In saying that, unauthorised trails are typically symptomatic of an undersupply of trails, which is a major issue in NSW.

NSW Parks Cycling Strategy
There are ample examples of mountain bike trails in National Parks that work, hopefully this new strategy will see more legal singletrack around Greater Sydney and beyond.

Closing trails

Being the balanced document this is, part of the strategy does include defining a process for closing trails. Mountain biking was built on illegal trails, and the increased focus on moving folks to sanctioned infrastructure is a side effect of the sport growing up.

Plummer tells Flow that sanctioning trails, and closing trails go hand in hand, and it can work provided that Parks is closing the right trails.

“The biggest issue is that some trails slated for closure are of style, type or difficulty that the NPWS aren’t prepared to support – like super tech DH trails. I think it’s good that they have moved to be more accepting of the types of trails that core riders desire, but there is a limit, and I guess they have to draw the line somewhere. A lot of these trails also require a higher level of maintenance,” he says.

“There are many trails – everywhere, that are not sustainable, poorly designed and with on-going un-resolved issues. On private land, managers can go on repairing and maintaining forever, if they choose. On NP, this isn’t acceptable and eats up valuable resources, often for little gain.”

NSW Parks Cycling Strategy
We known we’re singing to the choir here, but properly built trails can be extremely sustainable.

National Parks is mandated to protect and conserve park values. This includes both the conservation of nature and also public appreciation and enjoyment.

“The reality is that some places just aren’t suitable for trail development. In saying that, unauthorised trails are typically symptomatic of an undersupply of trails, which is a major issue in NSW. If riders are supplied with high-quality alternatives in more appropriate places, then closing trails is not a problem if they are not in appropriate places. The key challenge here is that Greater Sydney, in particular, needs a massive investment of dollars and human resources within parks to catch up to current demand,” says French.

A key pillar of this new strategy is community engagement, which focuses on bringing in stakeholder groups early and including them in the design, construction and maintenance process. This includes seeking community feedback on how they want to use parks, as well as encouraging and expanding the extensive volunteer networks that already exist.

“The trigger to looking at legalising trails can actually be a proposal to close trail. Once the process of deciding to close a trail begins, it will likely trigger the rest of this process of consultation and everything else,” says Ward.

NSW Parks Cycling Strategy
The ongoing worry is how long it will take for decisions on trails to make their way through the bureaucracy.

However, the uphill battle here is still the time it takes to go through these processes.

“It’s not going to change the fact that transitioning from illegal trails could still take several years or more once the process begins. There is still a lot involved in the framework, and these things are going to take time.

The sceptic in me will always say the problem we face is the difference in time between identifying what’s required and delivering what was identified. It will be several years before assets are delivered, and the need of an area or a community may have moved far beyond that delivery,” he says. “Things are going to move slow, but at least there is a bit of predictability in the way that things move.”

You wouldn’t expect volunteers to maintain a public pool or sports field, we shouldn’t expect them to shoulder the burden of maintaining mountain bike trails.

Who does the maintenance?

Overall the strategy is a well-thought-out, well-balanced document; however, there is one significant hole that is not as developed as it needs to be — trail maintenance.

The doc goes as far as saying that trail maintenance will be planned through Parks’ ‘scheduling tool’ and that trails will be monitored by both parks staff and tips from the community. But it stops short of going into the details of how that will be rolled out, and by who.

“Trail maintenance and management is the elephant in the room, just look at what is happening in Bright (or the figures Dorsett, as a small council, quote for maintaining Derby). I personally would like to see a maintenance framework for trails in NSW,” says French. “Maintenance should not fall on volunteers just like you wouldn’t expect volunteers to maintain a public pool or sports field, we shouldn’t expect them to shoulder the burden of maintaining mountain bike trails. Volunteers are an important component of maintaining trails, but they shouldn’t be the primary resource.”

NSW Parks Cycling Strategy
You wouldn’t expect volunteers to cut the grass at the local oval, or empty the pit toilets at a trailhead. Unfortunately, when it comes to trails, volunteers shoulder most of the burden of trail maintenance.

Given Parks are more or less universally under-resourced, and each network has a distinct set of environmental factors, soil types and user traffic, there is no one size fits all solution — if there was, it would be the norm. Some ambiguity will likely allow area managers the wiggle room they need to implement a tailored solution for their specific portfolio. At the same time, it may also mean trails are put into the too-hard basket until they reach the point of no return.

“At the moment, we don’t have a great model for how national parks are going to manage and maintain trails, and that is still a big uncertainty. This document gets us to a place where a plan for trails can be put together, but we don’t really have any great examples just now of how this might work in practice once an asset is delivered,” says Ward.

Ward also notes that the framework has the potential to be skewed toward or against mountain bikers depending on the local bureaucrats involved.

At face value, the new National Parks Cycling Strategy is a good outcome for riders and the parks themselves. Of course, this document and the accompanying implementation strategy are still fresh, and we have no idea how they will be applied, but the pathways they create are a step in the right direction.

Royal National Park
Mountain biking is well and truly growing up. This new cycling strategy from parks appears to be a step in the right direction, but riders also need to band together and advocate for ourselves.

However, there is still some onus on mountain bikers to advocate for themselves, and Parker believes this framework should serve as an invitation for riders to advocate for themselves.

“I think mountain bike riders need to become more active in the political process to seek funding for their sport or leisure activities. Not all our local political groups are active in supporting the mountain biking project or the right outcomes for Riders. It is now in riders’ interests to reach out to local candidates seeking election to be better informed if these groups are actively supporting mountain biking or actively pushing to close trails earlier,” he says.

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