The Curious Case of The Warburton Mountain Bike Project

About 12-months ago, we gave you a teaser of a massive trail network slated for Warburton. Nestled deep in the Yarra Valley, this quaint little mountain town is situated just an hour and a half from Melbourne airport.
With 186km of trail, proposed to be built across three hillsides surrounding the town, World Trail not only helped finalise the masterplan for the project but also has been contracted to dig the trails.
“That part of the countryside is a spectacular area of Australia. There are amazing landscapes all over Australia and the world, but that area, from a mountain bike perspective, is fantastic,” says Glen Jacobs, the Director of World Trail which was contracted to construct the network last year. There is going to be something for everyone, and it will really tick the boxes for everybody at all different skill levels.”

The potential for a mountain bike mecca in Warburton is huge, it really ticks all the boxes.

Now is usually the point where we would dive into colourful descriptions of the trail network, the topography, the surroundings and our favourite parts to ride. Unfortunately, we can’t do that; the trail network at Warburton is no closer to completion than it was 12-months ago, and the project managers have been attempting to navigate their way through the sea of red tape that has been dropped in their laps. 

Rough trails ahead

When Matt Harrington, the Senior Project Manager of the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination, came to the project from Parks Victoria about two years ago, all of the pieces were beginning to fall in place. With the impact assessments well underway, a draft Master Plan, and the funding for the project was allocated. 
“From the start, this project was designed to provide world-class outcomes. We wanted to set a new benchmark with everything we did with this project,” says Harrington. “We’ve had ecologists and specialists out on every single meter, of every trail assessing those trail corridors. The intent has always been to put in mountain bike trails, but to do it in a way that’s environmentally responsible and which creates the least amount of impact.”

Following an extensive period of community consultation, the Yarra Ranges began meeting with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) Impact Assessment team to get the final approvals needed to turn dirt.
When trail projects are presented to the powers at be, in most cases as long as the project managers have done their homework, and ticked the necessary boxes they will receive the green light and construction can begin. If the Ministers tasked with reviewing the project feel they need more information, they will ask for what’s known as a ‘referral.’ If there are still concerns, a referral can be pushed higher to require an Environmental Effects Statement. 
“I spent 20-years with Parks Victoria, and no Parks Victoria Project has ever been assessed under an Environmental Effects Statement,” Harrington tells Flow. 
Environmental Effects Statements are usually reserved for major infrastructure projects like mines, roads and pipelines — projects that have permanent, and potentially detrimental effects on the environment. According to publically available DELWP records, which go back to 2007, up to this point only 29-projects in all of Victoria have been required to undergo a full EES.
Jacobs and World Trail have been building trails in Australia and around the world for over 30-years, and he has never seen a trail network receive the level of scrutiny the Warburton project has undergone. 
“We’ve built trails in Falls Creek and Mount Buller, and that’s probably the strictest environment in Australia; you’ve got Alpine Sphagnum Bogs,and there is this rare Alpine Peet and all kinds of fragile stuff going on up there,” he says. “The terrain up there (around Warburton) is beautiful, but it has been logged, and there are logging roads, so it’s not pristine; there is nothing that really jumps out as far as red flags.”

Murky waters ahead

One of the areas that has drawn the attention of DELWP is the ~60km of trail that falls inside the borders of the national park which includes the Drop A K trail. Harrington points out this area contains sections of cool temperate rainforest, and two protected species, the leadbeaters possum and the Mt Donna Buang wingless stonefly; but all of this was taken into account with the council’s Environmental Risk Assessment and mitigation strategies.

Mt Donna Buang is home to protected flora and fauna and sections of cool temperate rainforest.

“We’ve realigned the trail to avoid the wingless stonefly. We’ve conducted genetic testing for wingless stonefly all around the area to make sure we are not in wingless stonefly habitat. We’ve also worked with experts in both leadbeaters, and cool temperate rainforest to make sure risks and any potential impacts are addressed,” Harrington says.  
When you go to the Ride Yarra Ranges website, there are quite literally thousands of pages of reports covering everything from air quality and biodiversity impact, to hydrogeological and geotechnical risk assessments to social impact and traffic impact assessments. When an EES is requested, there are three possible outcomes; a full EES, no EES, or an EES with conditions. 
“Harcourt is the only other mountain bike trail project to have submitted an EES referral. They had an outcome of no EES with conditions, which were around environmental management. What we’ve tried to do with the studies we have done up until now, is answer all of those questions up front in the referral. We believe, and all of our ecologists and specialists believe, we have responded to every question that could reasonably be asked of us,” Harrington. “For this project type, I have never seen the depth and scale of the investigations undertaken to address the potential risks.”
Once an EES referral is submitted, there is a statutory 20-day turn around period for the Minister of Planning to decide whether the project will require an EES. Harrington and his team presented its EES referral on December 20, 2019. The Warburton team did not hear back from the Minister’s office until May 22, 2020, confirming that the Warburton Mountain Bike Project would be subject to an EES.
Flow reached out to the Victorian Minister for Planning Richard Wynne’s office to find out why the project has been flagged for an EES review.
“This project has great potential for the Warburton and Yarra Ranges community but it’s vitally important we get a clear picture of any environmental impacts so they can be mitigated,” a Government Spokesperson said. “The EES will tell us exactly where we stand and how we can move forward.”
With the bush fire crisis at the beginning of the year followed by Covid19, some delays could be expected; however when pressed to clarify why there has been a five-month delay on the outcome of the referral, Minister Wynne’s office declined the opportunity to comment. When pressed to clarify why there has been a five-month delay on the outcome of the referral, Minister Wynne’s office declined the opportunity to comment.

Does it pass the smell test?

Mountain bike trail networks take a lot of planning. There are a lot of approvals that need to be undertaken to ensure the hillside the trail is cut into isn’t going to wash away the first time it rains, among many other things. But, a mountain bike trail project, on course to undertake an evaluation usually reserved for mines and pipelines seems out of the ordinary, especially when you consider some of the other projects that are not being subjected to the same level of scrutiny.

The Grampians Peak Hiking Trail is 144km of trail to be cut through Grampians National Park, including 17 hiker camps along the route that need to be cleared during construction. There is also the 12 Apostles Pipeline, and 11km pipeline (22km of pipe will be laid) that will transport sewage out and freshwater into the National Park. Neither of these projects has been required to submit even an EES referral. 
Flow reached out to Parks Victoria, DELWP and the Planning Minister’s office to gain some clarity as to why these projects are being treated so differently. 
Parks Victoria, which sits on the Project Reference Group for the Warburton Trail Project, directed Flow towards DELWP with questions regarding the EES process, and said in an email, “The project is a Yarra Ranges project, so you should contact the Council if you have any questions about the project – P(arks) V(ictoria) is not involved.”
DELWP and the Planning Minister’s office declined the opportunity to comment. 
Even with the delay in the decision and the outcome not being what the council had hoped for, Harrington tells us they are relieved to have a decision because it means they can move the project forward. 
The Yarra Ranges Council is yet to be advised as to the scope of the EES and some of the work already undertaken will be applicable, but it is likely to add considerable cost to the project, and it may still be a few years before trail crews can break ground.
“The studies that we have undertaken are incredibly comprehensive. If those are not sufficient, then the next level of detail could be incredibly costly and time-consuming. At the extreme end of what could be required you are talking about is multi-season surveys for threatened species or rare orchids around the entire network,” Harrington says. 
“Over the next month or so we should be able to develop the study program and confirm the scope of the EES. Once this is done we will have a much better understanding of timings and cost. Our initial estimates are in the range of 12-24 months and between $0.8M and $1.2M,” he says.
We’re not sure why certain projects are being subjected to different levels of scrutiny. However, if we widen our field of view and take a look at recreation throughout Victoria, there does appear to be a developing pattern of certain types of recreation drawing the ire of the government.

In May 2018, when the Lysterfield District Trail Riders sought to expand their trail network, Parks Victoria only approved seven of the 24 proposed trails. A few months later in a subsequent draft update to the management zones and overlays, the Special Protection Area Overlay increased from 39.7ha (2.4-per cent of the park) to 926.6ha (54.3-per cent of the park), making any further expansion of the network and constriction of some of the previously approved trails all but impossible. We have also heard rumblings about Parks Victoria even going as far as closing some of the existing network.
The Bendigo Mountain Bike Club was forced to cancel their Golden Triangle Epic because Parks Victoria made it a condition of the event permit that sections of the trails used for the course be “remediated” after the race. Some of the trails used are unsanctioned, but the race has run on them since 2005 with no issues, and the Bendigo Mountain Bike Club has worked closely with Parks Victoria in the past to manage these trails. A representative from the Bendigo Mountain Bike Club also told Flow Parks Victoria won’t support formalising the trail network.
Looking beyond the scope of just mountain biking brings us to the rock climbing bans in Grampians National Park. This blanket ban was initially said to be the result of rock climbers damaging cultural sites in the park. Reporting by John Ferguson published in The Australian Newspaper outlined incidents where Parks Victoria employees provided inaccurate and misleading information to the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate change.  
We can’t definitively say that these incidents are in any way related, and there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why these decisions are being made. But, there does appear to be a pattern of behaviour.

Delays hurt Warburton

During the development heyday in the 1960s and 70s, the Victorian government introduced a program called decentralisation, which moved manufacturing out of the CBD area. Through this program, funding was put behind community areas, one of which was Warburton. Over the last 30 years, all of that industry that came to Warburton through this program has shut down. 
If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it’s nearly the same as countless country towns in Tasmania. One must only look as far as Derby, St Helens or Maydena to see the positive effects mountain biking can bring to a community and the local economy. But, Warburton has something Tasmania doesn’t.

Warburton is so close to Melbourne, it would draw on a huge catchment of potential users.

“Warburton has about 5-million people in the catchment area, so even without the ride tourism, it’s going to be extremely successful,” says Jacobs. “When you do take into account the ride tourism; you fly into Melbourne Airport, and you’re there in Warburton in an hour and a half. With the amount of trail planned, similar to Derby, you’ll need to stay for a week to ride all of the trails.”
“The economic gains of the area are immeasurable,” says Andrew Swan, the owner of Yarra Valley Bike Hire. “It’s projected to bring, and economic gain of about 23-million dollars and generate 188 full-time jobs, and the numbers that we’ve used are conservative.” 
Swan, who also a member of the Warburton Community Economic Development Association tells us the council commissioned a company called TRC, which specialises in projecting the economic impact of large scale outdoor recreation projects, to estimate the net effect of the proposed network. Essentially they feed a whole bunch of information into an algorithm TRC has developed, and it generates a weighted number.

“Usually, if you score one, the project has a positive gain. If you score a 1.5, they jump through flaming hoops, and it means the project is brilliant. If you score anything over two, they literally just write you a check,” Swan says.
“When they put all the details in the first time, it came out 3.4.”
According to Swan, TRC had never seen a project score a 3.4. They re-ran the numbers based on a worst-case scenario, and still generated a rating of 2.8.
“We’ve got restaurants opening up on the strength of the project going ahead. We’ve had companies come over, like Hacketts (of Queenstown, New Zealand) come over to look at what the opportunities are to develop adventure sports in the region, all on the strength of this mountain bike project,” Swan continues.

It’s (not) all about the money, money

It’s easy to focus solely on the financial impact projects like the Warburton trail network will have on the local community; the project benefit isn’t just in a monetary sense. 
“They got a hold of some figures through the census, which indicated Warburton had some of the worst health outcomes for teenagers under 15 of any community in Australia. We know the trail network will bring in a significant boost,” Swan says. 
We know a lot of people are really looking forward to what’s proposed at Warburton, and we’d love to say it will be ready to ride by X, Y and Z. But, at this particular, all we can say is it’s still going to be a while. Worse, despite quite a bit of digging, we are also unable to articulate a legitimate reason for the delays.

So, when will the trails be built and when can we ride them? We don’t actually know, yet, but stay tuned.

In speaking with the council and members of the community, they are taking each obstacle that arises on the chin, and believe that good things will come out of this process. 
“There are some great benefits and opportunities that will also arise from going through this process. There are a number of technical challenges with trail building in ecologically sensitive areas,” says Harrington. “These challenges are faced by the Warburton project, but also by many other trails projects across the country.  The EES process will allow us to rigorously develop, test and have an endorsed government position on managing these challenges.  In this way, hopefully, we will be able to leave a legacy for the trail building industry”
Unfortunately, it means that a substantial amount of money and time will still need to be devoted to the Warburton Trail Project before the local community and mountain bikers in Australia can reap the benefits mountain biking can bring. 
“At the end of the day, I know that when we do get trails on the ground when riders are out there experiencing what we’ve created, and when the community is benefitting from the jobs and economic stimulus, we will have done it in a manner that is beyond reproach.  We will have created a world class destination, in a world leading way.”
We’ll keep a close eye on the Warburton Mountain Bike Project as this story continues to develop.

Words – Colin Levitch/Flow MTB
Images – Josh Stephenson/Ready Aim Media, Chris Southwood/Flow MTB

It appears you're using an old version of Internet Explorer which is no longer supported, for safer and optimum browsing experience please upgrade your browser.