*Update: The EES Inquiry and Advisory Committee Hearings are now complete, click here for a summary and some highlights of what turned out to be action-packed proceedings.
The Warburton Mountain Bike Destination has just completed the most in-depth impact assessment a trail network has ever had to undertake.
With over 170km of singletrack proposed in the Yarra Ranges, about an hour outside Melbourne, on completion, this riding destination is going to go absolutely gangbusters. We’ve been covering Warburton since it was announced in 2019, when the Victorian Minister for Planning referred the project for an Environmental Effects Statement, and we checked in with the team a year into prepping the report.
At the end of October this year, the team from the Yarra Ranges Council submitted its 3,500-page report, which is now on display for public comment.
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EESs are usually reserved for projects like mines, highways and wind farms. According to Warburton Mountain Bike Destination Senior Project Manager Matt Harrington, his team sought out trail builders and mountain bike destinations worldwide to see if they had undertaken studies to this granular level — they came up empty.
The project team was headed for uncharted territory, compounded by the fact that much of the empirical work required for the project to go ahead had never been done before.
From discovering that the Mount Donna Buang Wigless Stone Fly has a broader range than previously thought, to quantifying the environmental impact of a trail corridor, the Yarra Ranges team made quite a few exciting discoveries along the way.
If nothing else, the Warburton Mountain Bike Project EES goes a long way to prove, in a scientifically-backed manner, the impact — or lack thereof — of mountain bike trails. So what did we learn from this process?
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How wide is that trail? ‘Bout two-metres
It’s hard to articulate precisely what it is that makes a good trail, but even inexperienced mountain bikers will be able to tell the difference between poorly built and high-quality singletrack. Through experience, professional trail builders learn to read the terrain and how to use it, which is why we take their word as to why a trail feature is a certain way.
That’s all well and good if we’re talking about how to shape a berm, but when it comes to something like trail width or impact, unfortunately, someone’s word doesn’t quite stand up to the scrutiny of an EES.
“What we found really across the industry is there wasn’t actually a process to understand the impact of trails that was scientifically defendable. There was lots of knowledge and expertise being applied based on previous track record,” says Harrington.
If we’re going to have to undertake these levels of studies, we wanted to build models that could be replicated by other destinations and planning projects.
“Generally speaking, from an ecological perspective, we’ve used an average width of around two metres, and most trail destinations have quoted a similar sort of impact width,” he says. “But it wasn’t good enough for us to just say, look, we think it’s about two metres. The Technical Assessment Group really wanted us to do some work, to be able to defend that position.”
So working with World Trail and Biosis, the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination measured trails at 850 sites across Australia, from Northern Queensland to Tasmania.
“We would take a range of different measurements. We’d look at the side slope of the terrain, the vegetation type, the sidecut depth of the trail, the overall width, and then any sort of upslope or downslope. We also looked at where soil had been spread to create a feature — so berms, jumps, grade reversals, those sorts of things,” explains Harrington.
With this data, they were able to identify the variables that affect trail width and create a spatial model to overlay on top of their design. From here, they could predict the width of all of the trails in the network, which offers an accurate picture of the ecological impact, backed by science. This actually led to design changes on a few trails to further reduce their effect on the environment.
After all of this work, and collecting all of these data points, they found the average trail impact width was 2.4-metres, so pretty darn close to the standard number trail builders quote.
How much noise do mountain bikers make?
When we checked in with the Warburton team back in April, Harrington had just returned from a day out in the woods with a team of sound engineers, trying to determine how much noise mountain bikers make.
This was another one of those areas where there was lots of anecdotal evidence, but nobody had actually studied it in-depth.
“The sound engineers first took recordings of the background noise in a number of locations, to understand the existing level of noise. Then we got the mountain bikers in long trains of 20, to climb, descend, corner, and jump. What that study showed was that mountain biking, as it turns out, doesn’t make a lot of noise,” Harrington says.
Unsurprisingly, the loudest sound that came from the bike itself was the impact of landing a jump. The loudest overall sound came from the mountain bikers themselves bantering on traversing trails. But even that wasn’t all that loud.
“From an affects or impacts perspective. We were able to model that down and understand the sensitive receptors, so that’s local residents or could be arboreal mammals that are nocturnal. What we found was that background noise in these areas was already at a sufficient level, that the noise of mountain biking was unlikely to be intrusive, for any of the sensitive receptors,” he says.
A gender impact assessment for mountain bike trails?
The Warburton Mountain Bike Destination made it into the mainstream press, but not exactly for the reason that they had hoped. A story in The Australian newspaper headlined ‘Gender impact’ delays Melbourne Bike Park was picked up by Sky News Australia pundit Chris Kenny, who took to the airwaves to fan the flames of a non-existent culture war.
The newspaper article spoke about the EES and the gender impact assesment, and armed with a chyron that read “Bike park delayed over gender study,” Kenny took this thread and bloviated for more than five minutes, along with a talking head from a political think tank.
The trouble is, the gender impact assessment is not part of the EES, nor is it delaying the project.
So the minister really needed to understand what are the benefits of the project, in order to be able to make that value decision around the commensurate level of impact?
“The gender impact assessment is not actually part of the EES process; it sits to the side. It is part of a new gender equality legislation that has been raised in Victoria that requires all councils to conduct gender impact assessments on policies, programs or services that have a significant impact on the community,” explains Harrington. “It’s not a significant body of work, it’s not a formal part of the EES project, and it’s not delaying the project.”
Yes, this is more work for the team at the Yarra Ranges Council to do on this project, but nothing can move forward until a decision is made on the EES — meaning they have more than six months to complete this assessment before it would actually cause further delays.
In fact, Harrington sees this report as a positive. It underpins a lot of the work they have already undertaken, while also providing opportunities to explore ways to diversify participation and make mountain biking more inclusive.
“While the gender impact assessment itself is a formal piece of work, it will really just help bring together a lot of the work we have done previously, document it, and put it into a formal structure. It may even find some additional things we might be able to do to help increase participation,” says Harrington.
Outcomes from this study could come in the form of more initiatives like the We Can Ride youth mountain bike program, or even influencing trailhead design to foster social interaction and create more of a community vibe.
It sounds great, but will it be popular?
Whether you’re building a 170km mountain bike network, a playground, or bike racks in town, there will be some sort of impact, both on the environment and the community. The crux of the issue is to ensure any negative impact does not outway the positive.
Warburton is a town of about 2,000 people. The prospect of putting in an internationally significant mountain bike network, about an hour’s drive from 5-million people, will directly impact the lives of locals — done right, it will create all manner of opportunities.
“So the minister really needed to understand what are the benefits of the project, in order to be able to make that value decision around the commensurate level of impact?” says Harrington.
And the way they went about evaluating this impact was to build a model to accurately predict visitation.
“It’s really challenging in Australia to try and understand, even the current level of visitation of many mountain bike parks, because there’s not a lot of technology being applied, in the form of visitor counters or other things. So we really had to look at, ‘well, how can we build a set of assumptions that will stand up to peer review, and to scrutiny?'” he says.
So they started with data that was publicly available from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, AusPlay and AusCycling surrounding participation and visitation. Then, they combine this with market research Dirt Art conducted to help paint a picture of how frequently folks are using trails, and how far they’re willing to travel. With this foundation, the Warburton team put boots on the ground and conducted an intercept survey.
In collaboration with a consultant, the Yarra Ranges team went out to ask people what they want from a destination, to better understand what drives visitation.
Through some very technical work, they compiled all of this information into a robust, data-backed model, to predict how many mountain bikers would come to Warburton.
“We’re looking at about 128,000 unique visitors to the region, participating in a bit over 220,000 rides per annum. We expect that around a third, or between 30% and one third will stay overnight. That results in $48 million worth of spend in the regional economy, and over 220 jobs — which is a really significant outcome.
This type of modelling is vital to a project like a mountain bike destination, because it provides an objective measure of impact — especially when a bulletproof data set is behind it. Harrington says they plan to make this modelling procedure — along with everything else — available to future projects, so they have a science-backed methodology, that the Victorian State government will have signed off on as legitimate.
“If we’re going to have to undertake these levels of studies, we wanted to build models that could be replicated by other destinations and planning projects. Hopefully, all of the work that we’ve done will leave a lasting legacy for the industry,” he says.
What happens next?
Unlike the gender impact assessment, the EES process has delayed the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination substantially, and it’s still going to be some time before you can ride new trails here. The entire report is on public display now and will be open for comment until 25 January 2022.
From there, an independent panel, appointed by the Victorian Minister for Planning, will review all of the EES documentation, all of the submissions and will hear evidence through a public inquiry.
Harrington says after all of that, they expect to have an answer by June 2022.
In the meantime, he encouraged folks to speak up if they had an opinion and to make a submission through the Engage Victoria website.
“Don’t delay. We’re in this stage, pre-Christmas, where it’s pretty easy to go look at something and get distracted by everything else that happens around this time of year. I’d hate for people to miss out on the opportunity to have their say and influence how the project moves forward,” he says.
Harrington went on to note that most EES projects don’t hear from folks that support them, and the submissions will affect the outcome. So if you want the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination to go ahead, make a submission.
For more about the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination and to view the EES in full, head over to the Ride Yarra Ranges Website. If you’d like to make a submission regarding the project, visit the Engage Victoria project page.
Photos: Flow MTB, World Trail, Shawn McCann, Kate Proctor/@earthymedia, Andy White/@fyxo