What’s happening with the long-awaited Warburton MTB park?

It's set to be a world-class MTB destination ... assuming it gets government approval.

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It’s been over a decade now since local riders first posed the idea of a mountain bike network in and around Warburton, 75 km east of Melbourne. It took most of a decade of consultation and planning until $11.3 million of funding was secured in 2019, paving the way for Warburton to become a true world-class MTB destination. 

Renowned trail designers World Trail were brought on board to design and start construction on the network, which will include some 177 km of trails when complete. The jewel in the crown: a 27 km trail from the top of Mt. Donna Buang all the way back down into Warburton.

But ever since 2019, progress on the project has been frustratingly slow. The Victorian Minister for Planning announced in May 2020 that a comprehensive environmental effects statement (EES) would be required for the project – a stringent measure normally only required for big infrastructure projects like mines, roads, and energy projects. 

Now, 18 months after work began on the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination EES, the report is finished. It’s a monster – 3,500 pages, 1.5 million words, and a staggering amount of detail about any and all impacts the project is likely to have.

As the project awaits community and then government response, CyclingTips caught up with Matt Harrington, executive project manager at Yarra Ranges Council and the head of the MTB project. In the following Q&A, Harrington brings us up to speed on the Warburton MTB project so far, what happens from here, and when riders can finally expect to be riding new trails near Warburton. The following interview has been lightly edited for fluency.

The trail network planned for Warburton and surrounds.

CyclingTips: For people that aren’t familiar with the Warburton MTB project, how long’s this whole thing been going on?

Matt Harrington: Yeah, a very long time *laughs*. Its genesis really was from the community. It was a few community members that raised the potential of Warburton as a mountain biking location, pre 2010. My first involvement in the project was back in 2012 when those community members raised it with Parks Victoria as a potential project. It was then subject to a Healthy Parks, Healthy People grant from Parks Victoria, to council to undertake the feasibility study in 2013.

World Trail did a feasibility study that was completed in 2013 and then in 2016, on the back of that feasibility [study], council raised a master planning project for the destination. It’s grown through that process. In 2019, we then did a referral under the Environmental Effects Act. The [Victorian planning] minister made the determination that [we] needed to undertake an environmental effect statement (EES) process, and we’ve been in that ever since. Since May 2020 we’ve been working diligently on probably the most comprehensive investigation of the potential impacts of mountain biking, potentially ever undertaken.

The proposed trail network will see dozens of small bridges built.

What’s your understanding of why an EES was required for this project when it’s not normally required for mountain bike parks?

I think there are certainly some elements that [mean] our project is in a different category to many other projects around the country. And one of those is that it’s a really extensive network. We’re aiming for an IMBA [International Mountain Bicycling Association] Gold Ride Centre status, so that means producing over 150 kilometres of trail [it would be the first Gold-level destination in Australia – ed.]

We’ve got 177 km of trails currently in the plan and that’s spread across national park and state forest. So about a third in the Yarra Ranges National Park and two thirds in the Yarra State Forest and it’s also surrounding a community of around 3,000 people. So it’s very different to something like Derby [in Tasmania – currently regarded by many as Australia’s best MTB destination – ed.] where it was a very small population. This network really surrounds Warburton; it’s very much like a ski village type approach where you ride in ride out from the centre of town.

From an ecological perspective, there’s certainly really important values to protect. We’ve got [endangered species] like the Leadbeater’s possum, Mt. Donna Buang Wingless Stonefly, cool temperate rainforest – so it’s a really important ecological area. And the Yarra Ranges is known for its natural attractions and its natural beauty and natural values, so it’s really important to protect those values.

But having said that, EESs are normally reserved for mining projects or large road projects or wind farms or those sorts of things. And that’s really had its challenges for us, going through what is the most comprehensive process for examining environmental effects that’s available in the state.

Many of the projects that undergo EESs are multi-billion-dollar projects. So the resources that they have available to them to undertake an EES are far in excess of what we have available to us. We’re only a very small team with a relatively limited budget. In terms of mountain biking the budget’s quite large at $11.3 million but if you compare that to the next smallest project that’s going through a process like this, which is in the range of $100 million plus – I think $140 million for the next smallest project.

Even our consultants, I guess they’re quite surprised at the small nature of our team – by team I mean only five people – and with limited budget and resources, we’re still undergoing the same process as some of the really big projects. So, yeah, it can be quite a challenge.

I know you didn’t really have a choice – if you want the project to go ahead, you had to do the EES. But it must have been pretty frustrating to need that, given that’s not normally the case with MTB projects?

Look, it was. I think you’ve got to sort of get over the frustration and understand that you’re part of the legislative process. Even at the referral stage, I think we went to another level as far as examining the potential impacts. So we put together a really comprehensive referral that looked at all of the topic areas that the EES examined – the EES just takes it to a whole new level.

To sort of understand that, we’re talking about a study that runs to 3,500 pages, cost us in the order of $3.2 million just in direct costs. That’s just the costs of undertaking the studies themselves. So when you look at a $11.3 million budget for the project overall, that’s going to have a significant impact on what we can deliver in stage one.

Stage one is funded to deliver 110 km of trail and even with our budget concerns, we think we’re still going to be able to deliver on that promise. But we won’t be able to … for instance – unless we were to find additional funding – we’re unlikely to be able to afford to build the trails in the national park.

As you said, the report is absolutely massive. But I wonder if you can give a little bit of an overview of the sort of things your team looked at and some of the findings?

When [they] say it’s an environment effect statement, what they mean by “environment” is across all the different realms. From ecological, where many of the sensitivities are, through to looking at socio-economic [impacts] through to culture and heritage, both indigenous and European. And we look at things like geotechnical, surface water, groundwater – all of those elements get wrapped into the EES. I guess, the main purpose of the EES is to bring all of those potential risks together and be able to look at them in an integrated way. It’s one thing to look at just the ecology of a project, but in making a decision based around ecology, you may then impact one of the other values.

This is probably the first time that something like this has been done for a mountain bike project. And what that allowed us to do then, is look at the value in that integrated way and make really solid decisions based on scientific evidence. That lead to us looking at some changes to the network.

As an example, we did a trail width impact assessment study that looked to really examine what is the on-ground actual impact of the trail width, how much ground do we disturb, how much do we need to remove as part of that process? So we took detailed measurements of 850 sites across the country and crunched the numbers and looked at the data and got statisticians to work out what are the variables that impact trail width, and then we were able to build a GIS model or a spatial data model, that we were able to overlay on our network with all the values, and really be able to tell in quite detail how much impact we’re going to have.

We built what’s called a variable width trail impact model. We use LIDAR data, so for every one metre pixel, we were able to understand what was the slope and then overlay that data so you get this model where, even for a single trail, the actual model shows the trail width growing and shrinking in response to the environment that it put in, which gives us a really accurate way of understanding things like vegetation removal.

We also did a lot of work around trying to understand visitation because if you go to somewhere like Derby, you’ll hear all sorts of different estimates of visitation, but no one’s actually doing a really robust measurement of visitation. And so when you’re talking about a destination that’s been built around the township, you want to understand how many people are coming, how much parking do we need, how much traffic are we going to generate, and how much noise are we going to generate through those activities?

And we did a whole range of market testing to understand how many people are likely to want to visit. And then we even went beyond that and did on-ground actual visitor surveys at places like Derby to understand how long did they come for, what sort of experiences did they want, what were some of the motivators for them visiting Derby as opposed to other areas. And then with all of that, we built some assumptions, we overlaid it on ABS [Australian Bureau of Statistics] data, and we built this really strong model for projecting potential visitation.

[And] things like a sound study – we did a lot of work trying to validate how much noise does a mountain biker make. Because off the cuff, you can say “Well, I don’t think they make a lot of noise” but there was no scientific evidence that we could find that actually could quantify that. So we went out with sound engineers and 20 mountain bikers and got them to ride up and down hills and over jumps and through berms and measured all of that so that we could understand the potential impact of that noise on sensitive receptors, like neighbours and others in the region.

And all the way through this process, we really applied an adaptive management approach. So when we discovered something that we either didn’t know or was different to what our previous assumptions were, we were able to then adapt the plan to avoid or minimise impact.

A really good example of that is the trail width impact assessment. When we overlaid the model on some of the areas in the network that had quite sensitive environments, we found that if we did a machine-build flow trail, it was going to have this impact on a particular ecological vegetation class that was quite sensitive. So we actually went back and said “Well, how can we actually minimise the impact of that?” And in a few areas we either looked to realign that trail into a less sensitive area, and for some trails we have actually gone now to a hand-built model. So for some trails, we’re actually hand-building because, the evidence we were able to collect shows that the impact of hand-building is almost half that of machine-building.

Your team submitted the EES to government this week. What happens now? What’s the process from here?

From here, we’re now at public exhibition. So the minister has endorsed the EES to go out for public comment for the next two months, until the 25th of January. And during that time, all of that information is available to the community and stakeholders can read through all of that and then they can make submissions.

Those submissions, along with the EES, are being considered by an independent advisory committee as part of an enquiry into the project. And that advisory committee then considers all of the evidence and then they write a report to the Minister for Planning, who will then determine the way the project will proceed.

We’re anticipating all of that will be wrapped up by around the middle of next year, which will then give us direction, or the minister will give us directions around how the project is to proceed. 

What might the minister’s directions look like?

There’s several different options. The minister could come back and say “Yep, everything you’ve done in the EES is great and it’s endorsed to move forward”. The minister could come back and say “Yep, you’ve done a good job but I’d like some minor changes here.” And that could be anything from the removal of a particular trail or set of trails that he doesn’t believe stack up from an impact perspective, it could be making some changes to how we manage to build the trails. But the answer could also come back that the impacts outweigh the benefit and therefore the project doesn’t proceed.

We haven’t seen anything that would make us suspect that that’s the case, but it is a possibility out of the process. And that’s why it’s really important for the community that wants to see a project like this come to fruition, that they make a submission through the EES process, and all of that information is available on our website.

It’s a really simple and straightforward process. You can spend as little or as much time as you want in making a submission. But I would really ask that if people are going to make a submission, they talk about why this project is important. Is it their mental outlet? Is it how they get their exercise? Does it make a difference to their job or their community or their family? Because it’s really important that we get that across to the independent advisory committee around just how much support there is for this project.

EESs don’t normally get a lot of positive support. So I think the Fingerboards Mineral Sands project in Gippsland is going through an EES at the moment and during their public exhibition period, I think they got 910 submissions, and pretty much all of those were anti the project. So in a project like this it’s really easy just to think that “Oh, the project will go ahead”, and that it will go ahead, as presented in the EES, but certainly community and stakeholder submissions do [impact] how the project is received.

All going well, when do you expect to be able to start building trails in earnest?

Look, all going well, I’d like to have some trails opening around this time next year. It won’t be the full network, but we’ll open incrementally. So we’re looking to get into construction in the second half of next year and getting some trails, probably around the Mt. Little Joe area close to town [to the south – ed.] – hopefully we can get some of those opened by around this time this year, all going well.

Throughout the investigation there hasn’t been anything that’s been raised by our technical specialists that makes me nervous from an environmental impact perspective. But in the end, it’s still a decision that’s made by the minister around: do the project impacts stack up against the benefits? And I think, certainly from our perspective, when we model all the visitation and we lay that across the economic data, we’ve got some staggering, fantastic outcomes for the community. And this project is driven by community outcomes.

It is a mountain biking project, but we’re using mountain biking as a vehicle for, really, community renewal and providing some resilience, in particular in light of things like COVID, the changes to the native timber harvesting industry, which will have a significant impact on the Upper Yarra [region]. This project will bring an economic spend annually of around $48 million. It’s pretty staggering. It will support around 220 jobs, which is much needed in the [Yarra] Valley, but also really contribute significantly to the health and wellbeing outcomes of our community.

We’ve seen during COVID how important physical exercise in connection with nature has been to the community, so it really provides that additional opportunity for the community. So we really hope that in the end, the minister is able to look at the project and understand that whilst you can’t put a mountain bike trail in the environment without having some impact, that the impacts are minimal and they’re far outweighed by the benefits of the project.

Perhaps the highlight of the network will be the 27 km Drop-a-Kay trail from the top of Mt. Donna Buang down into Warburton. All going well, when can riders expect that to be open?

Trail One or Drop-a-Kay is the jewel in the crown from a visitor perspective and from a rider perspective, but it is also in the most sensitive environment. So from the summit of Mt. Donna Buang it goes through areas close to Mt. Donna Buang Wingless Stonefly, close to Leadbeater [Possum] habitat and through cool temperate rainforest. So one of the things that we’ve done is we’re actually going through the EES process with an alternate to Drop-a-Kay, and that’s a suite of trails.

Instead of heading west from the summit, they head east from the summit down Mt. Victoria Spur. And that’s two trails – a black trail and a blue trail heading either side of the existing Mt. Victoria Walking Track and they’re put up as an alternative to Drop-a-Kay. So if the value judgement is that the impacts [of Drop-a-Kay] are just too great, then the alternative is these other trails, which will still give a ‘summit to Warburton’ experience, but they’re quite a different product.

So Drop-a-Kay – if you look at the statistics and the design of that trail, it really fits more a green trail [for beginners], as far as the elevation drop and gradient and the way it’s been designed. So it really opens up that opportunity to a much broader demographic. We would really imagine it’s a product where you could come to the Yarra Valley and you can go hot-air ballooning or you can go winery touring or you can go mountain biking and do Drop-a-Kay. It’s that product that can really affect the tourism market and really put mountain biking into a mainstream tourism product.

And that market, one, it brings new riders into the sport, but it’s also a high-yield market. So a lot of those people come, they hire a bike, they hire a guide, they get on a shuttle. They spend a lot of money and bring a lot of money into the community. Whereas the alternates are a bit steeper, they’re more challenging and therefore they really appeal to a different market. They’ll appeal to the existing mountain bike market and in some respects, to the existing [MTB market] they might be more appealing [than Drop-a-Kay]. But it’s a much shorter journey.

At Derby, most people set aside a day to go and do the Blue Tier. So what that does is it induces another additional night’s stay. So we’re looking at Drop-A-Kay in a similar sort of vein – it will induce an additional overnight stay where the alternatives are shorter and they appeal to the experienced mountain bike market who will get down those trails much quicker. So it’s less likely to induce that overnight stay.

What else should people know about this project?

I think the main message for us really is just motivating the mountain bike community to get involved in the process. We know that it’s close to the summer, everyone’s tired from a really tough year, but a really small investment in time can really help shape how the project’s received. We’d certainly call on anyone who’s got a vested interest in the project, from either perspective, to go and have a look at some of the documentation.

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