The Warburton MTB park is finally set to go ahead

After several years of hard work and delays, the project has the green light from the planning minister.

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

Jump To Comments

More than a decade after it was first mooted, and several years after intensive planning work began, the proposed mountain bike park in Warburton east of Melbourne finally looks set to go ahead.

This week, the Victorian minister for planning, Lizzie Blandthorn, issued her assessment of the project’s environmental effects statement (EES), ultimately offering her conditional support for the project.

“It is my assessment that the majority of the trails and other works proposed for [the] project can proceed with acceptable environmental effects, subject to project modifications and an environmental management regime, consistent with the findings and recommendations of this assessment,” Blandthorn wrote in her 80-page report.

It’s a significant victory for those who have long campaigned for the project, not least the Yarra Ranges Council which was responsible for the delivery of the mammoth EES, which totalled some 3,500 pages. The council’s executive project manager and head of the MTB project, Matt Harrington, told CyclingTips he was “really relieved” and “pleased” that the project was approved.

“We certainly didn’t get everything that we wanted but we’re really left with a project of 160 odd kilometres of world class mountain bike trail,” he said. “It will still be Australia’s largest MTB destination and I think still put us on the world map.”

The biggest caveat in the minister’s assessment relates to a series of trails from the summit of Mt. Donna Buang, through the Yarra Ranges National Park, and down towards the township of Warburton. The project’s Inquiry and Advisory Committee (IAC), formed by the minister to consider the EES, recommended that four trails not be built as a result of their potential environmental impact.

“I support the conclusion of the IAC that Trails 1, 45, 46 and 47 present unacceptable risk of significant effects, particularly on Cool Temperate Rainforest and Cool Temperate Mixed Forest and the Mount Donna Buang Wingless Stonefly, which are of high conservation value,” the minister wrote.

“Consistent with the IAC, I therefore conclude that Trails 1, 45, 46 and 47 should not be implemented as part of the project. As a result, the project’s potential impact on environmental values in the Yarra Ranges National Park should be substantially reduced, including a reduced risk of impact on the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum.”

As Harrington told CyclingTips in late 2021, Trail 1 was set to be the 27 km ‘Drop-a-Kay’ trail, “the jewel in the crown from a visitor perspective and from a rider perspective”. Harrington acknowledged at the time that that trail went through the most environmentally sensitive part of the area, and as such the project team “[went] through the EES process with an alternate to Drop-a-Kay, and that’s a suite of trails.” That suite of trails – proposed Trails 45, 46, and 47 – have also been denied by the minister. Harrington said that’s a significant loss for the project.

I’m down in St Helens and Derby [Tasmania] at the moment and both of those networks have their signature, long-distance wilderness trail experience,” Harrington said. “[Losing the Drop-a-Kay trail] certainly makes quite a significant dent in economic and jobs returns for the project because it’s that bucket list sort of trail. So it works as an attractor and but it also works to increase night stays.

“It will definitely have an impact on the project, but we still think that we’ve got a pretty unique offering. In particular, at the doorstep of 5 million people in Melbourne, there’s still nothing like what we’re planning to do.”

Harrington isn’t ruling out the possibility of adding summit-to-Warburton trail options in future.

“We still need go through the language in all of the reports but it certainly looks like it lays out a potential road map for that to happen in the future,” he said.

Trails 1, 45, 46, and 47 (north of the map) have all been denied.

In her assessment of the project’s EES, Minister Blandthorn agreed that the project will lead to significant benefits for the local community.

“I agree with the IAC that the project will boost the local economy and assist with diversification and the transition away from some employment sources that are declining in this region,” she wrote. “The project will likely generate new opportunities for businesses. In turn, these businesses will provide new job opportunities during the operational phase of the project.

“I support the conclusion of the EES that these economic benefits are particularly important given the town and broader region has been experiencing economic hardship associated with the decline of local mining and forestry industries.”

She also acknowledged the benefits for the cycling community.

“I consider the project will result in significant benefits for health and wellbeing of the community through providing further recreational opportunities for a wide range of cyclists, not solely experienced mountain bike riders coming to the town,” she wrote.

The minister also acknowledged that there would be some downsides to the project.

“There will be some people, particularly residents living close to the new trails, who will be affected by some noise and traffic from construction activities, or who will be adversely affected by impacts on housing affordability or changes to Warburton township likely to result from increased visitation and tourism,” she wrote.

That issue of housing affordability is singled out by the minister as being of particular concern, with increased visitation and tourism likely to drive up house prices. The Yarra Ranges Council has reportedly “identified opportunities to alleviate some stress on the affordable housing and rental markets” – new community housing is mentioned explicitly – but Blandthorn was quick to note that “the broader issue of housing affordability and rental costs exists already in this region and can’t be resolved by the project.”

Impacts on traffic in Warburton were also of some concern and reportedly need further thought before the project goes ahead. “Current traffic count data presented in the EES is significantly at odds with the experiences described by local residents and the IAC was not satisfied that the cumulative impact of the project combined with other visitation to Warburton has been fully considered,” Blandthorn wrote. “I agree with the IAC’s findings that further investigation of existing traffic conditions is required to better understand current traffic conditions and that this should be undertaken to inform the preparation of the Traffic Management Plan.”

But in the end, the minister felt that the downsides to the project were outweighed by the positives. The result is that the region is set to get roughly 160 km of MTB trails, once all the remaining requirements are squared away.

“There’s a lot of things to do between now and when we can get on the ground but from an approvals perspective, essentially all statutory approvals need to consider the advice of the minister through the EES assessment, so that should happen fairly easily and fairly quickly,” Harrington said. “There’s a few things like native vegetation offset and our cultural heritage management plan that we would need to secure prior to construction starting.

“But we’re really hopeful that we can get on the ground in about six months. We’ll need to do some work with [trail builders] World Trail to work out where we can fit in their schedule. We’ve had them hanging on the line for several years now. I think they’re really keen to get started.”

And then, hopefully around a year from now, new trails will finally be rideable.

“I’d be pretty confident that this time next year or maybe Christmas next year, we’ll be opening the first couple stages of trails,” Harrington said.

Editors' Picks