PARK WATCH Article March 2022 |

Poorly planned tracks should not be allowed to fragment wildlife habitat and dilute nature protection, says Campaigner Jordan Crook.  

The prime purpose of national parks is for the protection of nature. They are not simply another “piece” of land, and under no circumstances should be playthings for developers. 

The Yarra Ranges Council wants to build 44 trails spanning 177 kilometres as part of the ‘Warburton Mountain Bike Destination’.

Elements of this proposed project are yet another example of national park protection being thrown aside.

The Yarra Ranges Council, supported with funding by state and federal governments, has spent years trying to develop a viable project. Their Environmental Effects Statement (EES) documents were released to the public in late 2021. The Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne had decided in mid-2020 that an EES was required due to the impacts on threatened and endangered species habitat, sensitive waterways and Indigenous cultural heritage, and adverse socio-economic effects of the project. 

The Victorian National Parks Association has been monitoring the proposal since 2016/17 due to the proposed track network being within the Yarra Ranges National Park and the known high-conservation values found around the summit of Mount Donna Buang. We held several meetings with project officers at the Yarra Ranges Council and other government departments early in this period, highlighting our concerns, but these fell on deaf ears. 

After analysing the EES documents, it is disappointing to see the Council push ahead with its plans to build between five to 22 kilometres of tracks in the national park (up to about 15 per cent of the total trail length). Even though they have no jurisdiction in the national park, and have been warned for many years of the impact the track would have on threatened vegetation types, threatened native animals and park values. 

Although bike tracks may appear at face value ‘light’ in terms of their physical footprint, pushing tracks into previously uncleared areas and increasing the use of those tracks clears the path for the spread of invasive weeds and pathogens, creates highways for pests such as cats and foxes to penetrate further into the forest, and results in the removal of surrounding “hazardous” trees (which much of the time are prime habitat trees).

Between three to 6.4 kilometres of new tracks will go through Cool Temperate Rainforest, increasing the risk exponentially for damage to Myrtle Beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii), the predominate canopy tree. This will allow the tree-killing pathogen Myrtle Wilt (Chalara australis) entry through damaged roots and branches from constructing the track, or later on damage to trunks by bike riders. This is recognised as a potentially Threatening Process under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988: “Human activity which results in artificially elevated or epidemic levels of Myrtle Wilt within Nothofagus dominated Cool Temperate Rainforest” (Action Statement 238).

The tracks within the national park would impact threatened species habitat, including Leadbeater’s Possum and Mount Donna Buang Wingless Stonefly, both critically endangered. It would also displace bushwalkers from existing walking tracks. No assessment was done against the purposes of the National Parks Act 1975.

The intrusion of the track into the Coranderrk closed water catchment is also of great concern. Melbourne Water Corporation’s (MWC) submission was damning, stating “MWC have some concerns that despite proposed mitigations and the assessed ‘low risk’ status assigned by the proponent, that the scale of the project will introduce a range of cumulative impacts to high value waterway and biodiversity assets in the project area. Particularly within the National Park”.

MWC also showed signs of frustration that their advice had been ignored: “Melbourne Water’s current strategic approach for both of these catchments is to maintain or improve the level of catchment protection. Consequently, Melbourne Water has previously and consistently provided advice to the Project proponent that mountain bike trails cannot be located within the physical boundaries of either of these water supply catchments.”

Local group Upper Yarra Sustainable Development Alliance is also raising broader concerns about the lack of detail around the impacts of the tracks on increasing bushfire risk, poor emergency planning, and the need to comply with best practices and laws on bushfire mitigation, as well as social issues such as the lack of inclusivity of the project to everyone in the community.

While the project did look at an alternative route in the Yarra Ranges National Park, no alternative for what is described as the “heroic” downhill track (Drop aK, Track 1) was considered outside the park. Options could have been in state forest around Powelltown or perhaps already cleared existing fire breaks or power lines around Toolangi, for example. This work should have been undertaken due to the impact of this proposal on the integrity of the park and the sensitive park values. As the Council’s EES documents show, the overall project would remain viable without intruding into the national park.

Mountain bike riding and installation of tracks (both legal and illegal) is a growing issue in natural and protected areas, but if properly planned outside of high conservation areas can be done in an appropriate and ecologically sensitive way. Unfortunately, the Yarra Ranges Council has chosen not to seek the least destructive route outside of the park, potentially jeopardising the “clean green” image and reputation of the Council and the mountain biking sport.

For many decades conservationists and custodians have worked to stop logging, mining and other intrusions into Victoria’s special natural places. This work has paid off – and those wonderful protected places are attracting more and more recreational users who want to enjoy them. But we have to be careful that what attracts people also doesn’t destroy the very thing that draws them to our national parks and reserves.

So where to from here? After the public exhibition closed, submissions were read by the Inquiry and Advisory Committee (the IAC) appointed by the Planning Minister. Public hearings of those who put their hand up to be heard by the IAC will commence from 15 March and will run for three to four weeks. Within 40 days after the hearings, the IAC will present their report of findings to the Planning Minister for consideration. Other decisions and permits will need to be given if the track is to actually move to construction, so it might be premature for ribbon-cutting in a dual election year. 

Thank you to everyone who made a submission to the EES process; we will keep you updated on the next stages. 


Further information

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