Even in the depths of winter, it’s hard not to fall in love with the former mining town of Warburton.
Just 80 kilometers east of Melbourne, you’ll find clean air, cozy cafes, walking paths lined with tree ferns and the gurgling Yarra River.
It’s already a popular weekend getaway for Melburnians, but tourism in Warburton could soon reach a whole new level.
The state government is about to decide whether a massive new mountain bike park can be built in the hills around the city.
Proposed by the Yarra Ranges Shire Council, it is touted as a world-class network with 180 kilometers of trails north and south of town.
The centerpiece is a 22 kilometer trail starting at the summit of Mount Donna Buang, winding through the Yarra Ranges National Park and descending to the township.
The council expects the network to attract an additional 130,000 visitors each year.
This could be great news for local businesses recovering from the pandemic.
But there is fierce opposition from many community members who fear the new mountain bike park will ruin the environment, increase the risk of bushfire and drastically change the community of Warburton.
The mountain bike network has divided the city since it was proposed a decade ago and both sides now face an anxious wait for an impending decision.
The trails could be some of the best in the world
Warburton mountain biker Rachel Hore moved with her partner to the town four years ago when they heard of the proposal.
As an elite mountain biker, Ms Hore competes in Australia and expects the trails at Warburton to be world class.
“I don’t think there’s anything like the Warburton mountain bike project in Australia.” she says.
“I’ve ridden in the US, Canada and New Zealand and seen all kinds of trails and environments and I think what we have here will be one of the best and will also rival the international sites.
Part of the council’s efforts to build the park is to improve health and well-being within the community, with the hope that young people in particular will follow in Ms Hore’s footsteps.
“For young people who are stuck on screens or perhaps stuck at home without a big garden, a project like this allows them to be exposed to the environment, nature and physical activity”, said Ms Hore.
“It’s a great sport to get involved at a young age, even at an older age.”
A solution to a boom and bust cycle
The council’s main reason for building the park is economic, with the expectation that thousands of tourists will flock to the trails.
Anthony Northwood recently purchased the historic Alpine Hotel in Warburton and is in the midst of a multi-million dollar renovation.
“I think it’s a fantastic project, I’ve looked in other parts of the world where these mountain park trails have advanced and it’s just positive feedback,” Mr Northwood said.
“I know that from our point of view, it will give us confidence to continue to invest in the city, in the building. It will also contribute to employment, to local employment.”
Mr Northwood said one of the big benefits would be a smoothing out of Warburton’s boom-bust tourist cycle.
“It’s very busy on the weekends, but it’s relatively quiet during the week,” he said.
As a publican, however, he is well aware that some locals are not happy.
“There is certainly an argument for both in the debate.
But I think overall the economic development and growth that we will experience in the city will be positive for everyone involved,” he said.
Serious health and safety concerns in fire-prone mountains
It’s not so positive for Damien Flynn and 14 other families living in Old Warburton in the hills just south of the main town.
They happen to be in the middle of the massive southern trail network.
“We are completely surrounded by trails. This would be the first mountain bike park in Australia to have a residential area in the middle,” Mr Flynn said.
As well as losing the peace and quiet of his bush block, Mr Flynn believes thousands more visitors every weekend in the summer will cause chaos in the event of a bushfire.
“It just seems crazy to build a mountain bike park in one of Victoria’s most fire-prone areas,” Mr Flynn said.
“There is only one road out of the Warburton Valley and if that road is blocked everyone will be trapped in the town.
He also fears a loss of community as long-term rental properties are converted to vacation rentals to accommodate the influx of mountain bikers.
“It’s just impossible to rent here now,” Mr Flynn said.
“I know people who have lived here for generations and are now leaving because there are no more rentals.”
Fears for native wildlife
Perhaps the most controversial part of Warburton’s mountain biking project is the plan to cut nearly three-foot-wide trails through Yarra Ranges National Park on Mount Donna Buang.
The park is home to the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Opossum and the Mount Donna Buang wingless sandfly, a tiny insect endemic to the region.
As chairman of local conservation group Warburton Environment, Nic Fox can’t believe the council would alter the cool temperate rainforest that is becoming increasingly rare.
“It’s precious, every little fragment we have left must be protected.” said Mrs. Fox.
“These little pockets, these sanctuaries must remain for all these endangered species.”
The council’s lengthy environmental effects statement argues that the impact on creatures like the Leadbeater’s opossum will be minimal.
“Noise, vibration and disturbance generated during trail operations are not expected to have significant impacts on the population of Leadbeater’s Possum within the project area, primarily due to the dispersed nature of trail use” , says the report.
But Ms Fox wonders why the council would even risk damaging a national park.
“There’s so much other land here in the state forest that’s already partially or completely degraded, let’s just use the land we already have that’s not in a national park,” she said.
The decision rests on the shoulders of the new Minister of Planning
Opposition to the project has been so fierce that council was prompted to draft a comprehensive environmental impact statement and participate in four weeks of public hearings earlier this year.
Over 2,700 individuals or organizations submitted submissions.
At times, the debate has been nasty, according to Damien Flynn.
But the time for gossip is over.
An advisory committee appointed by the former planning minister has recently completed its final report and it is now up to the minister to make a decision.
It is unclear whether the resignation of Planning Minister Richard Wynne this week will delay the process.
“We’ve been waiting for a while to find out what the verdict will be, so there’s a bit of nervousness and excitement,” Rachel Hore said.
Damien Flynn isn’t hoping to shut down a council-backed project receiving state and federal funding pledges, but he says an appeal to the courts is a real prospect.
The reason, he says, is simple.
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