Mountain bike boom could have conservation downsides for unique Mt Canobolas
With Derby, Meydena, Mount Buller and Falls Creek well established in the global mountain biking tourism boom, central west New South Wales is stepping up with a proposal for a 63-kilometre trail network on Orange's Mount Canobolas.
Seen as a silver bullet by regional councils, a burgeoning number of local government authorities are building trail construction into their master plans.
But are all sites created equal?
And could the promise of dazzling economic benefits mean that environmental and conservation considerations are overlooked in the name of commerce?
Largely unknown, unique ecosystem
A 1672-hectare state conservation area (SCA), Mt Canobolas is part of an ancient chain of volcanoes known as the Brigooda-Oberon.
Its eruption 11 million years ago created the distinctive undulating hills of the central west and gave the region its rich, fertile soil and altitude.
The mountain is a subalpine ecosystem isolated from its volcanic siblings by 85 kilometres, meaning its ecosystem has developed in complete isolation.
There are nine species found only Mt Canobolas that are currently known to scientists, and the rarest plant in New South Wales — the Giles mintbush — occurs in two areas of the mountain.
Dr Richard Medd, a former government ecologist, said he had grave concerns for the proposed trail development's ecological consequences.
He said the ecosystem is largely not understood and lacking any close research.
"There's species we know about which aren't named yet. It's an incredibly important area of conservation and fundamental research," he said.
Impressed by economic data coming out of Derby, Orange City Council approached the company behind the trail complex, World Trail, for its own concept design.
The company is known for its strong environmental pedigree and cites Mt Buller as a comparably sensitive development.
But Louise Perrin, the environmental services manager at Mt Buller and Mt Sterling, said there were some key differences.
"In relation to the Buller development, we had all of the environmental knowledge and survey information from the outset so we could plan trails in areas of low environmental sensitivity," she said.
"We deliberately avoided areas of high environmental value."
Ms Perrin still oversees the 6,000 hectares of alpine resort that makes up both Mt Buller and Mt Sterling which, under Victorian law, are less sensitive than national parks but more restricted that state forests.
World Trail commenced developing network of trails across 2,000 hectares of Mt Buller in 2006 and spent months in consultation with Ms Perrin and her team prior to designing the trails.
"I can tell you as a person who over a decade [involved in] developing, managing and maintaining trails in a high value environment — and this is what I've imparted to anybody — it's critical to do the homework first," she said.
No-go zones, such as the pygmy possum habitat and treeless alpine areas, were declared at the outset.
No environmental survey exists for Mt Canobolas, and it is likely one has never been undertaken.
By comparison, World Trail spent two days on the Mt Canobolas site, drafting the trail design that is currently with the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Mt Buller also has a team of four dedicated, full time environmental managers.
They have a dedicated two person team to manage and maintain the trails through its summer season.
"There is a resourcing impact, but it comes with a duty of care. We certainly don't want to be negligent as the crown land managers," Ms Perrin said.
When asked what the management structure looked like for Mt Canobolas, Orange city councillor Steve Nugent conceded "I would have to say that's probably a question that hasn't been answered".
"As far as I'm aware, decisions about how it would be maintained have not been made," he said.
Orange trail could see year-round action
Current sentiment among supporters of the trail refer to the climate in Orange lending itself to year-round use of the trail.
Mountain bike professional and trail advocate Rodney Farrell describes Orange as "the golden ticket" due to its climate and complementary tourism industries such as wineries and restaurants.
"Our climate's good for 360 days a year. There's probably going to be five [days] where you might not want to go up there," Mr Farrell said.
However, alpine parkland on Mt Buller is subject to stringent seasonal conditions because of its climate, meaning it is only available during summer.
"We have a mountain bike season that is restricted," Ms Perrin said.
"It's a rolling opening from November. We guarantee all trails will be open for December, and then all trails close in April because the shoulder landscape —particularly in alpine areas — are vulnerable when it's wet.
"It hasn't been the silver bullet. It's grown some year-round visitation, but not all.
"Fifty per cent of our summer visitors are sightseers, 30 per cent are bikers, but that's 30 per cent we didn't have before."
Is pine a compromise?
Cr Nugent said he believed there was a viable compromise in the case of Mt Canobolas, a view backed by a NSW Government ecologist and keen mountain biker, Peter West.
They said the extensive radiata pine plantation belonging to Forests NSW and growing down the side of Mt Canobolas would make a comparable trails site without the ecological implications.
"Surrounding that tiny little conservation area is an enormous plantation pine forest," Mr West said.
"Some really steep downhill areas where blokes on dual suspension would really carve it up, as well as some technical areas where people can do some traversing and more cross country-style riding."
Councillor Nugent admitted feeling conflicted about the current proposal.
"I'm really torn because I love mountain biking on a personal level, but I'm very concerned about the impact on the mountain if the current proposal goes ahead, given the extent of the tracks through the state conservation area.
But World Trail, the development's proposed designer, believes a track through the pine plantation would come at the cost of the site's cache.
"We deal in premium projects. People will travel all over the world to ride these trails." said World Trail's director Glen Jacobs.
"If they are in plantations it's usually a raw and bland experience.
"Just like any destination, you want to see the natural scenery and what the place has got to offer.
"So plantations, yes, we can put trails in plantations. But not the majority of trails.
"That has to be what the region showcases."