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Kincumba mountain tree pic from walkEXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  1. Unlawful and substantial environmental damage - illegal mountain bike activity in council-owned reserves is causing substantial environmental damage that needs to be addressed but we do not believe that opening up reserves as sanctioned local or regional mountain bike facilities is the answer.
  2. Discussion paper omissions – not enough information was provided about the ecological significance of sites recommended as potential local or regional mountain bike facilities.
  3. More data required – the discussion paper did not provide evidence that demand for mountain bike facilities is growing to justify further council expenditure on a regional mountain bike plan.
  4. Extensive and inclusive consultation – future consultation must be between Council and the whole community, not only the mountain bike community.
  5. Affordability – next steps would be expensive so this project needs to be put ‘on ice’ until Council’s deficit and debt repairs are complete.
  6. A word on culture – the cultural significance of sites considered as suitable for local or regional mountain bike facilities is clear and abundant.
  7. An alternative strategy – Council should work with private landholders to develop and promote facilities for mountain bikers and focus its attention on the region’s potential as an ecotourism destination.

INTRODUCTION

Central Coast Council’s exhibited Mountain Bike Feasibility Study Discussion Paper acknowledges that the construction of unauthorised mountain bike trails poses environmental, heritage and reputational risk. The conclusions acknowledge significant community concern for the protection of COSS described as “highly valued by the community”. Yet the discussion paper’s conclusions list Rumbalara-Katandra-Ferntree reserves and Kincumba Mountain Reserve as suitable locations for local or regional mountain bike facilities.

The rationale appears to be the existence of illegal mountain bike tracks in these locations which could be transformed into sanctioned trails – a fundamentally flawed argument given that those illegal tracks have already caused damage to Ecologically Endangered Communities (EECs).

According to the Environmental Defenders’ Office of NSW, Council’s knowledge of that damage and its failure to stop ongoing damage and protect EECs make it vulnerable to prosecution under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016.

CEN’s most pressing concern is to encourage Council to remedy the illegal use of its reserves to stop damage to endangered species and their habitat. We seek Council’s assurances that reserves known for their importance to sustaining the region’s biodiversity – namely Rumbalara, Katandra, Ferntree and Kincumba Mountain reserves – be excluded from plans for mountain bike facilities. We urge council to stop illegal mountain bike activities in those reserves and regenerate damaged areas.

UNLAWFUL ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE

The encroachment of mountain bike trail building and riding into sensitive environmental and heritage land is a risk to biodiversity and has caused damage to Ecologically Endangered Communities (EECs) in COSS. The Otium/World Trail discussion paper understates the damage that has already occurred as a result of illegal trail building and use. It fails to mention the illegal tree removal, damage to hanging swamps and rainforest, interference with creeks and damage to sandstone platforms that has occurred and the ongoing expansion of the illegal mountain bike track network on council-owned land.

Council has acknowledged that the full extent of environmental damage caused by illegal mountain bike activity across its reserves is unknown. No audit has been conducted and Council has acknowledged it is unable to keep up with the illegal activity. This has been the case for many years.

The discussion paper identifies Kincumba Mountain Reserve, Rumbalara, Katandra and Ferntree Reserves, Munmorah State Conservation Area and Wyrrabalong National Park as sites suitable for regional mountain bike parks. CEN wishes to express its fervent opposition to the use Kincumba Mountain or Rumbalara-Katandra-Ferntree reserves for regional or local mountain bike facilities other than the existing use of fire trails.

A regional site has between 20 and 80km of trail, two loops, a site area of more than 500 hectares, a location within 40km of a 15,000 population and less than 10km from highways and major roads. Turning either Kincumba and/or Rumbalara-Katandra-Ferntree into a regional mountain bike facility could cause damage to the sensitive EECs and habitats contained in those reserves.

The extensive network of illegal trails all over Kincumba Mountain Reserve indicates how Council’s neglect has resulted in significant environmental damage. Hundreds of trees have been broken, chopped or sawn down without approval. Of particular concern was damage to grass tree, hanging swamp and rainforest EECs in the reserve.

The moving of sandstone rocks to build an illegal trail through a hanging swamp has displaced obvious above-ground flora and species in the soil – seeds, bulbs, corms, rhizomes, rootstocks or lignotubers.

The illegal damage already done to the Kincumba Mountain hanging swamp would also have an impact on micro-organisms, fungi, cryptogamic plants and a diverse fauna, both vertebrate and invertebrate. There are many other examples of damage to COSS caused by mountain bike trail building and riding. Council has abrogated its responsibilities to manage illegal activities in reserves it owns and manages. No, or very little, action has been taken in recent years to monitor or prosecute those participating in illegal trail building and use.

The discussion paper glosses over the ecological risks of opening reserves for more mountain bike activity. It appears to want to empower the culprits of this illegal activity. It recommends collaboration between council and mountain bike riding groups to locate and develop new, “sustainable” riding opportunities.

Some unauthorised trails may be closed but, if a trail has been audited, and all stakeholders agree, it may be converted into a sanctioned trail. The discussion paper suggests that sanctioned trail networks on public or leased land would be maintained and managed by mountain bikers. Would they have the expertise or the inclination to protect biodiversity? Would this restrict access to reserves by the general public?

CEN has sought the advice of the NSW Environmental Defenders’ Office (EDO) regarding remedies available to the community to stop illegal mountain bike activities in ecologically sensitive land. The EDO drew our attention to the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, Part 2 Protection of animals and plants and in particular section 2.1, 2.2 and 2.4 which the EDO believes would be applicable to the damage to EECs within Council’s reserves caused by illegal mountain bike activity.

Council, as landowner, could be described, for the purposes of the Act, to be knowingly allowing breaches of the Act.

DISCUSSION PAPER OMISSIONS

Each 22km mountain bike track clears a football field of bush but the discussion paper’s section on environmental impacts does not adequately explore the damage that mountain biking can cause. It is limited to impacts during construction, the impacts of bikes versus hikers, and the importance of design and management. It has no information about the EECs and Regionally Significant species found in Council reserves. It fails to inform the community about the fragility of the fauna and flora within COSS.

The discussion paper does not even consider the environmental and heritage value of the. We urge Council to undertake further examination of the extent of damage already caused by illegal mountain bike activity within its reserves. It has a legal responsibility to do so as a matter of urgency.

MORE DATA REQUIRED

The parameters of the discussion paper were limited and several assertions were not substantiated. The discussion paper talks about high levels of demand for mountain biking without evidence apart from anecdotal feedback from bike shop operators. The building of unauthorised tracks is cited as evidence of unmet demand. CEN urges Council to undertake more research into the demand for mountain bike facilities before putting any recommendation to Council. One suggestion would be a single-sheet questionnaire sent out to all rate payers with their next rates notice. This would give Council the most representative and unbiased correlation of demand for mountain bike facilities.

The paper does not include an audit of the damage already done to the reserves, even those listed as popular mountain bike locations on the Central Coast. CEN recommends a systematic audit of all council-owned reserves across the Local Government Area to ascertain the extent of illegal trails, send a clear warning to the builders and users of those trails and assess the damage to EECs.

Kincumba Mountain appears to be one of the only potential mountain bike sites to have been visited by Otium or World Trails as part of the study. A desk audit of other locations may have been deemed appropriate for a discussion paper. An accurate assessment of the feasibility of mountain biking as a major tourist drawcard should only be made on the basis of comprehensive site visits and an exhaustive site audit. The site audit must include a systematic assessment of the presence of EECs and their habitat.

CONSULTATION NEEDS TO BE COMPREHENSIVE AND INCLUSIVE

If Council decides to make the Central Coast a mountain bike riding destination, a Regional Trails Plan will be developed with land managers and the mountain bike community. CEN seeks assurances from Council that the broader community and those with knowledge of EECs will be included in any consultations.

Council’s draft trails approval process implies mountain bike groups will be able to propose sites for new trails in an open-ended fashion. This poses the risk of environmental degradation across swathes of bushland. Academic research conducted into the culture and behaviour of mountain biking participants shows that it has increasingly turned into an ‘extreme’ sport and the conquest of new and more challenging trails is an intrinsic part of its attraction to participants.

If council cannot keep up with the current level of illegal mountain bike activity across the region, how will it do so once the region is identified as a mountain biking destination? CEN urges any proposal back to Council to include a detailed strategy for preventing and taking action against illegal mountain bike activity.

Otium and World Trails recommend that locations for trails should include the “opportunity to extend” the network as demand increases. CEN suggests this approach to the expansion of trails should be another reason to eliminate any sensitive locations such as Rumbalara-Katandra-Ferntree and Kincumba Mountain from consideration for sanctioned mountain biking.

CAN CENTRAL COAST COUNCIL AFFORD TO MOVE FORWARD WITH THIS PROJECT?

A trail audit and a demand analysis will require significant staff resources. It is questionable whether Central Coast Council can afford this speculative project with significant and quantifiable costs in exchange for benefits and revenue streams that have not been quantified.

A detailed analysis of demand is needed to substantiate any additional spending on this project. The absence of a reliable demand analysis in the discussion paper has made it difficult for CEN and the broader community to assess whether this venture has a measurable economic benefit.

CEN seeks assurances from Council that resources will not be taken from other important environmental programs and works to push this project forward.

Council’s focus appears to be on building formal tracks to attract tourists. This emphasis is unimaginative and reflective of council’s ongoing preference for picking low hanging fruit rather than developing a vision for the Central Coast that reflects its abundant potential as a national and an internationally-significant eco-tourism destination. In light of the council’s current financial fragility it may be considered reckless to spend any more money on mountain biking.

A WORD ON CULTURE

As an environmental network CEN does not consider itself qualified to comment on the cultural significance of sites such as Kincumba Reserve. However, according to Awabakal & Guringai Pty Ltd Director, Traditional Custodian and Registered Aboriginal Stakeholder with Heritage NSW, Ms Tracey Howie, the cultural significance of Kincumba Reserve should rule it out immediately as a site for sanction or official mountain bike activity. In Ms Howie’s words the destruction and illegal impacts to Aboriginal cultural heritage items on Kincumba Mountain due to illegal mountain bike tracks is a criminal offence.

“Please do not consider Kincumba Mountain for mountain bike riding. There are other areas more appropriate. More riders will only add to the damage currently visible throughout this cultural landscape due to the actions of the mountain bike riders. I encourage Council to adhere to their responsibilities and obligations to Aboriginal cultural heritage within their LGA and explore efforts to have the Kincumba Mountain Reserve recognised and registered as an Aboriginal Place, given its deep connection to local Aboriginal lore and law and the obvious heritage present within the cultural landscape.”

ALTERNATIVE STRATEGY

Central Coast Council continues to overlook this region’s most obvious and abundant potential as a tourist drawcard - its existing natural assets, its beaches, national parks and reserves and sites of Aboriginal cultural significance. They give it boundless potential, if managed and promoted correctly, to become an ecotourism destination of world acclaim.

From the Hawkesbury River to the southern shores of Lake Macquarie, the Central Coast boasts natural landscapes and attractions less than two hours from international airports and cruise terminals. Until we realise the value of our natural and heritage assets and take steps to commit to preserving and promoting them in a sustainable manner, we will never be able to harness their full potential. The consideration of turning locations such as Kincumba, Rumbalara, Katandra, Ferntree, or any other natural reserve or national park into venues for an extreme sport like mountain biking, moves this region away from ever becoming a preferred destination for the burgeoning regional, national and international eco-tourism marketplace.

Central Coast Council must embark on a detailed investigation of harnessing the region’s eco-tourism potential. As a starting point, we recommend the following:

  1. Work with CEN to expand COSS to the whole Central Coast as per the NSW Government’s Central Coast Regional Plan and the One Central Coast Community Strategic Plan. CEN has met Administrator, Mr Dick Persson, who agreed to being involved, along with the Executive Leadership Team, in the launch of CEN’s comprehensive report into how to expand COSS to the former Wyong LGA.
  2. Work with CEN to encourage the NSW Government to take the current COSS and a vision for the expanded whole-of-region COSS into the NSW national parks estate as an E1 Regional Park managed jointly by NPWS, Central Coast Council, Traditional Custodians and community representatives.
  3. Promote this region’s outstanding natural wonders, in the form of our unique Coastal Open Space System regional park, to local, regional, national and international tourists.
  4. Work with private landholders to develop and promote alternative facilities for mountain bike riders that do not damage EECs or sites of invaluable biodiversity or Aboriginal cultural significance.

CONCLUSIONS

The NSW Local Government Act states ‘Councils should consider the long term and cumulative effects of its actions on future generations and should consider the principles of ecologically sustainable development’. The protection of COSS lands, now and into the future, is of paramount importance to sustaining the Central Coast’s biodiversity. Section 2.4 of the Biodiversity Conservation Act of 2016 clearly states that a person who damages the habitat of a threatened species or threatened ecological community who knows that it is the habitat of any such species or community is guilty of an offence that carries a maximum penalty of $330,000 for an individual (plus a per-day or per-animal penalty) or two years’ imprisonment.

Those who damage habitat in the carrying out of an illegal activity (such as building or using unsanctioned bike tracks) are taken as knowing that it is habitat. It is not good enough for Central Coast Council to throw its hands in the air and say it is too difficult to catch the people damaging endangered habitat. It is arguably a dereliction of its legal responsibilities to enable damage to such habitat.

If Council is going to spend money on mountain biking that money should be spent on signs about the penalties for the destruction of habitat, CCTV cameras to catch the culprits, education and enforcement to stop the building and use of illegal trails and bush regeneration to repair the extensive damage already called. Having just zoned all council-owned COSS land E2, the community wants to see Council’s ongoing commitment to COSS and the community values it represents.

Council staff’s overall objective to seek endorsement for the development of a draft mountain biking action plan for the Central Coast region appears to be a costly endeavour, both in financial and environmental terms, with little evidence of any substantial return on investment. Council (in August 2020) resolved to recognise the economic and social benefits of Mountain Biking and acknowledged the importance of a structured approach to developing facilities and tracks for Mountain Bikes in conjunction with a targeted tourism strategy.

However, since August, Central Coast Council’s true financial situation has been exposed, and it would seem irresponsible to pursue anything but core activities at the present time. CEN also wishes to note its opposition to Bouddi and Brisbane Water National Park and Jilliby State Conservation Area as appropriate sites for national trail parks defined as being able to accommodate more than 100km worth of trails.

We request that Council rules out the idea of establishing shared or club maintenance and management of sanctioned trail networks on public or leased land if it does go ahead with a regional mountain bike plan.

We object to the recommendation for the adoption of a trails approval process that appears to empower mountain bike groups to propose sites for new trails in an open-ended fashion.

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