The escarpment is a wonderful asset for Wollongong. It's the green backdrop that defines our place. Its lookouts, forests and slopes provide exhilaration, wonder and solace for those who venture into it. The public has access to those parts of it that comprise the Illawarra Escarpment State Conservation Area (IESCA). The rest (most of it) is privately owned by companies like Wollongong Coal and South32.
The IESCA is not only public land, it's also intended to protect and conserve remnants of local ecosystems. It's managed by the National Parks and Wildlife service (NPWS), an underfunded NSW government organisation. They decide where tracks and other amenities will go and deal with the damage from a host of threats such as weeds, feral deer, degradation of the tracks and illegal clearing and trail building.
Mountain bike riders who love our local bushland and want to look after it should not be using informal trails, let alone creating new ones.
As environmentally conscious citizens, NPWS is where we should go with our concerns. A tree has fallen over a track, the signs are misleading, rubbish has been dumped. Or we've seen dogs, horses or mountain bike riders on walking tracks, all of which are expressly forbidden. And if NPWS decides that action needs to be taken to remedy misuse we need to respect that, knowing that its role is to ensure the long-term future of the escarpment's ecosystems such as its rainforests.
More than 20 per cent of Australia's forests burned in the 'Black Summer' bushfire catastrophe of 2019-20. For rainforests, the figures are even more shocking: in NSW, 37 per cent of rainforest was burnt. Australian rainforests are precious and ancient: by some estimates they are 10 times older than the rainforests of the Amazon.
Here in the Illawarra we are fortunate to have amazing rainforests, some of which are unique. Illawarra Subtropical Rainforest occurs exclusively in this region, on the escarpment and in remnant patches on the coastal plain. But what we still have is only a small proportion of what was originally here. Over 75 per cent of the region's pre-settlement rainforest has been permanently cleared, with some species becoming locally extinct or threatened as a result.
Illawarra's rainforests provide habitat for local birds and animals, and provide important ecosystem services for people too. Rainforest stabilises the slopes of the Illawarra escarpment, it sequesters carbon dioxide from the air, it provides beauty and amenity, and on the escarpment it serves as a barrier to fire. But what is left is very vulnerable.
Mountain bike trails
Unfortunately, in recent years, informal mountain bike trail building has substantially increased across public and private lands, including the IESCA. It is creating an enormous amount of damage. Informal trails destroy native vegetation, introduce weedy plant species, and fragment vegetation communities. They disturb local birds and animals, including rare rainforest-dependent bird species. They create erosion that further damages vegetation and can destabilise steep slopes, sometimes over large areas as older trails become rutted and braided, are abandoned and then supplemented by new trails. They compact soils, preventing natural regeneration even after trails are abandoned. These impacts are not compatible with the conservation purpose of the IESCA.
Mountain biking is obviously very popular among some locals. It's great that people love being in the bush and of course riders should have opportunities to follow their passion. But informal mountain bike riding is so damaging that any rider who loves our local bushland and wants to look after it should not be using informal trails, let alone creating new ones. We have personally recorded trails, created in the last 12 months, that run over populations of rare and endangered plants, with no apparent awareness of the damage that has been done.
We've seen the Possums area, the subject of a recent outcry as a result of a NPWS decision to flatten a series of very high jumps. These have been built, largely very recently, in the middle of a six-metre cleared corridor straight down a hill in the middle of high quality weed-free forest. Imagine what might happen after sustained heavy rain, after years of inadvertently bringing in weed seeds, after destroying the connectivity of the environment for ground-dwelling wildlife, not to mention the human costs of accidents. We think the NPWS plan deserved to be listened to, not just condemned.
A formal network
It is exactly in order to avoid this sort of misuse that NPWS is leading a process to develop a network of formal mountain bike trails near Mount Kembla. Mountain bikers are represented, through the Illawarra Mountain Biking Association (as is the Illawarra Escarpment Alliance, of which we are members). The formal trail design processes take factors such as safety and evacuation access into account, as well as geotechnical considerations, and cultural and environmental heritage. Proper consultation with affected local residents is another important part of the process. A formal process like this can come up with an optimum design, and produce trails that have the lowest possible environmental, cultural and social impact. Steps are also underway to develop a mountain bike trail network in Cringila, and there are mountain biking opportunities on private land.
It is not appropriate to pre-empt the formal design process for mountain biking in the IESCA, which has been running for a number of years. In the meantime, we ask local riders to show good faith by not creating any new informal trails, and by respecting NPWS decisions to close recently built trails that they consider dangerous or environmentally damaging.
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