After almost eight years of planning, construction on Wollongong's new mountain bike network is just weeks away.
A contractor has been engaged for the first stage of the Illawarra Escarpment Mountain Bike [IEMB] network, and it is all systems go for work to start in September.
Planning has been underway since 2015 for the long-awaited network which would incorporate, and replace, "unsanctioned" trails which have been built and maintained by mountain bike enthusiasts over the years.
Wollongong's mountain bike network would consist of two stages - one around Mount Kembla towards Mount Keira, and one towards Balgownie.
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A spokeswoman for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, which is in charge of the project, named September as the start date on the first stage.
"The Mountain Bike Strategy consists of two track networks, one at [Mount] Kembla and the other at Balgownie," she said.
"The planning approvals are now in place for the Kembla network, and NPWS has engaged a contractor to start the works that are expected to begin onsite in September."
Balgownie still in process
The second network of trails, above Balgownie, is still in the later stages of the planning approval process.
"Work on the proposed Balgownie network is dependent on the Review of Environmental Factors (REF) being approved," the NPWS spokeswoman said.
"The draft REF was placed on public exhibition in May 2023 and NPWS is in the process of finalising the REF determination report for approval.
"NPWS continues to engage with the Illawarra Escarpment Mountain Bike Advisory Group on the project, seeking their feedback and advice on the development of the project."
The Mount Kembla trails would continue to three main end points downhill - one near the Windy Gully car park, one near Kirkwood Place, and one near the Mount Keira Rural Fire Service base on Mt Keira Rd.
Experienced trail building company Synergy Trails has been involved in the planning over several years, including designing the types of built features that would form the new trails.
The Mercury understands Synergy Trails is the contractor for the first stage.
Synergy Trails has been involved in many walking and riding trail projects, including mountain bike networks at Hornsby, the Blue Mountains and Glenworth Valley.
Member for Keira Ryan Park said this would be a tourism drawcard.
""I've long advocated for dedicated mountain bike tracks in the Illawarra Escarpment," he said.
"Mountain biking activities have been occurring in this area for many years, so the provision of dedicated tracks will help protect the escarpment."
Work would soon begin to remove the unauthorised trails that are not being included, starting with Mount Keira.
"We are progressing plans to close and rehabilitate unsanctioned tracks not included in the strategy's network, commencing with Mount Keira," the NPWS website states.
"Rehabilitation will be undertaken in a staged approach to remove structures, manage erosion, revegetation, and include signage and a monitoring program."
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The Illawarra project has been talked up as an element in the "Press Play" tourism campaign which positions Wollongong as an attractive place to "play" outdoor sports.
But the trail network's delivery has taken longer than most expected, as its planners had to negotiate ecological sensitivity, Aboriginal heritage values, multiple different landowners, and multiple government departments.
The NPWS site describes the context.
"Since 2015 [NPWS] has been working with Wollongong City Council and other stakeholders to provide a sustainable mountain bike track network that protects the environmental and cultural values of the Illawarra Escarpment and provides opportunities for mountain bike riders," it states.
"The demands and impacts of mountain biking on the Illawarra Escarpment continue to increase. Many tracks provide a good riding experience, but their condition, safety and sustainability vary greatly.
"The safety, environmental and cultural impacts of mountain bike tracks and ad hoc track development need to be addressed to ensure the activity is sustainable on the Illawarra Escarpment into the future."
The first stage of the network would involve clearing at least 6ha of bush. Some of this is habitat for endangered species including the stuttering frog and the Illawarra Subtropical Rainforest ecological community, and vulnerable species including the giant burrowing frog and powerful owl.
The area to be cleared is assessed as being "highly variable", including large sections of weed infestation such as lantana.
The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage assessment report is not publicly available. The trails' impact on Aboriginal heritage was a major issue during the initial planning, and was a significant reason proposed trails were moved away from Mount Keira.
The ecological assessment report found that the only "key threatening process" that would be involved was tree removal, but the tracks had been designed so as to minimise their impact.
"Where possible, proposed trails have largely been located along previously cleared alignments," the ecological report from consultant Niche stated.
"These areas require 'secondary clearing' and have been utilised to limit the impact on areas of mature native vegetation.
"Trails that require 'primary clearing' within mature native vegetation would be between 0.9m and a maximum of 2m wide, the canopy layer would not be removed, and only the immediate ground cover and mid-storey/ shrub-layer would be affected."
Walkers, riders all use trails
The social impact assessment reported some concerns about conflict between walking trail users and riders, who travel at high speeds relatively quietly.
Mountain bikers have installed signs in some trail areas advising walkers and riders to watch out for each other but the social impact report into Stage 1 said some "passive trail users" (walkers) found these threatening, so new signage should be installed with co-operation of authorities and local experts.
"The trail network will be designed to the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) standards and several measures are being considered in the trail design for managing potential conflict between riders and other trail users," it stated.
"Trails elsewhere in NSW exhibit these measures including adequate signage and the adoption of trail etiquette or user protocols to be respectful of all users.
"At present, bike users are starting to install unapproved signage which issue warnings to passive trail users about the presence of mountain biking. Passive users have felt threatened by this signage.
"It is important that if the IEMB network proceeds, this signage is installed in consultation with emergency services and community representatives with an in-depth local knowledge of the escarpment."