On the surface the proposal for a dual purpose mountain bike trail and walking track from Palm Cove to Port Douglas sounds like a good thing; visitors and locals can enjoy a long trail with overnight stops at intervals and a halfway point at Wangetti. General tourist businesses and indigenous TOs can benefit with jobs.
However, if we look from an environmental perspective, the first thing to notice is that its located 95% in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, an area so special that it is subject to an international treaty. Strangely, the World Heritage (WHA) boundary was not indicated on the map provided for comment.
Below are a few more points to consider.
Information was taken direct from the Department of State Development,Tourism and Innovation (DSDTI) – Tourism Development Projects Division’s (TDPD) Referral Application under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act (EPBC). The referral will decide if the Wangetti trail will require more studies under an EPBC Controlled Action.
See http://epbcnotices.environment.gov.au/_entity/annotation/8bec8992-70cd-ea11-97dc-00505684324c/a71d58ad-4cba-48b6-8dab-f3091fc31cd5?t=1598240443191 for more details on the project.
Some Impacts on the World Heritage Area
- The finished trail width of 1.5m requires the total clearing of 60 ha of undisturbed landscape with the majority being excavated to varying depths as well. Clearing involves total removal / destruction of World Heritage flora and fauna from the trail and side cuttings.
- There is a proposed 40m wide, 400ha building envelope, ‘track reserve’, that would be subject to disturbance during construction, maintenance and for future detours and changes in track alignment. The 40m track reserve will most likely remain as part of the approved works area. The impact of the track and works envelope / reserve will bring up the total cleared area substantially, likely in the 100ha range. This is a far and above the 1.5 ha that places clearing in WHAs on the EPBC Referral list. One has to wonder where the line has been drawn to protect our WHA.
- There are no contours on the map provided for comment, which makes judging slopes difficult and comments harder.
- The Black Mountain corridor is the narrowest point in the WTWHA and one of its most sensitive. Evolutionary processes are likely to be disturbed. The trail will add to existing fragmentation of critical habitat and disruption of free movement of flora and fauna within the corridor.
- The entire track and construction reserve are mapped by the Qld government as Cassowary habitat with active populations present. There was no mention I could see of any Cassowary Recovery Plan. I also did not see any references to impacts on Cassowaries during construction or ongoing contacts with mountain bike riders, walkers, campsites or built accommodation nodes. It is well known that Cassowaries will use built tracks in their territorial range and interact with people at campsites and trails with levels of risk for birds and people. Impacts on endangered fauna must be determined and if there is not a recovery plan in place then, one must be approved before works can start.
- Helicopter use in construction, future maintenance and emergencies. Helicopters hugely impact on any wilderness values as well as wildlife patterns. It’s certainly unknown what near and longer term impacts would be placed on the endangered Cassowary. Choppers also suck the wilderness feel out of an area.
- State consultation on stage one and two is being conducted by the office of Tourism and Innovation (DSDTI)and not the Dept of Environment and Science, focusing on ‘trail alignment’ and social issues rather than in depth environmental matters. Has Tourism and Innovation taken over the Environment portfolio?
- The Referral docs indicated that permits to construct have been granted by WTMA. I am not aware of any consultation, call for public submissions or studies provided to assist the public with detail on the proposal by WTMA. The EPBC Referral process was open for 10 business days which is hardly enough time to respond. The public needs full and fair public participation.
- There will be erosion and sediment loss from the project area during construction and its ongoing use, primarily from the tracks interference with natural drainage lines and from mountain bike use once in operation. The drainage discharges into the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Estimates on the sediment load during construction and its ongoing life must be estimated to ensure it does not threaten its integrity.
- There was no mention of climate change forecasts which predicts cyclones with higher wind speeds and more intense rainfall events. We have the super cyclone Yasi and the Townsville floods where 2,500mm of rain fell in five days as stark examples of the new normal we can expect. WTMA has stated that climate change is the biggest threat to the WTWHA. Is the proposed trail and all its associated works climate proofing, or does it add to the threat?
Notwithstanding World Heritage issues, there are some valid feasibility issues regarding the proposal being located in the wet tropical coast on steep terrain.
- The site is subject to category 1-5 cyclones. Cat three or above, would cause major damage to any buildings and most likely spread debris widely making it hard to clean up. The track would be extensively blocked and damaged particularly at watercourses. Clearing fallen trees and vegetation and repair to drainage crossings and the track would take months. Its clean up priority would be well behind built up areas and Cairns and Port Douglas and the whole area would suffer a tourist business setback.
- Heavy monsoon rain will do serious track and watercourse damage during extreme events like the Kuranda fall in April 2018 of 450mm in 12 hours and Townsville’s 2,500mm in 10 days. These events are astounding and certainly places the Wangetti proposal at high risk.
- Monsoon rain will discourage most riders but if mountain bikes are ridden in the wet, they will unduly damage the track and cause erosion. Can we assume the trail will be closed in the wet season?
- The track will have to close for annual burn offs. Wild fires in open forest present a dangerous risk to track users.
- Day time temperatures from October to April are over 30C nearly every day with humidity usually over 70% putting it outside comfortable riding conditions. Over 32C is a health threat due to heat stroke especially for southerners. Heat stroke victims will require medivac services.
- Any track closure or extreme event will cut into the bottom line making any commercial venture high risk. If a company fails, it will be left to the public to clean up anything left behind. Cyclones would be a disaster for any business, particularly structures on exposed sections of the coast.
- Weather extremes must be factored in, not just for the environment but also to evaluate risk levels over the whole project to ensure it does not become a stranded asset, as is the case with several Barrier Reef resorts and Port Hinchinbrook. Provisions for climate change adaptability must alsobe included in the risk assessment.
The Queensland government has repeatedly described the project as low-impact, maybe hoping the project will slip through without much opposition or to stay below legislative thresholds. The project is anything but low impact even though its basis is a 1.5m wide trail. All the works, logistics, support services and catering for the ‘eco-accommodation’ plus the numbers planned at well over 10,000 per annum all add up to significant impacts for a World Heritage Area that is rated 6th out of 173,000 protected areas for biological uniqueness and irreplaceability of different ecosystems on the planet.