Making tracks - strategies to create new mountain biking terrain
11 June 2019
Case studies of initiatives at Wellington, Dunedin, Rotorua and Queenstown.
These are exciting times for mountain biking. All over the country, clubs and groups are developing new tracks and parks and gaining access into previously un-ridden areas.
Sometimes opportunities arise through informal connections, for example, club members knowing a property owner or land manager who is also keen on mountain biking. But often track development is built on a foundation of submissions, campaigning and consultation – sometimes over several years.
A number of clubs and groups stand out for their professional approach and strong working relationships with authorities, landowners and others who matter. If you’re looking to develop or upgrade a track or park, or secure access into a new area, the case studies here should provide some handy ideas.
Makara Peak, Wellington
Makara Peak Mountain Bike Park officially opened in 1999 about a year after spadework began. Ten years later, there are 8km of four-wheel drive track and 28km of single track riding. Adjacent to the park there’s about the same distance of single track again.
“The vision is to create a world class mountain bike park, with dual-use tracks, in a restored native forest", says Simon Kennett, who was key to the park’s establishment. Over 30 000 trees, flaxes and shrubs have been planted – most are now over 2m high. Simon notes that having dual-use tracks (walkers must give way to riders) maintains the “moral high ground” when lobbying for riding access in other parts of the region.
The park is on Wellington City Council (WCC) land. It is jointly managed by the council and Makara Peak Supporters which is made up of local residents, mountain bikers and conservationists. The council supplies funding for track development and conservation via operational funding and grants, plus direct support from the Parks and Gardens, and ranger teams.
The park’s founding really dates back to 1993, when WCC started to get a lot of complaints about mountain bikers using walking tracks and decided to develop a policy. There was plenty of lobbying from bikers, residents and other groups, and council meetings saw up to six riders making submissions. By early 1994, a policy was finalised approving riding access on all tracks unless specifically stated. This track policy came up for review in 1997.
By now the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary was nearing approval – the sanctuary would lock away a popular riding area. In return, the council-led policy review recommended that a mountain bike park be set up. Further work led to the 250ha South Karori site being selected. A public meeting was held which demonstrated overwhelming public support.
The green light saw funding approved by the council to set up Makara Peak (WCC had purchased the land some years earlier). The Kennett brothers (Simon, Jonathan and Paul) were contracted as part-time project managers, and this continued for five years.
After the first year, the park’s popularity was not obvious. Hard campaigning was needed to ensure the council’s funding continued. Fortunately it did, because numbers soon took off. Today, Makara Peak is seen as a significant recreational and ecological restoration site for the capital city. Council surveys estimate that the park gets some 100 000 visits a year, including 13% of the city’s residents.
Deliver ecological value
The council committed to Makara Peak because of its ecological goals. Right from the start, tree planting and pest-control went hand-in-hand with track development. “We are seen as good guardians of the land, helping to create an ecological corridor", notes Simon. “That has helped hugely in winning over the local community.”
The Supporters group continues to have a committed volunteer base. This encourages the council to back the park’s ecological and recreational initiatives because they know they’ll get good investment value.
Get positive media coverage
“When we started to do work parties we made sure we got media coverage. We did loads of press releases during the park’s establishment", says Simon. “We invited local papers to events, we got television and radio coverage. We also set up the website. If people know what’s happening, they’re much more likely to get on side.”
Simon notes that while it can be tricky to get coverage in the major papers, community papers are “almost always screaming for stories". You need to provide press releases that are interesting to the general public and press ready", he suggests.
“When we heard funding might not be available for a second year, we set up an online campaign so people could email councillors in support of the park", says Simon. “You need to make it easy for people to engage with the council. A lot of people are cynical about local authorities but we’ve found that they are really responsive. You need to make sure you stand up and be reasonable – and you’ll be listened to.”
Inform residents directly
A quarterly newsletter was produced during the park’s early years – with news of tree planting and pest control as well as track building. This was delivered to all local residents and made available to bikers.
Build long-term relationships
Whenever Makara Peak has a major event, councillors are invited to attend. Makara Peak Supporters and council representatives meet regularly. Simon notes that before the park was established he was a volunteer ranger helping with pest control in the city’s green areas. “I can’t stress the importance enough of getting on side with the parks staff so they see you as a supporter and not just asking for mountain bike access.”
Encourage a fighting fund for land purchase
Simon notes that Makara Peak land was purchased by the council years before the park was ever proposed. “We have to thank people who lobbied before mountain biking even existed", he reckons. “You need to think long term.” He suggests finding out whether your council has a fund for parkland purchase, and if not, putting in a submission to note that one could be set up.
Track networks, Dunedin
Mountainbiking Otago is a Dunedin-based club with about 200 members – 20 of whom are active at committee level. The club doesn’t receive any official funding from Dunedin City Council (DCC), but they have a strong working relationship with council parks staff, which leads to ‘on the ground’ support.
Since late 2007, the club has also had an ongoing arrangement with the Corrections Department, which sees Periodic Detention (PD) gangs doing track work for one day each week.
“We get on really well with council parks staff. They see what we do and value it. They help us out with supplying materials like timber and shingle, or with use of a digger", says club president, Hamish Seaton.
In 2008, the club built around 8-10km of tracks on publicly accessible council-owned land. Gaining access for track building often depended on land use and the manager. Getting access to city forests and Water Department land proved relatively easy, whereas on council reserve land things were stricter because of more extensive public use. The club oversees all track building and maintenance and different members take ownership of each project.
Hamish says the club tends to “fly under the radar” of the wider public. They haven’t faced significant opposition from residents’ groups. “We just do what we do, and do a good job", he says.
Each year, the club holds events that generate over $20,000, which puts them in the position to take ownership of work. In turn, this helps in negotiating land access with the council. “We’ve showed that we can build, fund and maintain tracks ourselves", he notes. With the growing track network, the club would like the council to set aside a budget for ongoing maintenance. In 2008 they unsuccessfully put in a submission for this. “We’re just going to keep at them!”
The club puts in three or four submissions each year in response to council planning documents and to propose new riding opportunities such as a stunts area. “We want to ensure mountain biking and cycling are included in strategies", emphasises Hamish. “It’s very important to make sure your voice is heard.”
The arrangement with the Corrections Department has proved invaluable. The gang of 10 PD workers (initially 20 but access to the working area is now more limited) is creating an 8km track through native bush up to a 500m ridge. “They’re doing a fantastic job", says Hamish.
Another track into the hills around the city is in the planning stage. The track will cross some Department of Conservation (DoC) and some private land. The club has a verbal agreement with the landowner, but DoC has requested they gain a formal easement from the landowner.
As Hamish says, it’s a balancing act: “You don’t want to say to the landowner you don’t trust them. But unless you have it knuckled down legally you might as well not do it because access can later be rescinded": Fortunately, the club can call on a couple of members who are lawyers to help minimise legal costs.
Gain respect from parks staff
It is important to be seen to be proactive, says Hamish. “Parks staff deal with a lot of different user groups in Dunedin. We’d be the only really proactive group. They see that you’re putting something back into the network. They’re quite appreciative, and they like the work we put in. Everyone is constrained in terms of money. But they can help with all the little things, like signage or dropping in a load of shingle.”
“The ideal situation is to have political support for what you do", he elaborates. “That means having the support of councillors and ensuring your plans are included in council strategy documents. Once you achieve that, your projects become ‘official’ and you can push the case for council funding. But if there’s a lack of political will, you can compensate by building relationships with key staff.”
Make the most of PD
“We contacted the Corrections Department and told them what we were doing. The only requirement to having a PD gang was that we have a toilet on-site so we bought a second-hand Portaloo.” He reckons work gangs can achieve a huge amount in track work, so long as they are well managed.
Hamish is leading this track project. For each stretch, he cuts the way with a chainsaw, and marks the high side of the track every 3m with plastic fencing standards.
“All they need to do is cut and bench it. It works really well. When we had a gang of 20 we were doing 60-120m of track a day.” He also brings water and lunches up to the work area using the club’s quad bike. The club keeps tools and a gas cooker at the work area, as it’s now a 45-minute walk from the track end. “You need to get the small logistical things right", he notes.
"The gang is managed, but with PD it is also important to have someone who understands mountain biking on-site during all work", says Hamish. “If you don’t have a volunteer it’s worth paying someone. The quality of work is dependent on how good an eye you keep on it.”
After a few months, when the track has settled down, club members come in and do some specific tidying up such as fine-tuning the berms.
Prove usage figures
Mountainbiking Otago has recently negotiated with the council for a couple of automatic track counters to be installed. This will confirm that tracks are being well used, supporting the argument that they are a valuable asset and worthy of future council investment.
Seek funding support
One of the ways Mountainbiking Otago achieves so much for a small club is by accessing funding opportunities. They put in applications to community trusts and seek sponsorships from the local community. “We usually have some funding granted each year", Hamish says.
Avoid potential conflict
Most tracks in the Dunedin area are dual-usage. On two, however, riding is banned. The club has negotiated occasional access to these tracks (for half a day or an evening). Hamish notes this is a good way to stop people from riding where they shouldn’t. “It’s a proactive way of dealing with the issue.
Securing the diversity of Whakarewarewa, Rotorua
In 2007, a comprehensive survey showed that Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa forest had 85 000 mountain biking visits and a total of 282 000 recreational user visits. Over $7 million of spending was directly attributable to mountain biking in the 5700ha forest – rocketing up 70% in 2005.
“Mountain biking in Rotorua has evolved into this mega dynamo - to the point almost everyone has a bike", says Gregg Brown, advocacy manager for the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club. That momentum brings real benefits with everyone from business leaders to the mayor now riding bikes and aware of the recreational value of the forest.
But scale also presents challenges. “In the old days, mountain biking was very much a niche. You could build a track and no harm done", he says. Whereas in the last few years the forestry company has recognised that they have “given the city of Rotorua a free lunch" in allowing free access for mountain biking. “Relations with the forestry guys have got a little tense", he reveals.
“Whaka” benefits from a hugely established track network and easy access from the city. Most important, though, is the diversity of the forest. “It has many blocks of different species of trees. Every track is different – that’s the subtle thing that makes riding here so inviting.”
Significant effort is being made to secure that diversity. Thanks to submissions from the club, the Rotorua District Council’s (RDC's) draft 10-year plan includes a proposal for a $5 million loan to be made available, to allow the purchase of forestry cutting rights by the council.
This would enable the forest to be managed for its recreational value above all else. Trees would still be harvested, but in a way that minimised impact on the forest’s diversity and riding appeal. Profit from harvested trees would pay back the loan so ultimately there would be no cost to the city – and substantial return from protecting the asset.
“While we’ve got RDC to put this money aside, it’s only in draft. Now we are rallying people to make submissions for the final plan. It’s about making sure everyone knows where we’re at. I’ve emailed and phoned people to explain the scenario. If they’re passionate they will get on with it", Gregg reckons.
The club doesn’t follow a set structure to tackling such issues. The club executive meets and “knits together electronically” with council employees who are responsible for cycling strategy and events. Meetings are regularly held with iwi. One of the city’s councillors is an ex-club president.
“There’s always communication flowing about a particular opportunity or threat. A few of us were up in a helicopter the other day looking at a potential route for the national cycleway. We’re talking about a bike festival. It’s all discussed and planned through the network", Gregg explains.
Share the facts
“The recreational return of a track far exceeds the cost of building it", says Gregg. “The cost of track building is peanuts!” He says it’s very important to put across a coherent argument with all the facts and figures surrounding mountain biking in Whakarewarewa. “We use economic surveys to help people understand the recreational value of the forest, to be aware of the numbers. It’s an education process.”
Share the experience
“We do whatever we can to get people out there and appreciate the forest", says Gregg. City leaders and top government officials are invited to ride tracks. Track openings are held. By coming and experiencing the forest, people become advocates.
Gain support of high-profile people
"It helps to have people on your side who have a public profile", says Gregg, who is himself the owner of the Pig and Whistle Bar and Capers café and is on the Rotorua Tourism Board. The club has a strategy to look for people within the mountain bike community who can help to pass on the message.
It’s important to try and keep relationships good. “Everything has to be win-win. I try not to beat up on people", he says. The club makes an effort to respond to safety issues with forestry operations. “We recognise it’s not our forest. We try to be as cooperative and professional as possible.”
Maximise funding opportunities
In the two financial years to March 2008, the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club received $118,000 in funding support for building trails. Gregg notes that the club has been recognised as a charitable organisation to support funding applications. In turn, he emphasises that means being “utterly impeccable” in making use of the money.
It won’t happen overnight
Putting in the submission to the council’s 10-year strategy underlines the long-term commitment of the club. There are a lot of us and we’re all passionate about mountain biking. “The success of Whakarewarewa has evolved over a period of time", Gregg concludes.
Shared vision - Queenstown
Queenstown Mountain Bike Club, which numbers about 120, manages four riding areas. Three of these are on Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) land: Gorge Road Jumps Park; Wynyard Freestyle Park, which offers extreme jumps; and Jardine Park, which offers terrain for children.
The club leases these areas off the council for $1 a year. A condition of the leases is for comprehensive management and safety plans and these are all in place. Under the plans, the club is responsible for all track/jump development and maintenance, with no investment from the council. The fourth area is Seven Mile, an area of lakeside DoC estate with both pine plantation and native bush. Here, a 10km network of club-built and managed trails feed from a DoC-managed dual-use track.
“I think we were the first club in New Zealand to have a management agreement with DoC on building and maintaining mountain bike trails", explains club committee member, Carey Vivian. “We had to develop safety standards, and then develop new standards when we started using machinery.” The standards have all been independently audited and were developed so the club can use them in other areas.
He says that the council and DoC have been very supportive of the club’s initiatives – it’s fortunate that there are mountain bike riders in both organisations. Even so, they take care to do everything according to the management plans – there’s no track-making on an unofficial basis.
At Seven Mile, whenever a new trail is proposed, club volunteers mark out the route with ribbon, then walk the area with DoC staff. There are several log rides, which have been certified by an engineer and have long-term maintenance plans.
Track signage is funded by the club, but arranged by DoC to match other signage. The club has recently built a couple of information kiosks, again in keeping with DoC standards. And while it’s not required by the management plan, club volunteers help with maintenance of the DoC track.
The club has not faced opposition from residents or other user groups, which is probably in part due to the Wakatipu Trails Trust (see below). Instead, the feedback has been positive. “Just about everyone comments how good the tracks are", enthuses Carey.
Perhaps the most important lesson to take from the Queenstown experience is the shared vision created by the Wakatipu Trails Trust. This is a community trust, set up in 2001 by the council, and responsible for overall management of the region-wide trails network. Carey reckons that other clubs around the country could well benefit from a similar organisation.
The Trails Trust has one trustee to represent the council and about a dozen elected trustees to represent trail users such as mountain bikers, walkers and horse riders. DoC attends and reports at all the monthly Trust meetings.
“The Trust is probably the most important reason for the success of our trails. It means we’re all on the same wavelength. We’re all working towards the same goal", explains Carey, who is a trustee.
The Trust upholds the overall vision for the trails network – then the mountain bike club and other user groups come in with specific initiatives to support that vision. “Having the Trust helps us to get buy-in from council. We have just about universal support for our initiatives", he notes.
Beyond that, the Trust manages agreements with landowners for dual-use trails that cross private land. The Trust has also provided funding for the club’s track projects.
"The arrangements to lease land from the council work well", Carey says. The club finds it’s better than simply agreeing access because the lease gives the club control over access: “We have total management. If it’s too wet, we can close it". The club’s public liability insurance provides protection.
Stay in touch
"It is essential to maintain open lines of communications with DoC and the council", Carey says. “If they know what we’re doing and how, everyone is happy. If they get a question from the public - they can answer it.”
The club contracts a professional track builder to work on jumps and develop new tracks. That’s proved a successful strategy for a smaller club. “We want to be in the position that all jumps and tracks are first safe, and secondly, last a long time without a lot of maintenance", Carey says.
The cost for contracting a team of four is $600 a day without machinery or $1,000 a day with it. "It’s money well spent", he says. “The length of track professionals can build in a day is incredible. It’d take us probably three days to build as much.”
Club volunteers sometimes “fluff the track up” at a later stage, putting in extra drains and so on. And professional support is feasible because the club is generally successful with its funding applications.
“We’re always making submissions to council planning", says Carey. “We encourage council to invest in staff to maintain trails outside the areas we manage.” Some submissions are successful, others not. Carey notes that an economic analysis could be a good idea for the future. “I don’t think the council quite realise the financial value of mountain biking."
Strategies for liasing with authorities and landowners will always be influenced by specific regional circumstances. For example, does your local council appreciate the potential economic gain from supporting mountain biking? Is there opposition from community or residents’ groups? Is the proposed riding terrain under council management, or perhaps a working forest? Is it mature or regenerating bush? Is there an existing trail infrastructure? Mountain biking or dual-use?
Perhaps, most importantly, how committed and well resourced is your team?
You’ll need to address such issues in your own ways. From these case studies, however, a number of fundamentals bear repeating:
- Keep your dealings with authorities and landowners as professional and positive as you possibly can – no cowboys.
- Counter any opposition decisively, but through the right channels (letters to newspapers, meetings, submissions), focusing on the opportunities and benefits to be gained. Respect the fact that you don’t have an automatic right to access private land, even if that has been happening unofficially.
- Present all facts clearly (and often), including usage and financial benefit, in submissions and reports to the council. Build relationships wherever possible, both ‘on the ground’ and with councillors.
- Aim to get involved, supporting your council’s long-term recreational and ecological goals, rather than just asking for access and support. Raise money and support to back your objectives.
- Consider how to maximise the power of media and/or the support of high-profile community leaders. Recruit as many supporters and endorsers as possible, and make sure their voice is heard by decision-makers. Think long term.
The New Zealand mountain bike community now has a wealth of experience in access and track issues. Don’t work in isolation – sound out others. Mountain Bike NZ can provide contacts to get you started.