OPINION is neatly divided among Orange's councillors on the merits of pursuing a proposal to turn the Mount Canobolas State Conservation Area into a hub for mountain biking.
A third of Orange's councillors have confirmed they will continue to support the plan to build 104kms of trails within the SCA while another third have said they will not back the project.
That leaves a third yet to decide their position on a project which was flagged 2011 when the state government's office of Environment and Heritage first floated the idea of opening up its over seven million hectares of national parks to the possibility of mountain bike trails.
The issue is expected to be one of the hot topics when council adopts a mini-budget in September. Funding has not been allocated to the project which OCC CEO David Waddell described as being at a hold point after council gained a Secretary's Environmental Assessment Requirements report which details the next steps to be taken, including an Environmental Impact Statement.
The project has also been granted State Significant Development approval.
The former council which ended its term in late 2021 was heavily invested in pursuing the plan which has the potential to enhance Orange's tourism reputation and Mayor Jason Hamling and Crs Kevin Duffy and Jeff Whitton told the Central Western Daily they still support the project, as does first-termer Glenn Floyd.
"I'm a believer in the build-it-and-they-will-come- philosophy," Cr Floyd said.
"Orange needs this type of attraction for continued tourism, physical and mental wellness and continued job growth. As long as we continue to tick the right boxes and be transparent, this venture will be a boon for the city."
Crs Hamling, Whitton and Duffy said bringing everyone to the table was an important part of future debate
"It's a long-term project. You've got to start the conversation somewhere. It's all about communication and conversation," Cr Hamling said.
Cr Duffy said the economic potential made continued exploration of the plan worthwhile but in the end, the Western Region Planning Panel or the NSW Government would have the final say.
"But unless you have visions of planning and what you want to do in the future, nothing will be done."
Cr Whitton suggested working with the indigenous community to better unlock the mountain's potential.
"There are many examples around the country where the traditional owners have taken stewardship of the project, they run the projects. Those sorts of things haven't been discussed yet because it's just in the genesis and it's just an idea but from ideas come good things," he said, adding the facts behind the project were being over-shadowed by emotion.
"There so much that can be done with it, not just cycling."
The case against
But Deputy Mayor Gerald Power, a member of Orange's indigenous community, said he had been overwhelmed by letters, emails and phone calls calling on him to reject the proposal for the Wiradjuri's Gaanha-Bula.
Cr David Mallard said he also rejected to proposal on cultural and environmental grounds as well as costs, as did Cr Mel McDonell.
"Council already has three major DA-approved projects underway [Southern Feeder road; conservatorium and planetarium and the sporting precinct]. We know for a fact that these projects are at very high risk of cost increases due to the impacts of bushfires, COVID-19 and the Ukraine invasion upon local and global supply of construction materials," Cr McDonell said.
"There is very strong opposition to the trails being located on Mt Canobolas by our First Nations peoples as the site is of great cultural significance to the local Wiradjuri people. Gaanha-Bula is sacred to the Wiradjuri people and we must respect this and support the protection of such places."
She also said there was evidence to the dispute trail designers' claims impact on the SCA would be minimal.
"The SEARS report also provided a lengthy list of additional assessments and reports required before consideration can be given to the proposal Council has already paid out $500,000 thus far which was supposed to get the proposal to application-ready status. As per the SEARS report, vastly more work is required which will cost vastly more money."
Cr Frances Kinghorne agreed with Cr McDonell's assessment that the cost of pursuing the next stage, which she pointed out was still investigative, prohibitive.
"For something that is not necessarily going to be approved by the state authority (because of environmental concerns and indigenous objections), I, at this point do not think we can justify expenditure of that magnitude.
"There is already significant development planned, (and funded by other bodies), for trails in the state forest and I believe this will result in a high quality network, without encroachment into the conservation area.
"At the moment I think we need to be focusing our expenditure in other areas."
Cr Tony Mileto said he didn't feel well enough informed to take a stance and would wait until a briefing on September's mini-budget before adopting a stance.
"I don't think there's been enough information provide to make a determination on whether it should go ahead," he said acknowledging he was a member of the previous council which supported the proposal.
More information on the pros and cons was also Cr Tammy Greenhalgh's stance.
"I am keen to look at both sides of the story when it comes before council again as I believe we need to make the correct decision for our community," she said.,
"I saw an example at the National Government Assembly last week where a MTB track created 27 new jobs and seven new businesses in a town of 500. And with 59 per cent of people from our community that competed the recent survey stating we need more for the children to do, this one will be complicated."
Cr Steve Peterson said he was all for further exploration of the proposal.
"But it will need careful consideration of the cost and community sentiment as we decide."
Cr Jack Evans said he did feel comfortable making a decision based on reports and maps and was hoping to get a better understanding of Gaanha-Bula's significance through local Wiradjuri elder Uncle Neil Ingram.
He did suggest if the project was rejected on cultural grounds, council should leverage that point by showcasing, promoting and protecting the area.
"There is an opportunity to create an educational experience based around culturally significant artefacts that could still provide some tourism and employment benefits," he said.
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