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INSIDE STORY: The mountain, the Elders and the cyclists. Is 100km trail a dream or a nightmare?

April 25, 2023

Uncle Neil Ingram and Aunty Alice Williams and (border) a map of the proposed bike trails. Copyright: Orange News Examiner/Orange City Council.

By Peter Holmes


Of all the places Wiradjuri Elder Uncle Neil Ingram would have preferred to have been on the morning of Monday October 31, 2022, sitting on his walking frame in the rain talking to the media outside Orange Function Centre about a proposed mountain bike trail was probably not at the top of his list.


Facing reporters and crews from online, print, radio and TV, and backed by First Nations community members and supporters, Uncle Neil and fellow Elder Aunty Alice Williams explained why they opposed mountain bike trails being carved into Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas.


“Mount Canobolas mountain bike track should be stopped,” Uncle Neil said. “We as Elders oppose it in its entirety.

“Gaanha-bula is part of our Dreaming story; it’s a sacred, spiritual place for the Wiradjuri people. The project will impact and damage Wiradjuru culture both intangible - spiritual - and tangible - the sites of artefacts.”



(L-R): Uncle Neil Ingram, Dr Andrew Rawson and Aunty Alice Williams listen as the Greens' Sue Higginson speaks. Copyright: Orange News Examiner.

Uncle Neil said the mountain was home to “sacred sites for men and women. There are initiation sites for men and birthing places for women, and much evidence for this including tools, ceremonial artefacts and other symbols in the landscape”.


He said traditional flora and fauna were used for bush medicine and bush tucker, and that the mountain was home to threatened and endangered species unique to the area.


“The biodiversity is very important … We have occupied these lands for tens of thousands of years and they are of great significance to the Wiradjuri people. We need to protect this Earth and respect this special place.”


Aunty Alice Williams said she became involved in the campaign to stop the bike trails, “because my grandfather recorded the Wiradjuri line, which encampasses Gaanha-bula, so I was appreciative of Uncle Neil coming and getting me involved in the process”.

Aunty Alice said she felt as if Wiradjuri women had not been heard during mountain bike trail consultations.


“We never had an opportunity to talk about the cultural values that we have within the landscape up there, and that connection to Country, and the ceremonies we used to do. How the women used to travel with the men along the various creek ways that led to Gaanha-bula - north, south, east and west.”


A week later, in response to a query, I received an email from Uncle Neil, in which he wrote: “I notice that they don’t make mountain bike trails through sacred places like the cemetery.”




An investigation by The Orange News Examiner explores why the proposal to build around 100km of “world class” mountain bike trails on and around Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas has become hopelessly bogged down, and whether Orange City Council (OCC) - having already spent well over $500,000 on scoping work and reports across nine years - will reluctantly place the proposal in the bottom drawer and focus on the new music conservatorium, planetarium and sporting precinct.


Interviews were conducted with members of the Indigenous community including Wiradjuri Elders Uncle Neil Ingram and Uncle James Williams; Land Council CEO Annette Steele, and the land council’s Cultural and Heritage Committee chair Greg Ingram; Jenni Bate, whose company Apex Archeology surveyed parts of Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas on behalf of OCC; National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS); the president of Orange Mountain Biking Club, Scott Charlton; senior Orange City Council staff; elected councillors; and the driving force behind the Canobolas Conservation Alliance, Dr Andrew Rawson.


Some, citing the sensitive nature of the issue, would only speak on background, and would not be named or directly quoted.


After lying dormant for months, the debate around the mountain bike trails on Gaanha-bula flared up again outside Orange Function Centre.

Uncle Neil lit the kindling at the NAIDOC Week launch, backed by NSW Greens MLC Sue Higginson, and then mayor Jason Hamling and state MP Phil Donato fanned the flames by weighing in on the debate, as did many others.


From a cultural and heritage perspective the mountain bike trails are a hugely sensitive issue for Wiradjuri leaders in Orange.


Even those in the community in favour of the trails - including former mayor Reg Kidd, Donato, Hamling and many mountain bikers - have all said that the protection of the environment and culture must take precedence.


But how deep exactly is that commitment to preserving culture? Does it have limits?

It is on these questions that the future of the mountain bike trails may rest.


Theoretically, the NSW government could one day approve the project against the wishes of the Wiradjuri people. It could argue that consultation had occurred to the level legally required, despite Wiradjuri leaders saying the exact opposite.


Then what?


Would the proponents of the bike trails be prepared to ultimately override the wishes of local First Nations leaders, and just get on with cutting the trails into the mountain? And if so, what impact might this have on Orange as a community, where about one in 13 people identify as First Nations?



“CONSULTATION” is the key word in this story. What is it? And what isn’t it?


Some believe consultation with Wiradjuri people over the mountain bike trails has been undertaken. Others say not even close.

There is confusion over the exact nature of Apex Archeology’s consultation with First Nations people, who those people were, what weight they may or may not carry in the community, their level of on-the-ground involvement in surveys seeking to locate significant Aboriginal sites, and whether Wiradjuri leaders see any future at all for trails on the mountain.


Crucial to the future of the mountain are Uncle Neil, Aunty Alice, the Orange Aboriginal Land Council (OALC) and its Cultural and Heritage Committee. Uncle Neil’s son, Greg Ingram, is the chair of the latter committee. They may not have the final say legally on what happens, but their opinions will carry significant moral weight.



Timeline: The long and winding road.


The mountain bike proposal must pass through multiple stages to gain approval from the state government. Only the first stage has been completed and approved, and it is by far the easiest.


“If stage one is like ticking five boxes, stage two is like 40,” said a senior council source in late 2022, without so much as a hint of relish.

Questions abound. Who would build and maintain the trails? Who would own them? Who would insure for public liability?


The last Orange City Council voted to tip $500,000 into exploring the possibility of 100km of trails on and around Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas. But that money has been spent, and much more is needed to try and negotiate a path through the other stages of the approval process.


If any more money was to be allocated, the current council would have to approve it. And for that to happen, council staff would need to prepare documents to put to the councillors, with a recommendation on how to proceed.



There is talk about OCC tipping in another $1.5 million. But does it have the stomach to throw more money at something that may never happen, and which is already proving incredibly divisive?


Does it want the attention from beyond the district that would inevitably come with being associated with a project that ignored the wishes of the Wiradjuri leaders?


For its $500,000 council received detailed trail designs by Sydney company Dirt Art, a flora and fauna assessment by The Environmental Factor in Bathurst and an archeological survey by Nowra’s Apex Archeology.

“The first thing we did was look at previously recorded sites [of Indigenous significance] on the mountain,” Apex Archeology’s Jenni Bate told The Orange News Examiner.



“We looked at all the site cards - which is the actual record of the site - and we mapped. If it was a single artefact, we mapped that, put a big dot around it to make sure that area was avoided [by proposed trails]. If it was a big artefact scatter we put a great big buffer around it. Those formed no-go zones. We did the same thing on the ecology side.”


Once these tasks were completed, Bate said Dirt Art looked at areas of sensitivity, and the topography, then designed the trails to avoid those no-go zones.


Bate said the trails were then walked: “The vast majority were in accompaniment with a representative of the Aboriginal community. When we went out to survey we were looking to make sure there were no unexpected Aboriginal sites in those areas.”

Dirt Art also walked the trails. Bate said, “if we got to a spot where there was something that needed to be avoided we could work with the trail designers and the Aboriginal community present to say, ‘This needs to be avoided, perhaps we could move this way?’”


The process is known as dynamic rerouting.


Bate said the “surveys were purely targeted at the trails themselves”. And in that fact lies a crucial part of this debate.


Bate maintained that Apex Archeology did all within its power to engage with the local Indigenous community and involve it in the surveys.

“We work under really strict guidelines,” she said. “We have guidelines for survey of site and guidelines for consultation with the Indigenous community. There is a list that’s held by Heritage NSW, and we consulted with everyone on that list, asking if they wanted to be involved in the consultation for the project we’d been engaged to do.


“People had ample opportunity to be involved; anyone can contact us at any time during the process and say they’d like to be involved.”



Apex Archelology's Jenni Bate. Photo: Apex Archeology.

Bate said that Apex Archeology “invited everybody who registered an interest in the project to be part of the survey fieldwork we did - a number of people chose not to respond or attend, and we involved those who did”.


She said that, initially, she had been in contact with Uncle Neil Ingram via email, but that communications had long since ceased.

“We started the process in 2020,” Bate said. “The thing that is super important to remember is that we were in a global pandemic. We were under travel restrictions, we had stay-at-home requirements, we couldn't hold in-person meetings, we couldn't do online things like Zoom because not everybody who wanted to be consulted had access to that sort of online facility. We kept everything to email to make sure everyone had the same level of access.”





For Uncle Neil, the end of the road was Apex Archeology’s draft report.


Bate scrolls through her emails. “The last response I had from Uncle Neil was in September 2021, and he said: ‘I have previously formally requested a cultural consultation at an Aboriginal community meeting regarding the mountain bike track.


“‘The reason for this request is that we find the current process for consultation limiting and controlling. This is preventing full Aboriginal community consultation, considering the spiritual and significant story of this special place.

“‘There are specific cultural gender issues that cannot be addressed in a public forum. That current proposal with RAPs [Registered Aboriginal Parties] is nothing more than divide and conquer, with some outside influences. There has not been an opportunity for Aboriginal people to have a united voice in this important matter.



Uncle Neil Ingram and Aunty Alice Williams in Robertson Park. Copyright: Orange News Examiner.


“‘Apex has been very divisive in its entirety. It has treated the Aboriginal people with contempt and disrespect and of little value to their processes. We as Elders find this process disrespectful’.” [Uncle Neil granted us permission to use this email.]


Bate told The Orange News Examiner she was “extremely upset to hear that because we followed the guidelines we have to follow, and at all times have tried to be respectful and inclusive wherever we can”.

Wiradjuri Elder Uncle James Williams was a RAP, but was unable to be involved in surveys on the mountain as he says he was told he would need to organise his own public liability insurance.




“I’ve been involved in these types of activities for over 15 years; I was working with the Land Council a number of years ago doing site surveys; I was on the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee to the [NSW environment and heritage] minister until recently, when I resigned after four years. I know the processes, and I’ve worked with the Heritage office previously.


“[Apex Archeology] have followed the processes, but they didn't take into consideration the knowledge or the information they can gain from the community if they'd had a community meeting.”

He said he raised the issue of Aboriginal lore “that should’ve been respected” at the start of the process. He said that the surveys should have involved initiated Wiradjuri men.


Uncle James felt that “because of my knowledge … they bypassed me because it would’ve put barriers up to the development”.


The Orange News Examiner had two long conversations with Uncle Neil. He asked that they remain off-the-record, however he sent detailed notes that outlined his position.


“We are disappointed with OCC [Orange City Council] Archaeological assessment report, it was flawed from the beginning,” said Uncle Neil.


“RAPs [Registered Aboriginal Parties] and Elders were excluded from the assessment process, and the [draft] report doesn’t reflect any cultural understanding. Including Men’s and Women’s Business – women’s birthing places.

“Gaanha-bula is a Sacred and Spiritual place – part of our Dreaming story – unique to the Wiradjuri people.”


Uncle Neil said he had received a message from Bate: “She said [Apex Archeology’s] goal has been to protect Aboriginal culture and heritage. Slap my black face!”



Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas. Photo: NPWS.

He said there was “a need for a thorough assessment that will reflect, and transfer understanding from an Aboriginal perspective”.


The nature of the Apex Archeology survey has now become an intractable problem.

“We didn't survey areas that were not going to be impacted,” Bate said.


She said there were parts of Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas that wouldn’t have been used by Wiradjuri people, and some of them were ideal for trails.


“Part of the thing we did as part of our assessment was looking at land form, with a predictive model. We have a very good understanding of what type of landforms Aboriginal people were likely to use for habitation, resource gathering.


“Steep slopes were very unlikely to have been used for camping - nobody wants to lay down and have a rock fall off a cliff in the middle of the night, so steep slopes almost always have no evidence of Aboriginal occupation on them.


“Not only were they unlikely to be used, but anything that was dropped would be unlikely to have stayed there, because of things such as water running down the mountain.”


Bate said she “reached out to the Cultural and Heritage Committee from the [Orange Aboriginal] Land Council”.

“We spoke to them in person, they invited us to [make a presentation], we contacted them numerous times to ask when they’d like to come and talk further, and didn’t get a response. I’ve documented over and over trying to get in touch by phone and email. There’s only so much we can do. We’ve tried everything to consult.”


The Cultural and Heritage Committee’s chairperson Greg Ingram disputed this. He said that he had independently signed on to be a Registered Aboriginal Party in the process, as had Uncle Doug Sutherland from the Orange Aboriginal Land Council.



Asked how she gained a Wiradjuri perspective without the input of the Cultural and Heritage Committee and Elders such as Uncle Neil, Bate said: “From other people involved in the project. There are a number of people involved in that consultation process and all of their views have been taken on board.”

Orange News Examiner: Did you check the bona fides of those involved?


Bate: “That’s not something you do - if anyone says they’d like to be part of the consultation, we have to consult with them, it’s not up to me to say, ‘What Aboriginal community are you from?’. That’s the way the legislation and consultation guidelines have been worded. It’s more inclusive than exclusive.”


Orange News Examiner: But without the Cultural Heritage Committee and the Elders, doesn’t that leave a gaping hole?


Bate: “It does to an extent, but we can only work with the information that’s available to us. The door is always open.”


..…


UNCLE James Williams, 68, was born in Leeton, about 350km southwest of Orange, and part of the vast Wiradjuri nation. He is a Wiradjuri/Walgalu man.


Uncle James Williams. Facebook.

“I grew up in Griffith [about 60km northwest of Leeton], then went to Sydney, then to Wagga,” he told The Orange News Examiner.


Originally, his people were from Cowra, about 100km southwest of Orange, but his parents and grandparents lived even further south on the Brungle Aboriginal reservation between Tumut and Gundagai.

The people at Brungle, described here in stark, one-sided and unforgiving prose in a 1968 Canberra Times newspaper article, had been brought there from places around the state.



“[It was] to get rid of people who were just walking on Country, so white farmers could fence off their properties. They rounded up all the Aboriginal people,” Uncle James said.


To the best of his knowledge, Uncle James reckons there are about 30 First Nations languages spoken in Orange. He’s not sure how many of the roughly 3,400 Indigenous people in Orange are Wiradjuri. Firstly, because Orange was a resettlement town. And secondly, because people just move around during their lives.

“The Springs was the unofficial Aboriginal reserve [in Orange] that was bulldozed down … once the [missions and reservations] were dispersed, Aboriginals came here from other places and found employment and that’s where their families are,” he said.


A Heritage report to Orange City Council a decade ago stated: “The Springs was a mixed Aboriginal/European camp located approximately 800m west of Bloomfield Hospital. It was occupied during the 1930s and early 1940s.


“The origins of the camp are unknown, but it is likely that some of the non-Indigenous residents were itinerant workers forced onto the road by the Great Depression. The camp is situated on an old travelling stock reserve. Stock reserves often followed ancient Aboriginal walking tracks.”


The report noted that the discovery in 2010 of flaked stone artefacts “indicates the site was used as a camp in pre-contact time”.


When it comes to Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas, and mountain bike trails, Uncle James says that many non-Wiradjuri in Orange would not want to get involved, as it is considered disrespectful to weigh in on another Nation’s business.



THE $500,000 allocated by the previously elected council was not Orange City Council’s first expenditure on a proposal to build a network of mountain bike trails on the mountain.

In 2014 the company RedeConsult was engaged to deliver a report on “Economic Value of Mountain Bike Tourism To Orange”.


A map of the proposed trails from Orange City Council papers.


The report stated: “Orange City Council has identified significant growth in participation in cycling and off road cycling and is seeking to capitalise on the additional spend that mountain bike tourism could generate in the region. Orange City is investigating building a series of mountain bike tracks on Mount Canobolas that would be unique to the region and tap into the increasing off-road cycling trend.”



RedeConsult estimated the cost of developing a set of mountain bike trails on Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas in 2014 at $2 million: “This would include construction of the tracks and associated infrastructure including viewing platforms, staging areas and amenities. It is assumed that the construction costs will be incurred in the first year.”


The company “assumed that there will be an ongoing maintenance cost for the trails of $5,000 per year for years 2-5”. This was the equivalent of just $96 a week.

The report concluded: “The impact of the construction of the mountain bike trails is estimated to create 18 [full-time] jobs and $1.2 million in household income and generate an additional $2.3 million to the Orange economy … Whilst not significant when measured as a percentage of the economy, it does compare favourably with the level of investment by Orange City Council required to generate this impact”.


In 2015 GHD - a company offering engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services - prepared the “Mt Canobolas and Environs Mountain Bike Trail Constraints and Opportunities Discussion Paper” for Orange City Council.


“[OCC] is looking at potential opportunities to create an attractive mountain bike trail network and associated facilities, to complement and enhance the range of tourism facilities within the region. Mount Canobolas has been identified as a potential location for such a trail network, providing a unique setting for such a facility and a means to increase visitation to the State Conservation Area (SCA) managed by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).”


Under the heading of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage, the discussion paper said that within the mountain’s Plan of Management (National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2003), “there is currently limited information on the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage values of the Mount Canobolas, with just six Aboriginal sites recorded (four campsites, a grinding grove stone and an art site).


“However, as the plan identifies, the area ‘is likely to have contributed to their social, economic or ceremonial life, and is likely to have economic and cultural significance to contemporary Indigenous communities’.”

The discussion paper stated that the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage had in 2015 “identified Mount Canobolas is a significant men’s ceremonial area” and that “scarred trees, potentially associated with Aboriginal site use, have also been found”.


It stated that the project “can potentially provide important opportunities for local Aboriginal people” through participation in mountain surveys, “involvement as project partner in the track construction” and in “active management” of the tracks.



Among all that economic opportunity was this: “... developments likely to harm Aboriginal objects should be considered against the Due Diligence Code of Practice for the Protection of Aboriginal Objects in NSW, which is likely to involve consultation with local Aboriginal people”.

In September 2015 a motion - “That Council note the report by GHD and its recommendations. 2/ That Council approve the conduct of a Trail Design together with an environmental assessment with funding to be identified in the September 2015 quarterly review” - was put by then-councillor Reg Kidd and seconded by then-councillor Chris Gryllis.


In September 2016 ​​Orange City Council papers contained a report on the bike trails written by council staffer Scott Maunder.


“To date Council has progressed the project using its own funds together with generous support from Newcrest Mining to get the project well into the concept stage,” the report stated.


“The concept developed by World Trail also sought to address some of the environmental issues raised by the reference group in its responses to the GHD Constraints and Opportunities analysis.”


The “reference group” was made up of members representing the following groups: Cabonne Council, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Central West Off Road Bicycle Club, Orange Field Naturalists, Environmentally Concerned Citizens of Orange, members of the local mountain bike community, and councillors Jones, Kidd, Brown and Turner.” No Aboriginal groups were mentioned.



Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas. Photo: NPWS.

[Mount Canobolas sits within neighbouring Cabonne Council’s large footprint, however its small and widely spread population of about 12,000 does not generate enough rates for the council to be able to take responsibility for the mountain. Sources told The Orange News Examiner that Cabonne Council is content to sit back and let Orange City Council deal with the issue of the trails.]


World Trail developed a concept plan for 11 trails on the mountain. The plan had approximately 62.8km (54 percent) of the proposed trail network within the Mt Canobolas State Conservation Area, with the remaining 53.6km (46 percent) within neighbouring state forest.

Maunder’s report stated: “It is important to note that Council is not seeking the adoption or approval of the concept plan.” The next step, should councillors wish to endorse it, was to “proceed to detailed design”.


Maunder wrote that the staff recommendation to councillors was firstly to acknowledge the Trail Concept Plan, and secondly, “write to Mr Mark Speakman, [then] Minister Environment and Heritage requesting an amendment to the Plan of Management to permit the creation of a Mountain Bike Trail Centre”.


In November 2017 OCC paid for an updated RedeConsult report on the economic benefits of mountain bike trails.


“This Project includes the development of the Mount Canobolas Mountain Bike Trails and the redevelopment of the Canobolas Scout Camp, which is located near the trailhead and will provide accommodation options for bike riders visiting Orange.”



According to OCC papers, there was little activity on the mountain bike trails through 2018 and into 2019, and then Covid hit in early 2020.


In November 2020, council resolved to engage The Environmental Factor. Then came Dirt Art and Apex Archeology.



Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas, which occupies an area of 1,672 hectares, is “a dormant volcano that formed millions of years ago when Australia was sitting over a hotspot in the Earth's crust,” states the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

“It is part of the Brigooda-Oberon chain that stretches 800km from southeast Queensland to near Oberon and last erupted 11 million years ago, spewing lava from the main vent and up to 30 vents in the surrounding area.


Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas from the air. Google Earth.

“With its rich soil, high altitude and cool climate, it’s the perfect environment for a range of plants and animals. Large areas of snow gum subalpine woodland, grassy woodland and rocky outcrops covered with a variety of mosses and lichens …”


Gaanha-bula means “two shoulders” and refers to the peaks of Old Man Canobolas and Young Man Canobolas. Canobolas is an Anglicised version of Gaanha-bula.

NPWS manages Mount Canobolas State Conservation Area (SCA) in accordance with the Plan of Management, which “allows for further opportunities for mountain bike riding and associated facilities in the park”.


In a statement to The Orange News Examiner a spokesperson said: “Any proposed development of significant new mountain bike riding opportunities in the park would require the preparation of a ‘Review of Environmental Factors’ and include public and stakeholder consultation.”



FOLLOWING Uncle Neil and Aunty Alice’s press conference on October 31, also attended by Greens’ state upper house MP Sue Higginson, OCC was quick to publish a statement from the mayor Jason Hamling, who is a keen supporter of the project.


“Orange City Council has done a lot of work to date to explore the proposal for mountain bike tracks, but there is more work to do,” Hamling said. “This includes continuing the important discussions with the traditional owners.”


Hamling described the mountain as a “very special, culturally and environmentally important area”.

“If we can’t adequately protect those important values, the mountain bike project shouldn’t go ahead.”


Hamling added: “But there are examples of mountain bike trails in National Parks such as at Thredbo.”


The mayor also acknowledged the problem with weeds and other unnecessary vegetation on the mountain.


“Whether or not this project proceeds, what the investigation to date has found is that there should be more work protecting the mountain from weed infestations and other threats.”


State MP Phil Donato (second from right) at one of his regular community barbecues. Supplied.

Independent Orange state MP Phil Donato brought up the rear with a statement on the mountain bike trails on November 1.


“In terms of the project plan's timeline, there's been some relatively recent opposition to this project - based on concerns about the impact to [the] environment and to cultural sites,” Donato said.

“I believe with co-operation that the right balance can be struck and the project completed without negative impact.



“What is lost on many is the fact that, largely, the mountain isn't being managed or cared for. Invasive weeds and pests aren't being appropriately controlled … tracks provide access to manage weeds, and revenue generated by those using the track can be used to properly manage the mountain by stewards.”


NPWS told The Orange News Examiner: “The tree canopy on Mount Canobolas is still recovering from the 2018 bushfire, and with above average rainfall over the past two years, there has been an increase in the growth of weeds.

“NPWS is continuing to invest heavily in blackberry management in Mount Canobolas SCA. In addition to routine weed management activities, weed control contractors and NPWS staff are currently undertaking a large, ground-based blackberry spraying blitz in the conservation area over the summer and autumn period.”


Donato said there was a “huge opportunity for local Aboriginal cultural heritage education and tourism to be capitalised on”.


He encouraged supporters of the proposal to make themselves heard: “Again, with communication, cooperation and consideration - the right balance can be struck so that everyone can benefit from this project.”


Donato has long championed the mountain bike trails. But in a November 2021 Facebook post he noted issues surrounding consultation: “There are concerns surrounding community and stakeholder consultation, however I'm assured this is part of the planning processes that will be undertaken and people will have further opportunity for their say.”


As the process has unfolded, the Orange Aboriginal Land Council, which organised for Indigenous people to assist on some of the Apex Archeology surveys, has completely cooled on the idea of mountain bike trails, according to sources.


A council document showing a "minimum 10-metre buffer" around significant Indigenous sites.


The land council not only believes that the whole mountain should be surveyed, but that this should not happen until it is cleared of weeds, blackberries and other nasties that can make it difficult for a surveyor mapping every square metre.


To this end, The Orange News Examiner understands that the land council will seek to take dual custodianship of Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas with National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).



A spokesperson for NPWS said: “NPWS strongly supports joint management with Aboriginal owners and has commenced consultation with Aboriginal communities with a view to developing a new joint management model for national parks across the state, including Mount Canobolas SCA.”


When contacted about the proposed mountain bike trails, Orange Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO Annette Steele said that its Cultural and Heritage Committee was charged with the responsibility of representing the views of First Nations people in Orange and surrounds on matters such as the mountain bike trails, and for that reason it was not appropriate for her to comment. She said the land council would be guided by its committee.

Cultural and Heritage Committee chairperson Greg Ingram said that “as the chairperson of the Cultural and Heritage Committee of the land council, our position … is that we are against any risk or harm to any cultural heritage sites, and we also feel that we weren’t consulted properly”.


He said that he “would like to see further consultation with the Cultural and Heritage Committee over the co-authorship and development of the research methodologies”.


When told that Bate had suggested a “yarning circle” where Indigenous leaders and others could come together to discuss the mountain, Ingram said the land council had previously requested, on behalf of the committee, “a consultation with the whole of the Aboriginal community”.



“[Apex Archeology] said they can’t do that, they have to do it in line with the engagement process around RAPs,” Ingram said.


He also said there was Women’s Business that could not be canvassed in such a community forum, but that needed to be understood.

Bate said Apex Archeology “can't just hold a consultation meeting off our own bat”.


“We rely on the council as our client to facilitate that sort of thing, and we’ve pretty much been in constant contact with the council requesting [to know] what's going on. What do you want us to do?” she said.


“At the end of the day we are doing a job that we have been engaged to do, we can’t go and do it for free, we need council to say, ‘OK you can have a meeting, we’ll supply the facilities, we’ll make sure you’ve got a projector and a place to meet that's safe’.


“It hasn’t been organised by them nor have we been given permission to organise such a meeting on council’s behalf. It's not us saying we don't want to do it.”

Regarding Women’s Business, Bate said: “We rely on the community to provide cultural information … We've always stated - you don't need to share things you are not allowed to, or do not wish to share, but we do need to know what [land] to avoid, because if we don't know about it, we can't avoid it.


“We did not get anything provided to say this area must be avoided, you cannot go in the southwestern corner of the mountain, or along this fire trail. They didn't need to say what it was for, we made that very clear in our consultation.


“[But] nobody said, ‘You must avoid the entire mountain’. We were told it’s sensitive and it needs to be treated carefully, and that's what we've done.”


…..


THERE is another crucial issue.

Apex Archeology was charged with surveying the limited areas for what are known as tangible assets such as stone artefacts, a ceremonial site, or scarred trees.


But this is only part of the story, for Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas is also home to an unknown number of intangible assets. These may include spiritual or Dreaming sites, and Uncle Neil stressed that these also need to be pinpointed and protected.


Jenni Bate said this was outside of her purview.


Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas. NPWS.


“In terms of the survey, we’re starting to move from the archeological to the ethnographic and anthropological, which is not my area of expertise, so there may need to be alternative experts brought in to assist with that side of things.”


Greg Ingram said the Apex Archeology draft report was “inconsistent with local knowledge”, and that “the surveys were not conducted in a culturally appropriate manner, [one that is] in line with the due diligence code of practice”.



One local Indigenous leader told The Orange News Examiner that Orange City Council had put the cart before the horse by paying for trail designs ahead of anthropological studies.


They said that before engaging consultants, a pathway should have been found to satisfy both onerous state government regulations on consulting, and the needs of the large Wiradjuri community in and around town.

…..


WIRADJURI boys aged between 11 and 14 can no longer be initiated on Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas.


“There are no initiations, for the fact you’d have to close off the park to be able to perform those things,” said Uncle James Williams.


However, there are still a number of places around the country, many in the Central Desert and Northern Territory, where Wiradjuri lads who are considered ready can be initiated.


Uncle James tells me he goes to the mountain, to his own “personal ceremonial space”.


“I go up there and cleanse myself and take time to be with the spirits,” he said.

….


A document prepared for Orange City Council was tabled in papers in March 2021. It showed that the surveys undertaken by Apex Archeology had discovered new “site types” on the mountain, including “artefact concentrations, isolated finds, scarred/carved trees, and ceremonial sites”.


The papers included the following: “A search box of 15km x 15km was centred over Mt Canobolas with seventeen (17) sites initially identified within the study area. A subsequent extensive search of this search area was undertaken on the 25th of November 2020, with an additional fifteen (15) sites included.


“A further extensive search of the search area was undertaken on the 8th of March 2021 … with an additional four (4) new sites and five (5) further updates to previously recorded sites.



“Site types identified include artefact concentrations, isolated finds, scarred/carved trees, and ceremonial sites.


“It is clear a complex of interconnecting sites exists around Young Man Canobolas and its surrounding areas, and as such, this whole region has been mapped as a [bike trail] ‘no go zone’ rather than separating the disparate sites.

“This is in line with the cultural understanding that this is a ceremonial and highly significant area to the local Aboriginal community, and as a result this entire complex will be avoided.”


This information has been used by both sides. Some in favour of the trails say that without $500,000 of Orange council money these sites may not have been found. Some against the trails say the discoveries are evidence that there are many culturally significant sites on the mountain that are yet to be discovered.


Apex Archeology may have done all that is required of it in a statutory sense, but in the end it will count for little if it’s shown that the original parameters it was given to work within by Orange City Council were way too narrow for our Indigenous leaders, who feel they have not been heard.


A rock pool on Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas. NPWS.

Uncle Neil says that he, and the Save Mount Canobolas community group he is a part of, are not asking to close the mountain off. Or close down walking trails. However 100km of mountain bike trails, some of which would pass by significant cultural sites, is a bridge too far.


“There is a difference between a walking trail and a mountain bike trail,” Uncle Neil said. “Walking trails are already there, and they don’t damage the landscape and cause erosion. Mountain bike trails cause a lot of damage to the landscape and cause erosion.


“We don’t need bulldozers digging trails and destroying the landscape, along with our cultural heritage.”

He said mountain bikers could use land in the Glenwood State Forest, and also had access to the nearby 20km Trail of Awesomeness.


Uncle Neil sees a future on the mountain - after a tidy-up and a comprehensive survey - for cultural tourism that focuses on the Dreaming story, the significant sites and the beauty of Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas.


“We want to share this special place with all of Australia,” he said. “Is that too much to ask?”

In the Wiradjuri dictionary is the word “Yindyamarra''. In researching this story I came across a quote from the Wiradjuri Council of Elders about yindyamarra: “Respect and honour and to go slow – get knowledge and understanding to be wise in your work with teaching of others.”


When I read this quote I can’t help but think of Uncle Neil sitting in the rain, a 70-year-old man spending his golden years asking people to please just listen, and try to understand.




MULTIPLE sources have told The Orange News Examiner that when the Orange Aboriginal Land Council told Orange City Council staff that it could not consider endorsing any plan without a full survey of tangible and intangible assets on Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas, the response from council was that the whole matter of mountain bike trails would be parked.


Council, it was said, simply had no desire to tip more money into lengthy and expensive surveys when it had other priorities.


According to one source: “Council just said, ‘We’re not doing any more, it's off the books’.”

Officially, though, the project is still on the books.


Orange City Council CEO David Waddell. Photo: Orange City Council.

“The first stage of the project involved environmental studies including archaeological studies culminating in an application, and eventually the receipt of SEARS for the project from the Department of Planning and Environment,” said CEO David Waddell.


According to its website, SEARS (Secretary’s Environmental Assessment Requirements) “identify what information needs to be included in the environmental impact statement (EIS). A request for SEARs must be made for all State significant development (SSD) projects before a development application can be submitted”.


“Council is soon to be briefed on the project,” said Waddell. “Staff will be asking council to make a decision on the next steps for the project. As such the project is still very much an active project until council decides otherwise. It is merely in a hiatus.”


In the days before Christmas 2022, one councillor told The Orange News Examiner in an off-the-record conversation that if any more money was to be spent on trying to further the mountain bike project, it would have to come from state or federal governments, or private industry, as “it won’t be council’s”.

…..


AN attempt to abandon the mountain bike trails for good was made at the Orange City Council meeting on December 6, 2022, in a motion moved by deputy mayor Gerald Power and progressive councillors Melanie McDonell and David Mallard.


Orange deputy mayor Gerald Power speaking at NAIDOC week event in October 2022. Copyright: Orange City Council.

In the public forum ahead of the council debate and vote, two men spoke in favour of the mountain bike trails.


Scott Turner from DG Cycles on Lords Place said: “I’m not speaking to fuel any arguments, I just want to put forward some positive support for the project.


“Mount Canobolas is a beautiful place that needs protecting. Mountain bikers believe that also. They care deeply for its future, especially in regards to any Indigenous sites and environmental issues.

“We need to stop and talk to each other. To this date there has not been one civilised conversation where facts about the project have been discussed without vicious retaliation … This opportunity is too great to let go.”


Rodney Farrell addresses Orange City councillors.


Rodney Farrell spoke via video link. He said that 10 years ago he “started with the mountain proposal”.


“It was a vision I had for the mountain to host a world class trail centre.”


He described mountain biking as big business, and said there would be mental health and tourism benefits, and that the mountain would generate revenue “for better management”.

“Orange is a great town for mountain biking,” Farrell said. “Everyone can be a winner here.”



Asking and then answering his own question, Farrell said: “How did we get to this point where we’ve had a breakdown with the Indigenous?


“Covid was definitely part of that. There were further meetings planned with the Indigenous.”


Farrell also blamed the media.


“I think poor journalism hasn’t helped. Journalism these days is all negative, it’s all clickbait, it’s all about the headlines.

“There are great opportunities here for the Indigenous - they could have employment, they could have an education centre, they could be involved in the commercial operation of the park.”


Gerald Power - Orange’s first Indigenous councillor - is a Juru man from Queensland who has lived in Orange for around 40 years.


He spoke in favour of the motion to kill off the tracks once and for all, yet his statement was not what some were expecting, leaning on the financial impost to the council rather than the Indigenous significance of the mountain.


And rather than trying to ram a nail into bike trails’ coffin as per his own motion, he seemed to be leaning towards more consultation.


“I think it was Mr Turner that first spoke very eloquently, very good in terms of him stating that perhaps a bit more consultation with the Elders, etcetera,” the deputy mayor began.


“I think it’s really something that we need to continuously walk down. How can we walk together in relation to this?

“I also heard the [Orange] Aboriginal Land Council were supportive of [the trails]. I can’t clarify whether that is right or wrong, but that’s what I’m hearing, so let’s just continue to walk down that, but I will definitely be voting for the motion here today in relation to the financial impact that Orange City Council has had, but still noting the other councillors’ views too, and appreciate their view.”


Later in the council meeting Power broke down as he spoke about the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.



Councillor Steve Peterson said the council had already spent a lot of time and money on the bike trail proposal: “I feel it’s unprofessional to vote to throw this away.” He called for councillors to receive a detailed briefing on the project and its future costs.


Councillor Tony Mileto ran as a candidate at the recent state election. Copyright: Orange News Examiner.

Councillor Tony Mileto said he had spoken to Indigenous people in Orange, including Elders, who were in favour of the bike trails on the mountain, “providing that their concerns are managed appropriately”.

Mileto said he would “like to see further discussion continue with that section of the Indigenous community, as the feedback I have received is that some of the Indigenous community are divided on the issue”.


Councillor Glenn Floyd said other mountain bike parks in NSW were in sensitive environmental and Indigenous heritage areas, and he did not want the project to be abandoned.


“I have full confidence that council can provide a world-class facility in and around the mountain,” he said.


Councillor Tammy Greenhalgh said there was more work to be done on the project and a need for supporters and opponents to find a “happy medium”.

Mayor Jason Hamling said he had supported the project “since day one”. He said more consultation was needed.


Councillor Melanie McDonell. Copyright: Orange News Examiner.

Councillor McDonell called the bike trails a “desecration” of the mountain and Indigenous heritage. She said council was already facing funding shortfalls for other key projects including the Bloomfield sporting complex (since funded by a state government grant of $34.5 million shortly before the March election), the planned Conservatorium and the Southern Feeder Road.


Councillor Mallard questioned the economic benefits of a mountain bike park. He said removing the project would enable council to concentrate on seeking funding for other works.


Councillor Kevin Duffy asked that council staff provide councillors with a full briefing around March or April 2023.

Ultimately, after many had voiced their opinions, council voted 7-5 against the motion to close the book on the bike trails once and for all. Power and councillors McDonell and Mallard had put the motion. The trio was joined by Frances Kinghorn and Jack Evans, but fell two votes short.


….


ASKED if a campaign to stop development on the mountain could attract attention from around the state and the country, Dr Andrew Rawson, president of the Canobolas Conservation Alliance, told The Orange News Examiner “it’s already happening”.


“To give you an idea, the Canobolas Conservation Alliance is an alliance of environmental groups in our regions, it includes ECCO (Environmentally Concerned Citizens of Orange), the Central West Environment Council, the bushwalking club, the Orange Field Naturalist and Conservation Society.

“It has the support of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW and the National Parks Association - those two have already started the process of resistance to these sorts of mountain biking developments.

“Like us, they’re not against mountain biking … but [trails] have to be done better than they have been. They’ve got to be in places which are effectively ‘sacrificial’, which is generally state forest or private land - land that has already had some sort of environmental disturbance.”



Rawson, the fourth generation of a Central West farming family, is an adjunct associate professor at Charles Sturt University’s School of Environmental Agricultural and Veterinary Sciences, teaching agricultural sustainability and climate change science. He operates a small grazing property in Nashdale producing beef cattle.


Dr Andrew Rawson. Supplied.


He doesn’t buy the argument that the mountain would provide a more exciting experience for mountain bike riders than the adjacent state forest.

“That's completely incorrect. There's an enormous amount of terrain out the back of the mountain, which is steep. It has varied terrain and adequately satisfies all requirements for mountain biking.”


The president of the Orange Mountain Bike Club Scott Charlton told The Orange News Examiner that “we support the proposal only if it’s been rigorously assessed and there are mitigations in place for any potential impacts”.


He said the club had always “been pretty quiet on pushing it”.


“We’ve been deliberately withdrawn from the discussion because it's been so binary, and the people for it are pushing it. We see the opportunity of there being a business case [allowing] beneficial weed control and pest control as part and parcel of it, but if it proves to be detrimental then we’re not supportive of it. It’s conditional on that, it always has been.”


FOR people like Uncle Neil Ingram, Uncle James Williams, Aunty Alice Williams and Dr Andrew Rawson, no amount of tourism dollars or surveys or promises of possible employment opportunities will change their view that Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas is not up for development - there simply is no scenario in which the mountain bikers get their trails while at the same time respecting Indigenous wishes and the environment.


Rawson has described Gaanha-bula Mt Canobolas as “a very special place … [with] fundamental values far greater than just a hill to ride bikes down”.


Rawson put a series of questions and statements in writing to Orange City Council’s September 7, 2021 meeting.


“There is no justification for a mountain bike park causing serious and irrevocable damage to a gazetted conservation area of immense ecological and heritage value, especially when there is a perfectly suitable alternative immediately next door in the state forests. It’s clearly suitable, as the Mountain Bike Club has already placed trails there and is continuing to do so.”



A year later, at the September 20, 2022 meeting, Rawson and Uncle Neil spoke in the council's public forum.


“This proposal doesn’t reflect the natural and cultural values of Gaanha-bula,” said Uncle Neil. “Wiradjuri Elders and community members are opposed to the mountain bike track.


“The project will impact and damage Wiradjuri culture. Looking after the mountain … is a responsibility we need to all share, we need to do this together. Hopefully you will respect what I am saying tonight. Thank you.”

Rawson followed.


“I could speak at length about the number of endemic species, listed threatened species and endangered ecological communities on the mountain,” he said. “I could speak about the unique geology, rare soils, and globally significant biodiversity of the mountain.


“I could speak about the number of people and groups who already visit the mountain, and the iconic status this mountain already has for our region’s tourism.


“But what I will speak about is the almost impossible road ahead if Orange City Council wishes to pursue the mountain biking project that will permanently degrade these values.”


Rawson said the “onus is on any developer to provide proof that their development either won’t have an impact, or that the impacts can be offset in some way. It is my view, and of many of my colleagues, that you would fail to provide this proof”.


“The previous council spent a lot of ratepayers money on a feasibility study,” Rawson said. “Now the Department of Planning requires a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment, Cultural Heritage Assessment, Health Impact Assessment, business case, Traffic Assessment, Fire Hazard Assessment, and more – all to be carried out by qualified professionals.


“To do this properly could take years, and would cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ratepayer dollars. All this even before a spade hits the ground.”

When The Orange News Examiner spoke to Rawson in early 2023, he described the mountain bike trails as a “pretty daft idea”.


“I'd like to keep the pressure on, to make sure [the proposal] is not only put in the bottom drawer, but booted completely,” he said. “It’s an idea which is pretty crazy, putting a development in a conservation area of this value. There are plenty of alternatives.”


…….


APEX Archeology’s Jenni Bate said the company had updated its draft report on the mountain bike project.


“We based our [initial] assessment on the available information,” she said.


“We've since received further information … At this stage, unless the consultation happens, I'm going to have to finalise the report to state that the project is not supported on Aboriginal cultural grounds. When I prepared the draft report I had no such basis to make such a claim.”


Asked what changed, Bate said: “The feedback we received on the draft report - pretty much all RAPs said, ‘We reject it’. We did not get specific information saying, ‘You must avoid this area because it's a birthing site …’, just, ‘We reject it entirely and we don't like your consultation process’.”


Bate said “what we need to do [is] sit down and discuss it, but unfortunately it's gotten to the point where everyone has dug in their heels and they're unlikely to want to move forward.

“They've made their decision that they do not want any further impact to the mountain. We did recommend to the council that they undertake a cultural values assessment, but they have chosen not to do so at this stage. A full cultural values assessment is outside the scope of what we do.”


Bate said her ultimate report “still hasn’t been finalised. We’ve been asking council what they want us to do”.


Rawson is confident that even if the proposal was resuscitated by Orange City Council, and reached the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) to be assessed as a project of state significance, it would go no further.


“The hurdles are too great,” he said. “I've had a lot of experience in state government and there is no doubt it won’t pass muster.

“If it ever got the point of being assessed as a State Significant Development, it would be because of two things - the cost, and the environmental impact. The first thing asked would be ‘Is there an alternative location that satisfies the requirements of the development?’, and of course there is. Right next door.


“Just on that point alone I don’t think the IPC would have a bar of it. That’s what we’ve been saying to the council - you are wasting a lot of money on a fool’s errand.”


Councillor Jack Evans. Copyright: Orange News Examiner.

The youngest person on council, Jack Evans, has made a point in recent months of trying to learn more about why Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas is so important to the Wiradjuri people. Uncle Neil tells me Evans sought him out, eager for knowledge.


At the December 6, 2022 council meeting, Evans said he opposed the mountain bike park over concerns about its impact on Indigenous heritage areas.

He said if a developer proposed a tourism project with major economic benefits on the site of a large church in Orange it would “not happen in a million years”.


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