Between a rock and a fast pace

Between Brisbane and Logan, bordered by the Gateway and Logan motorways, surrounded by truck depots and sprawling housing developments, sits almost 1000 hectares of remnant bushland.

Karawatha Forest is a haven for more than 200 different native animal species, just 18 kilometres from Brisbane’s CBD and is listed as a wetland of national significance.

For two decades conservationists have been fighting weeds and working to protect this forest for significant native animals like the greater glider, one of the Australia’s largest gliding marsupials, the critically endangered regent honeyeater, and the unique diversity of frog species.

Karawatha Forest Park. By Brisbane City Council (CC BY 2.0)

While conservationists try to protect these areas, mountain bikers want to enjoy them.

Mountain biking around forests can be a great way to engage with the environment and keep fit and healthy at a time when we are being told to look after ourselves.

However, rogue mountain bikers have been tearing through the bushland for their own pleasure and that has huge flow on effects for the wildlife.

Can conservationists and mountain bikers co-exist in Karawatha Forest?

Walking through Karawatha forest you can find illegal mountain bike tracks cutting across walking paths and down steep slopes, the Council has barricaded these tracks and tried to close them down but there is too much bushland and not enough bright orange barrier mesh to cover them all.

Councillor Steve Griffith is well aware of the conflict between these two groups, he said that the illegal tracks not only cause damage to reserve’s, but also take up council resources to rectify them.

Mountain bike trail. By TRAILSOURCE.COM (CC BY 2.0)

“I get lobbied by people that want them and people who say they have a right to have them, they say it’s not damaging the environment.”

“Then I have another group of people that say it does a lot of damage to the parks, the parks are precious.”

“Council tries to settle on a happy medium on where bikes are used, and there are bike tracks, but people on mountain bikes are looking for more vigorous activity,” Councillor Griffiths said.

Numerous studies, including research conducted by the School of Environment at Griffith University, concluded that after the initial trail construction, biking and hiking have similar levels of environmental impact.

However, where hikers prefer steady gradients that follow the natural lay of the land, mountain bikers like to ride down steep tracks and make jumps that alter the flow of any water catchments.

The study reported that “Riding bikes up and down slopes had more impact than riding across gentle slopes.”

“Mountain biking does cause more damage than hiking, but only at the highest levels of use tested and only for some variables.”

Karawatha Forest had been logged of old growth trees and mined for sand until the community decided to save it from further development.

The Karawatha Protection Society (KFPS) was formed by three ladies over a cup of tea in 1991.

The secretary of KFPS, Paula Ross, said that illegal mountain bike tracks have been built extensively throughout Karawatha Forest.

“The mountain bikes are more prevalent now and the Brisbane City Council (BCC) has been pretty good in taking notice and closing some of the illegal tracks.”

A petition with approximately 450 signatures has been made on to have those tracks made permanent.

The petition made by Jack Marsden promotes that “Building trails within Karawatha can keep surrounding local mountain bikers in the area, causing them to spend their money within our community rather than travelling to other suburbs.”

Marsden has posted videos of himself online riding through these illegal trails in Karawatha, but did not reply to inquiries.

Although Marsden’s petition has 450 signatures, a counter petition by the Karawatha Forest Protection Society has gained 3,800 signatures since it was launched in June.

Paula Ross doesn’t want any mountain bike tracks built in the forest as it could affect the natural lay of the land.

“I think they should have a designated area, as far as I’m concerned anywhere that’s used for mountain biking has to be designed specifically for that and then all the hydrology of the area taken into account when it’s being built,” Ms Ross said.

“You just can’t go into a forest putting in tracks willy nilly without thinking about the consequences.”

The way that the water collects in Karawatha Forest is quite important, as the forest is home to some of the most diverse frog ponds in Brisbane with the state-listed vulnerable Wallum Froglet needing the most protection.

Wildlife ecologist Dr Ed Meyer attributes the uniqueness of Karawatha’s frog diversity to its landscape.

“The areas further downstream are usually full of fish and that’s a problem for frogs so those ponds upstream where you get isolated water holes that are more temporary are quite important breeding habitats,” Dr Meyer said.

Usually these upstream wetlands are destroyed by developments, because of this Dr Meyer believes that Karawatha is “unparalleled” for frog diversity in the Brisbane area.

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Upstream ponds ideal for frogs. By Doug Beckers (CC BY-SA 2.0)

But, how does mountain biking affect frog ponds?

Karawatha Forest contains some of the last remaining wet heathlands and paperbark swamps in Brisbane.

Dotted with waterhens and ducks the swamps are bordered by nebulous sedges, dwarfed by thickets of soft creamy coloured paperbark trees exemplified by the picturesque Illaweena Lagoon.

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Karawatha Forest Park lagoon. By Brisbane City Council (CC BY 2.0)

Paula Ross is worried that the mountain bike trails will change the water catchment of the forest.

“They go off the designated tracks and make their own bike tracks and jumps and things, as well as destroying that immediate area, it also affects the hydrology of the area.”

“Without them being there, water from rain will go in a certain direction, then if you start making mounds and things it’s going to affect the water course.”

“You need it as it was originally, it feeds into the creeks and ponds,” Ms Ross said.

Professor Darryl Jones, the Deputy Director of the Environmental Futures Research Institute at Griffith University and an urban ecologist, has been directly involved with Karawatha Forest since 2004.

Wallum froglet By Tnarg 12345 at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Professor Jones said that the frogs of Karawatha are one of the reasons it became a wetland of national significance.

The conflict between mountain bikers and conservationists ultimately flows to the protection of these frogs.

Professor Jones reiterates that the mountain bike tracks create erosion and change the hydrogeology of the land.

“These places are particularly vulnerable to erosion, so if they lose their vegetation they form erosion gullies, that means that the water won’t be flowing to where it should be or it goes straight down these tracks and then can fill up the creeks and waterholes with silt,” Professor Jones said.

“That kills it completely.”

Professor Jones recognised that mountain bikers do value these reserves.

“They would fight tooth and nail to keep these areas, riding on the roads is the opposite of what they want,” he said.

For the most part mountain bikers don’t want to destroy the environment, instead value it highly and want to protect it as, Darren Flood, the president of the Racing and Touring Social (RATS) Cycling Club points out.

“The outdoor recreational enthusiast has the potential to be a much better supporter of the environment with better education,” said Mr Flood.

The opportunity is there for mountain bikers to become conservationists; although, Mr Flood recognises that there are mountain bikers who don’t play by the rules.

“I agree that there’s a lot of illegal and unsanctioned trail building and networks, however, when there is a managed network provided, that generally meets the needs of the community, they will stay out of areas that they’re not meant to,” Mr Flood said.

“An excellent example of that is Venman Park, Daisy Hill.”

“Probably one of the most heavily used mountain bike parks in Australia, Venman Park is adjacent to that, there are no illegal trails in Venman Park, mountain biking is not allowed in Venman Park, I’m always amazed that nobody goes building trails or just goes riding through it.”

Professor Jones disagrees, he believes that rogue mountain bikers will always want to move into more and more areas.

“Mountain bikers particularly like the wilder stuff, they do not like to stay on bike tracks, they use those tracks to start with but then they are always looking for a new place. it’s a mark of achievement,” Professor Jones said.

“It does allow people to get deeper into the bush than what they otherwise would have, we probably miss some of the detail that some of the walkers do seeing the birds or some of the flora and fauna that they are observing but we certainly get to see more and to go further and travel more easily,” Mr Flood said.

“We are more mobile.”

Unfortunately, this poses another threat to the wildlife of Karawatha as there are some animals that live in the 1000 hectares of Karawatha because it is undisturbed.

Vulnerable species like the greater glider are adverse to any change in their environment.

“One of the reasons that big patches like Karawatha are so important is because they are big enough that some certain types of species which really don’t like human disturbance of any sort can retreat into the interior where there is no traffic noise or construction noise,” Professor Jones said.

Significant specifies in Karawatha include; the powerful owl, tusked frog, squirrel glider, greater glider, koala, and grey-headed flying fox.

“Karawatha is very diverse, there are still big sections of Karawatha that have never been disturbed,” Professor Jones said.

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Powerful owl. By patrickkavanagh (CC BY 2.0)

Mountain biking has seen an explosion in popularity over the last five years, with a 59% increase in membership to the Mountain Bike Australia (MTBA), the peak mountain biking organisation in Australia.

Chief Operating Officer of the MTBA Denise Cox said that membership numbers are skyrocketing during this pandemic as mountain biking is one of the only things we have still been able to do.

Denise Cox not only rides her mountain bike for physical health, she also said that it helps her mental health and connection to nature.

“You actually feel quite connected to nature while you’re riding on a mountain bike trail.”

“I ride for mental health, social aspects, just being able to be out in nature and connect with nature.”

“The bike takes you to places that you might not be able to get to on foot.”

Ms Cox is quite familiar with Karawatha, having ridden the fire trails and hiked through the walking tracks; she knows that Karawatha has got some unique areas in it.

“There’s a lot of different areas in there that I think provide opportunities for people to get outdoors and for outdoor recreation and of course it provides a great environment and homes for our wildlife and various different flora and fauna,” Ms Cox said.

The balance between enjoyment and preservation of nature is fraught, Karawatha Forest is just the latest battleground.