Words and photos: Georgina von Marburg

Last week, the entire mountain bike community of Australia gasped as the “news” arrived swiftly from nowhere that “Mystic Mountain Bike Park is closing.”  Mystic is located in Bright, Victoria, and needs little introduction as one of the most historic and visited trail networks in the country. Naturally, the prospect of its closure is of great concern to riders, businesses owners, and various stakeholders around the High Country. Here at AMB, we have been watching the situation unfold closely, and now have some concrete facts to report on.  

Who are the main characters? 

There are several parties whose functions must be understood in order to appreciate the current situation with Mystic.

HVP (Hancock Victorian Plantations): a forestry company in Victoria. According to HVP, the land upon which Mystic is built is “land vested and licenced to Hancock Victorian Plantations (HVP Plantations) as private plantation land by an act of parliament established in 1993.” 

HVP is owned by “a combination of Australian, Canadian, and US superannuation and investment funds,” and employs approximately 700 Australians across their 240,000 hectares. The Mystic land is comprised of pine trees, a non-native renewable resource.  

“The pine plantations in Mystic Park, together with HVP’s other plantations located in the North East of Victoria, are an important source of raw materials for local mills located at Myrtleford, Benalla and Wangaratta, producing timber products used in the construction of houses.” 

ACP (Alpine Community Plantation): a non-for-profit community organisation responsible for overseeing the recreational use of HVP land within the Alpine Shire. The board is comprised of various stakeholders, including representative from the Alpine Cycling Club, Alpine Shire Council, the State Government, and the Bright and District Chamber of Commerce. ACP coordinates with HVP in the use of Mystic as a mountain bike park.

When did the prospect of closure arise?

The idea of HVP closing Mystic Bike Park closing came about when ACP reviewed the annual expenses of Mystic at the end of this financial year. Due to higher than usual visitation numbers post-COVID, ACP were barely breaking even when taking into account the cost of trail maintenance and infrastructure such as signage.

We reached out to Kirsten Seeto, the executive officer of ACP, who says Mystic has its “highest visitation rates ever” last season. “This situation prompted the management team to reassess the current operating model given the new (and sudden) levels of visitation. All considered changes required some level of higher investment into the park and alternative revenue models. The ACP Board ascertained that if visitation rates next summer were to be maintained, the current financial model would be unable to support the operation of the park in line with the requirements of our management licence.”

Essentially, if Mystic is to continue its raging popularity, something needs to change in terms of financial investment in order to maintain the park.

HVP are not the villains

It’s important to understand that while we all love mountain biking, Mystic land is first and foremost a pine plantation. It’s only through the good-will of HVP that the community has been able to utilise Mystic for their own use as a trail network. In fact, it costs HVP an estimated $300,000 annually to work with and around the mountain bike trails. On top of this, HVP “sponsor” ACP with $8000 annually to assist in keeping the park running safely. If anything, we need to bring an attitude of gratefulness to the table when dealing with Mystic; it is in our best interest as riders to respect their signage and direction when using the park.

We contacted Stacey Gardiner, a spokesperson for HVP, to clarify their position on any potential closure of Mystic. “HVP Plantations is not proposing to close down Mystic Park; any decision to close down Mystic Park is the responsibility of Alpine Community Plantation (ACP),” she stated. “HVP Plantations recently met with the ACP Board and the Executive Officer. During these discussions, HVP became aware that ACP is facing several challenges regarding its long-term financial viability and may be unable to fulfil its operational obligations relating to Mystic Park going forward. ACP has an existing management licence with HVP Plantations that provides for Mystic Park, which sets out a range of access and safety requirements that must be met. HVP Plantations requires ACP to meet the conditions in the management licence to ensure Mystic Park remains safe and that risks are managed appropriately so the park can remain operational within the private plantation setting.”

The Goat stage race is just one of many events which utilise Mystic Bike Park.

If you’ve even ridden in Mystic while loggers have been present, you will appreciate the importance of these safety measures. Large gates, fences, and signs must be installed across the park to prevent riders from obstructing or interfering with heavy machinery and falling trees.

Despite the challenges faced by ACP in maintaining these conditions and measures, HVP is committed to helping the park. “HVP Plantations is continuing to work with ACP and other key stakeholders, including the Alpine Shire Council, to find solutions to both the operational management and risk concerns and the need for ACP to have long-term financial sustainability. HVP Plantations understands the importance of Mystic Park and the value this recreational asset has to the community and businesses and hopes that a workable solution that provides certainty and security for ACP is found.”

Don’t take mountain bike tourism for granted.

A key partnership mentioned above is the Alpine Shire Council. Until now, they have flown under the radar while reaping the benefits of booming tourism in the Shire. Their financial assistance will be essential in the future of Mystic.

In a recent media release, the Council recognised the importance of Mystic to the town, and their support of ACP. “It’s a wonderful facility that has become a must-ride for locals and visitors alike and has attracted visitors, residents and businesses since its inception.”

“We will provide a staffing resource to work with key stakeholders to investigate a viable way forward and work through these challenges.”

“Mystic Park is of great value to the Alpine Shire and we want to see its management mature so the park remains as part of our attraction well into the future.”

This sentiment appears to reflect an awaking of the Council to the fact that Mystic needs more professional and long-term planning as a premier riding destination. We at AMB are observing smaller and poorer communities across Australia securing significant grants for mountain bike parks and accompanying infrastructure. While Bright has long retained its title as one of the best trail networks in the country, perhaps it has become too complacent? Perhaps this situation, frightful as it is, is the shake-up it needs?

The silver lining

With the dust beginning to settle on this rollercoaster of controversy, there are many positives to draw from the situation. We spoke with the President of the Alpine Cycling Club, Peter Berlowitz, whose club recently held an emergency meeting upon hearing of the potential closure of Mystic. The meeting gathered a record number of members together, approximately four or five times higher than the typical club meeting. Members are invested in Mystic, and prepared to take action towards ensuring its future. “We’ve had lots of email from all over the country, saying ‘this is the sole reason we come to Bright.’”

Peter views this rallying of everyone as a silver lining. “Yes, it’s serious. No, it’s not all solved. But we’re all working together because everyone recognises the value [of Mystic].” He’s confident that with everyone on the same page, a solution can be found, at least for the immediate future. “We’ve got the road map to keep it open, but we don’t have the road map to fix it permanently.”

What’s next for Mystic?

Rest assured, Mystic is set to remain open in the immediate future, at least until December 2023. However Kirsten Seeto has flagged that Mystic is in desperate need of a different management approach, and ACP is ready and open to new ideas. “Retaining the status quo is unlikely given the current situation is simply a reflection of an operating model that no longer works. Having said that, there are several options being considered that give the park a future if users are willing to adapt to change.”

So what is the long-term solution to maintaining a financially sustainable mountain bike park at Mystic? At this point, no one has clear answer, but everyone is open to one. “The good thing is, there are no things off the table,” assures Peter Berlowitz.

There are however several expectations from riders which will need to be altered moving forward. According to ACP, “Park users will need to be ready to consider a future with less vehicle traffic and more respect for trail closures and forestry operations. We will need park users to be ready to support a new financial model that rebalances the cost of the park toward the land users. That might be in the form of a membership or contribution through patronage of local businesses who support the park.”

“Users will also need to be ready to support data collection mechanisms. The key to finding the right operating model for the future is understanding the way the park is used and how it contributes to the local economy. Access to accurate visitor data is where this starts.”

What can you do to help?

In their recent emergency general meeting, Alpine Cycling Club flagged various ways in which locals and tourists alike can help keep Mystic open and functioning. Some of these are applicable to members of the club alone, while others can be undertaken by anyone with an invested interest in Mystic. While we expect more specific methods to come to light once parties have agreed upon a concrete path forward, these measures are of the utmost importance in the immediate future: 

  • Join the Alpine Cycling Club executive committee.
  • Be part of the sub committees and working groups.
  • Volunteer for trail maintenance and be active in working bees.
  • Ride and drive safely in the park and hold others responsible for doing the same.
  • Write to Alpine Shire Councillors to communicate the importance of the park.
  • Discuss this issue with members of your community and gather support for the park.