The NSW government is expected to make an announcement today to speed up repair work for the damaged walking trail to the summit of Mount Warning, which has been closed for months and is likely to stay that way till next year.
The closure of the track on the north coast’s most popular hiking trail has affected Tweed tourism operators and local businesses, who are feeling the pinch as the thousands of visitors it normally draws each week stay away.
The government has been urged by Tweed Shire Council, and tourist and business groups to do something about it as a matter of priority, with an immediately injection of extra funds for National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) to carry out the work, said to cost more than half a million dollars, seen as the only way forward.
The Wollumbin/Mt Warning National Park has been closed since January after wild storms battered the area, bringing down huge trees across the track and causing major landslips that wiped out several sections of the trail.
The park was closed for public safety but many visitors, mostly from Queensland, set on climbing the mountain are ignoring signs at the base of the well-known tourist attraction and copping on-the-spot fines of $300 with scores of tourists already hit with them.
Tweed Council, Destination Tweed, Murwillumbah and District Chamber and NPWS have been holding discussions recently to try to get extra funds for the costly repair work. In the meantime, they are working to provide extra signage at the road entrance and other areas to advise visitors of its closure.
They have lobbied both Tweed MP Geoff Provest and Lismore MP Thomas George to speed things up.
Yesterday Mr George told Echonetdaily he and Mr Provest were due to meet environment minister Robyn Parker yesterday afternoon and an announcement was due soon after that.
Mayor Barry Longland wrote to the minister last month outlining Council’s concerns about the effect the closure was having on local businesses and urging a track opening as soon as possible.
Last month NPWS met with around 30 members of the Uki, Murwillumbah and Tweed business community to brief them on the situation.
NPWS has advised of the closure on its website and recommending the nearby Border Ranges and Nightcap national parks as alternative walks.
And in the announcement just made late this morning, Mrs Parker has assured the local MPs that funds have been committed to restoring the track.
‘The money has been allocated and the work is underway with local staff. We are also bringing in a specialist track team from Tasmania,’ Mrs Parker said.
She said the first step would be to construct a rudimentary track to the summit to restore access. Only when that was done would it be possible to fully assess the requirements for a new permanent track and to build it.
‘There are limits to how quickly work can proceed because of the difficulty of the terrain.
‘There’s a restriction on how many workers can actually be involved at any one time. But within those limits, work is progressing as quickly as possible.
‘The necessary funds of up to $200,000 to immediately start the works have now been committed.’
Minister Parker said consultation had occurred with the Wollumbin Aboriginal Consultative Group and would continue as necessary.
There were fears the Mt Warning summit track could be closed for more than a year, given reports that the NSW government said it had no money to pay for the $500,000-plus repair bill, as estimated by NPWS.
The department runs on a small budget and will have to wait until the end of the financial year to seek funding for the work, according to NPWS co-ordinator John Fisher.
Mr Fisher recently told media the reopening of Mt Warning was a priority, but the service would have to wait for the 2013–14 budget to seek funding allocation.
He told News Ltd that even with the funding brought forward, the repair work was a major challenge as works had to be carried out manually because machinery could not be used and worker safety was a major concern.
During Council debate on the issue recently, Cr Warren Polglase said Mt Warning was the Tweed’s ‘Bondi Beach’ and just as important for the local economy, with local businesses struggling as a result.
Cr Polglase said around 2,000 people a week visited the mountain, which was an ‘icon for the whole northern rivers’ and many people did not know it was closed or what alternative walking tracks were available.
He said NPWS was limited in resources for the $500,000 upgrade and new signage would help businesses.
Cr Phil Youngblutt said it was the Tweed’s biggest drawcard and was ‘sorely missed’.
Cr Carolyn Byrne said she believed the service had a $400,000 shortfall in funding to do the work and the government ‘needs to get that amount from other sources’.
Cr Katie Milne said the storms in January and last year had an enormous impact on the track and large equipment would be needed for repair, which could also damage the fragile area.
Cr Milne suggested alternative tracks should be promoted, as such extreme weather events ‘could happen again’ and the track would again be closed.
Councillors voted unanimously to engage with NPWS and other groups to arrange for suitable signage at the entrance road to Mount Warning advising of the situation, and to meet with Mr George and Mr Provest to seek ‘additional funds above the normal budget allocation to get the park open sooner than later’.