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Rodney Waterman

OPINION                                                                               Thursday 6 March 1997 The Age      A15

Building up the snow country

Elaborate plans are underway to further develop Mount Hotham. But Rodney Waterman argues that a wider and more vigorous public debate on the proposals is needed.

LARGE-SCALE proposals to turn parts of Australia's scarce, ancient and weathered alpine peaks into bustling European–American type resorts regularly emerge, with development plans for Mt Stirling and Mt Hotham being the most recent in Victoria.

During the '70s when skiing was booming, plans were floated to develop Victoria’s highest peaks. The plans included a commercial skifield at Mt Feathertop, the "opening up" of Mt Bogong, and a string of high altitude ski villages in the Mt Loch–Swindlers Valley area with access from the West Kiewa Valley.

Public pressure combined with a firm stand against the Feathertop proposal from the Liberal Party Conservation Minister, Mr Bill Borthwick, ensured that these mountains were not easily transformed into mawkish fun parks.

In the 1980s, alpine resorts were established and the Alpine National Park was proclaimed. Despite the advent of the statutory resort management and planning agency (the Alpine Resorts Commission) ad hoc and incremental resort development ensued in the absence of state plans.

Although millions of dollars of private and public funds were invested in infrastructure and promotion, growth in visits to annual winter resorts flattened, and remains virtually stagnant.

Lack of demand was a key factor in the Kennett Government’s recent rejection of a new downhill ski resort for Mt Stirling which would have seen the Buller-Stirling precinct turned into a European-style resort. But this did not stop the Government from approving the doubling of the lifted ski field capacity at Mt Hotham in the Mt Loch - Swindlers Spur area.

Few people realise that the scale and extent of the current Mt Hotham developments exceed those of the failed Stirling proposal.

In addition to the expansion of the ski terrain  now under way, the Mt Hotham Skiing Company’s integrated plan includes substantial residential sub-division and village redevelopment at the Mt Hotham resort, construction of more condominiums, a nine-hole golf course and polo field at the nearby Dinner Plain resort, and controversially, a high altitude (1300m) international jet airport at neighbouring Horsehair Plain. It is our very own Aspen.

Lift companies, including Buller Ski Lifts and the Mt Hotham Skiing Company, claim to be positioning resorts to attract international visitors, particularly from Japan, Korea and Malaysia, but have not yet demonstrated that a market exists. And they appear little deterred by our country’s relatively brief and unpredictable snow seasons,  poorer quality snow for downhill skiing and shorter downhill runs. Australia does have some of the best and most extensive cross-country ski terrain in the world, but this attraction is poorly promoted.

The ski industry is even less concerned about the greenhouse effect's likely impact on snow retention in the Alps.

Victorians have not been adequately consulted on alpine planning. Do they want permanent urbanised resort village populations in the alps, with all the trappings that involves? Do they want expansive chic residential subdivisions, airports, casinos, gondolas, university campuses, country clubs and golf courses in alpine areas? Developers are still obsessed by the idea that skiers want to wake up in the snow. Cost–benefit analyses of off-mountain, lower impact alternatives have not been undertaken.

Good planning processes can satisfy community concerns about these issues and increase the likelihood of sound and publicly acceptable outcomes. The Mt Stirling Environment Effects Statement was an exemplary process.

It is by far the most comprehensive planning study ever conducted into a proposed alpine resort development in Victoria. This unique study analysed a wide range of options — six in all — from status quo to downhill ski mega-resort.

By comparison, the fragmented process set up to assess the huge integrated Mount Hotham developments is glaringly deficient.

The staged Hotham planning applications for a range of developments are being assessed piecemeal and in great haste, apparently to meet the ambitious construction agenda of the lift company. Alternative development scenarios are not being seriously explored. Some public consultation on the Hotham plans has been undertaken, but too little, too late. All of this constitutes bad planning practice.

It is now time for a public forum on alpine resort planning. The Planning Minister, Mr Rob Maclellan and the Conservation Minister, Mrs Marie Tehan, are grappling with how to implement statewide planning controls for the state’s alpine areas, and the future management of resorts. Victorians must be widely and genuinely consulted about these issues — debate has too often been limited to an elite coterie of downhill-ski-dominated "stakeholders" in the ski industry, tourism authorities and government agencies.

This narrow focus could become even more pronounced if, as some predict, the Alpine Resorts Commission is soon abolished and alpine resorts are privatised and run exclusively by individual management committees.

The Mt Stirling Environment Effects Statement shows how proper, widely consultative planning processes can be executed. All future proposals, including the current Hotham plans, should be subject to a similarly rigorous, statewide planning assessment, including a widely representative public forum. Let the debate begin.

Rodney Waterman is the alpine resorts project officer for the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA). He represented the VNPA on the Mt Stirling Environment Effects Statement consultative committee from 1994 to 1996.

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