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A four-year battle over a proposed treetop adventure course in Melbourne’s north-east has ended with Banyule City Council dumping the plan after traditional owners penned a letter calling for the project to be halted over cultural insensitivities.

The council, which had previously supported the proposal for the high-ropes obstacle course at Yarra Flats Park in Ivanhoe East, voted unanimously this week to scupper the plans put forward by company Ecoline, in response to a letter from the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation.

Yarra Riverkeeper Association’s Charlotte Sterrett (left) stands in the dried-up Banksia billabong with Friends of Yarra Park’s Andrew and Suzanne Lees.Credit: Jason South

The corporation’s then-chief executive Gwyneth Elsum said in the letter the proposal – backed by land manager Parks Victoria – would impact on the sensitive cultural values of the region.

“The [Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Corporation] hopes that both Banyule Council and Parks Victoria respect this position and work to ensure that this project is no longer pursued.”

The letter came after an independent planning panel found Ecoline, Parks Victoria and Banyule Council had failed to appropriately consult traditional owners.

The council’s decision to abandon the plan has elicited mixed feelings from local environmental groups, which had been arguing since 2019 that the adventure park would negatively affect native biodiversity, frighten wildlife and threaten the ability to rejuvenate the adjacent Banksia billabong.

While welcoming the move to listen to traditional owners, some said the proposal should have been ditched much earlier and environmental concerns should have been considered.

“They ignored the environmental aspects and strong community opposition to it,” said Andrew Lees, president of Friends of Yarra Flats Park.

The Yarra Strategic Plan – an initiative led by Melbourne Water to protect the Yarra River, or Birrarung – identifies the billabong complex at Yarra Flats Park as a site of significance for the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung people.

In its 2020 cultural values study, the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Corporation described the billabongs as being “part of a landscape that for generations has been carefully managed by the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung people.”

The area, which features in Dreamtime stories, was known for its food and medicinal resources. It was also a traditional eel-fishing ground and a meeting place for diverse groups of the Kulin nation.

Rejuvenating the park’s billabong network by restoring water flow has been designated a priority.

Ecoline submitted its application to operate a treetop obstacle course with a lease granted by Parks Victoria after the government authority sought expressions of interest 10 years ago to develop the site.

A 2020 document prepared by the company said its proposal would have minimal impact on the area with no trees removed, minimal undergrowth trimmed and branches only cut when posing danger.

The treetop adventure park was proposed for a Parks Victoria site in Yarra Flats Park by the Yarra River.Credit: Jason South

“We do not drill into the trees; our equipment is built around the trees,” it said. “Bringing people into the forest encourages them to protect this unique environment for future generations.”

The matter was referred to an independent planning panel in 2021 after a council-run community consultation received 192 submissions against the proposal and only 13 in support.

The panel found that the ecological impact was likely to be minor, but labelled the approach to Aboriginal cultural heritage as “unsatisfactory”.

Monday night’s meeting became heated as speakers from both sides expressed anger and frustration in the council chambers.

Most community members who participated in a consultation were opposed to the adventure course plan.Credit: Jason South

Planning lawyer Barnaby McIlraith, representing Ecoline, argued the vote should be deferred as his client was only notified a week out from the motion. The request was denied.

“My client’s got a lot invested in this,” McIlraith said.

Another speaker said while she supported the abandonment, she felt “it’s come about for the wrong reasons” because it hinged entirely on the decision of the Wurundjeri, rather than also taking into account biodiversity concerns.

Mayor Peter Castaldo said that dumping the proposal was now “the obvious course of action”.

“The position of the First Nations people has been made very clear now rejecting the treetop adventure park.”

Ecoline is expected to appeal Banyule Council’s decision at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. The company declined to respond to questions from The Age.

Asked if Parks Victoria maintained its support for the treetop plan, the authority’s executive director of visitor experience, Lisa Patroni, said the matter was between the council and Ecoline.

Lees said drawing out the fight any further would be “disrespectful”.

“It seems extraordinary that the Wurundjeri were not consulted much earlier on,” he said.

Banyule City Council did not respond to The Age’s questions by deadline.

The Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Corporation was unable to provide comment.

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