VicRoads will begin tree removal along the future site for new lanes along the Western Highway outside Ararat despite continued opposition from Aboriginal heritage and environmental activists.
The official start of construction for the $42 million project was on Thursday, with a sod-turning ceremony kicking off the creation of 12.5 kilomtres of new highway lanes from Buangor to Ararat.
A statement from VicRoads on Friday tree removal for the Western Highway duplication would start on June 18.
VicRoads plans to remove thousands of trees, including some that have been at the centre of a years-long dispute over claims they are culturally significant to the region’s Aboriginal people.
VicRoads North Western project director Nigel Powers said fencing and powerline relocation was complete and tree removal was the next stage.
“We expect to remove around 3000 trees of varying sizes but we will be working closely with the contractor to ensure our environmental impact is minimised,” he said.
“We are committed to being open and transparent about tree removal, and as such we are counting all trees over 100mm diameter to be removed rather than just Large Old Trees, which is required by State Legislation, to meet our offset requirements.
“We employed a specialist, as recommended by environmental groups, to count the number of trees on the alignment, so we are able to identify every tree for removal.”
Activists opposed to the duplication route have described the tree removal plan as an environmental ‘massacre’.
On Friday, Ararat resident Douglas Collins claimed to have found Aboriginal artifacts inside on of the trees along the route, which he described as a potential 800-year-old ‘living artifact’.
Mr Collins said the tree yielded a clay heat ball and other possible baked clay capping, made and used by Aboriginal families for baking tubers and other food in earth ovens.
“The tree is just so old and massive. I kept wondering what could be in there and what it was used for,” Mr Collins said.
The latest effort to halt the tree removal follows in-person protests staged around the trees and lawsuits against the state government in previous years.
VicRoads has repeatedly denied that it plans to remove trees with Aboriginal heritage and has pointed to previous decisions on cultural significance.
“We are aware of the sensitivities around vegetation removal, and we will be working closely with the community to ensure they are kept informed as the project progresses,” Mr Powers said.
“We are also continuing to work with environmental groups, who do not support our duplication, but are helping us mitigate impacts on the environment.”
VicRoads has stated that during the tree removal a zoologist will be on site to relocate any animals and all tree hollows will remain on site.
The road agency also said it was consulting with various environmental groups who have expressed an interest in using some of the timber for community projects.
Mr Powers said the timber could be used as rootballs for resnagging local rivers and there was the possibility of milling the timber and donating it to a Men's Shed and to other groups for bollards and picnic tables.
“We are working towards building a highway that will provide a safer, more reliable and efficient journey,” Mr Powers said.
The federal and state governments are jointly funding the Western Highway duplication between Ballarat and Stawell.
VicRoads has stated the project will improve safety on the highway, with 72 crashes occurring between Ballarat and Stawell in the past five years, including five fatalities and 32 serious injuries.
As of Friday, a Change.org petition urging Victoria Roads Minister Luke Donnellan to save the trees had gathered more than 2200 signatures and a crowdfunding website had raised almost $2600 for the cause.
Opponents of the project have also appealed to Melbourne Greens MP Ellen Sandell for help.