IT has been 13 months since a fight over Indigenous heritage claims brought a $672 million road project to a halt.
The Western Highway duplication project will see the road duplicated along stretches between Ballarat and Stawell, safety barriers added and bypasses built.
Work has been underway since 2013, with some sections such as the Buangor bypass already completed.
But works on the 12.5-kilometre stretch between Buangor and Ararat have stalled since June 2018 when activists set up campsites along the proposed highway route to protect Aboriginal sites and large old trees from being destroyed in the process.
The activists say some of the trees are in excess of 800 years old.
The activists also say Major Road Projects Victoria, the authority overseeing the project, has not acknowledged the environmental impact the project would have.
Major Roads says about 1350 large old trees would be destroyed - a figure it originally estimated as 221.
The activists, calling themselves the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy, say some of the trees were used as birthing trees and the project would damage other culturally significant sites. These include dreaming tracks - which follow creation story lines that connect sacred places - and the Hopkins River, associated with eel dreaming. They want these declared protected and the duplication route altered.
The camps are still in place but in the 13 months since they were established, much has changed. The issue has gained national media attention. The fight has also been taken to the courts, and Indigenous elder Aunty Sandra Onus said there were no plans to give up.
"We're fighting it all the way if we can and there will be legal challenges all the way," she said.
In June 2018 traditional owners lodged an appeal to protect the site under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act with then Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg.
On September 12, then Environment Minister Melissa Price partially rejected the application and then decided against the remainder in December.
Traditional Owners challenged this decision and in April it was reviewed by the Federal Court. As a result Justice Mortimer put aside the minister's decision, stating it was affected by an error of law. The application was reviewed again and Environment Minister Sussan Ley ruled against it in July.
Aunty Sandra said the outcome was disappointing.
"I was disappointed in (Ms Ley)," she said. "I thought it was a rushed decision as well."
In a report detailing her reasons for this decision, Ms Ley said she was satisfied five of the six culturally significant trees identified in the original application were not under threat following an agreement made outside the courts between Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation and Major Road Projects Victoria.
Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation manages native title rights. The agreement stated that a total of 13 trees, including those five, will be preserved by what Major Road Projects Victoria described as minor route alterations. Based on this agreement, the minister determined the trees were no longer in need of protection by the Act.
A spokesman from Roads Minister Jaala Pulford's office said Ms Ley's decision was pleasing.
"This project has undergone a rigorous planning process, it has been approved by both the Registered Aboriginal Party and the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation and has already been significantly redesigned to avoid the trees that are at the heart of the protest," he said.
"It's crucial for the safety of the local community that the Western Highway upgrade is complete and now a decision has been made, we'll look to deliver this much-needed project."
Activists have vowed to continue their direct action.
A lawyer representing the group, Michael Kennedy, has been working on potential challenges to Ms Ley's decision.
Aunty Sandra said there were plans to continue protesting on the ground as well.
"They'll be locking on," she said. "It could get ugly. We'll just wait and see."
Traditional Owner Zellenach Gurnaikurnai said the activists were footing the bill for their legal representation, along with donations via a GoFundMe page.
While you're with us, you can now receive updates straight to your inbox each Friday morning from The Ararat Advertiser. To make sure you're up-to-date with all the news from across the Ararat shire, sign up here.