The latest developments on the Western Highway Duplication, involving the saving of 15 trees of cultural significance, should dispel a myth. Until now, on the face of it, Major Road Projects Victoria had been "the villain." The protesters - from Aboriginal communities, "not in my backyard" landowners, forest campaigners and others - were the besieged keepers of the land.
But all is not what it seems.
This is not the beginning of the protest about the Western Highway duplication west of Beaufort. Four to five years ago, members of the Western Highway Conservation Group were the original responders to what has been an enormously destructive process in respect to the environment and in public confidence of MRPV (then VicRoads).
The catastrophic loss of old growth roadside trees from Beaufort to Buangor was, for many of us, a traumatic event. That became the impetus for us to take VicRoads to task, helping it realise the importance of community engagement and care of the environment. Its acknowledgement that it was responsible for much of the state's significant remnant vegetation was crucial.
We reiterate our opposition to the duplication occurring in the vicinity of Langi Ghiran. Nevertheless, our dedicated group, along with other specialists, agencies and community members has been long involved with the Environmental Consultation Group (ECG) with VicRoads/MRPV to promote and encourage better environmental awareness and outcomes.
To its credit, VicRoads admitted errors and made a paradigm shift to respond positively and professionally. This resulted in a vastly improved road design for the Langi Ghiran section.
Any new major infrastructure project will involve unavoidable and heartbreaking environmental damage, but the approved route between Buangor and Ararat avoids the best of pristine roadside vegetation along the present highway by detouring through largely cleared farmland.
This practice is applauded and to be encouraged, provided suitable compensation is made. We acknowledge the hurt this can cause individuals, however.
The approved route between Buangor and Ararat avoids the best of pristine roadside vegetation.
We take some credit for the improved design, which includes both detailed engineering and flora and fauna-focused measures. Unfortunately, the good work done at the ECG for the people of Victoria has been threatened by landowners with a different agenda. They fought VicRoads to try and prevent severance of their land, producing ecological data that, they say, showed the existence of rare and threatened flora and fauna.
They touted a "Northern Option" along the existing highway, saying it was less destructive and cheaper when, in fact, it was much more destructive of confirmed unique ecosystems and rare flora and much more costly. They went to court to stop VicRoads, unsuccessfully. After a long delay, new project manager MRPV sent in contractors to start work.
Much was made of two large old trees with hollows in the path of the duplication. It was claimed the trees were of cultural significance; protesters moved to the site and set up camp along the approved route. Work stopped.
The undisputed vigour and passion of the protesters resulted in a significant victory: MRPV re-routed the road initially to avoid two large old trees. Ongoing negotiations with the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation (EMAC), we now learn, have resulted in the saving of an additional 13. This will not be seen as a victory by the landowners, however; as their farmland will still be divided. Despite the nod to protesters by the Eastern Maar for the successfully negotiated settlement, it seems the protesters will also dig in.
Strangely, the farms are deemed to be of "sacred importance," as were trees inside the approved route, the land of which was compulsorily acquired long ago with compensation to affected landowners. Our group is bewildered that the removal of up to a thousand large old trees, many with hollows in the previous section of roadworks, did not attract the protesters' attention.
There are many more twists and turns in this epic story than can be recorded here.
This time, MRPV has acted with integrity, not villainy. Both it and EMAC have persisted for almost a year, we now know, to negotiate for a compromise. What is needed is for protesters to find a way of saving face and leaving gracefully.
They can rightly claim their contribution to an important victory. The state government, through its Major Projects agency, can also take a bow, by insisting on dialogue rather than force. That is a major breakthrough and a relief for our beleaguered, infrastructure-focused state.
David Leviston, Western Highway Conservation Group