A Ngunnawal elder has welcomed the NSW government's decision to protect a group of culturally significant trees near the Kaveneys Road intersection of the $200m Barton Highway upgrade project.
NSW Transport in a recent update made the commitment to protect the trees, which include a ring tree, scar tree and circle of trees known as a spirit circle.
It comes after lengthy advocacy by Indigenous leaders, including the Onerwal Aboriginal Land Council and various environmental bodies, to redesign certain sections of the duplication, including near the ACT-NSW border.
Wally Bell, a Ngunnawal elder and one of the advocates, said it was "an astonishment" that Transport NSW came to that commitment but said he appreciated it.
"It's not our intention to stop the duplication," Mr Bell said.
"All we're trying to do is protect our culture, knowledge and practices so they can be passed onto next generations."
Mr Bell said the negotiations between the authorities and various local groups showed solutions could be achieved "if people are willing to sit down and talk about things instead of being pigheaded about them".
"There is room for compromise and that's where a proper understanding come into play" he said.
"A lot of people still don't understand Aboriginal heritage and the diversity of Aboriginal cultures around the country."
Prior to the commitment, Transport NSW paused works at that section to hold more consultations with relevant stakeholders.
Mr Bell also thanked other groups, including Yass Area Network and Ginninderra Catchment Group, for their involvement and advocacy.
In mid-2021, they warned Aboriginal cultural trees home to vulnerable squirrel gliders just across the ACT border could be heavily damaged or killed if that section of the highway was not resigned.
The current duplication of stage one from the ACT border towards Murrumbateman means the existing carriageway next to the trees would become southbound while the new northbound lanes would be built on the other side of the trees, leaving them in the middle of both carriageways.
A "proposed community option" was to build the duplication in the space between the trees and the existing highway, which would need only a small amount of clearing and would retain road geometry from the ACT.
Discussions about this section were ongoing.
NSW Transport's executive director of community Anthony Hayes said the group of trees at Kaveneys Road "would have been impacted by work to duplicate the highway".
"Transport for NSW acknowledges the importance of the trees of significance to the community and commits to protecting the group of trees," Mr Hayes said.
"We are now looking at alternative options for this area of the Barton Highway upgrade.
"While alternatives are being considered, work is continuing from the ACT-NSW border to the north of Briarwood Lane.
"More than 65,000 cubic metres of earth work - the equivalent of 130,000 trailer loads - have been completed and crews are set to be back on the job from January 10."
The work to duplicate the highway to improve safety and travel times for local commuters, tourists and freight operators started in 2020.
The Australian and NSW governments have committed $150m and $50m, respectively, towards the upgrade of the highway.
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