Archive for September, 2012

Public Comment Re-Opened on Controversial Caltrans Project that Would Harm the Wild and Scenic Smith River

Thursday, September 27th, 2012
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North fork of the Smith River
photo courtesy of Forrest English

EPIC needs your help. Caltrans has another environmentally destructive and regionally inappropriate highway-widening project slated for the North Coast of California.

Up in the most remote and wild corner of Northwest California lies U.S. Highway 199, a winding country highway that connects Crescent City on the California redwood coast to Grants Pass in Oregon. This highway route is part of the “Mystic Corridor” that links the California redwoods to Crater Lake National Park. The road is designated part of the U.S. Scenic Byway Network, one of only ten in the country, and follows the course of the narrow canyons and ancient redwoods of the Wild and Scenic Smith River, the only major river system in California that remains undammed.

Caltrans’ 197/199 Project is intended to realign and widen the roadway along U.S. Highway 199 and State Route 197 in seven different locations in order to allow increased and unrestricted access for the largest and heaviest commercial trucks on the road, STAA trucks.

Touting safety and improved goods movement, this project would harm the Smith River, the “Crown Jewel” of the National Wild and Scenic River System, putting endangered salmon and steelhead at risk. This project also directly and indirectly threatens the old-growth redwood forests protected in the Redwood State and National Parks, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and Ruby Van Deventer County Park.

First announced to the public in June 2010, at the same time that EPIC and our allies were filing a federal lawsuit seeking to protect the old-growth redwood trees from the now infamous Caltrans’ highway-widening project in Richardson Grove State Park, the Hwy 197/199 project has largely been kept under the radar screen. Nevertheless, dozens of letters from concerned citizens filled the Caltrans mailbox by the end of the first public comment period on the project in August 2010.

The proposed project will result in an increase in heavy truck use on a roadway whose main value is in providing access to environmental and recreation resources along the scenic Smith River Canyon.

The Final Environmental Impact Report for the 197/199 Project was to have been released this summer; however a federal ruling on April 4, 2012 against Caltrans’ STAA project slated for Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park sent Caltrans back to the drawing board for more than just that project.

The court ordered Caltrans to correct its factual errors and analysis and prepare new documentation that considered potential harm to each individual redwood tree in the project’s path. Caltrans’ deficient analysis of the STAA project through Richardson Grove is directly applicable to the Highway 197/199 project because old-growth redwoods trees would be impacted.

On April 9, 2012, EPIC sent a letter to Caltrans asserting that they must undertake supplemental environmental analysis for the Highway 197/199 Project. Last week Caltrans announced the “partial” recirculation of draft documents, including supplemental analysis, and the opening of a new public comment period.

Caltrans states that they are only accepting comments on the portions of the Draft Environmental Impact Report that are being re-circulated. However, EPIC contends that the agency must accept comments on the entire DEIR including: cumulative impacts, transportation, safety, and economic analyses.

Comments will be accepted on the Draft Environmental Impact Report through November 5, 2012.

Please stay tuned! EPIC is pleased to be partnering with the Friends of Del Norte, to produce an online action alert for this project, fact sheets, and updates to better inform our members to the threats that this project presents to a nationally important environmental resource, the pristine Wild and Scenic Smith River.

Click here to download the:
* Draft Environmental Impact Report
* Partial Recirculation of the Draft Environmental Report
* Biological Memo
* Forester/Arborist Report

Written Comments may be submitted to:

Caltrans Attention Jason Meyer, Environmental Coordinator P.O. Box 3700 Eureka, CA 95502 through November 5, 2012.

Please help us protect the Wild and Scenic Smith River. Share this notice with your friends and family.


Still Standing

Thursday, September 27th, 2012
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The Public Lands Program has been an advocacy building block for the Environmental Protection Information Center for nearly a decade. Monitoring environmental threats on federally and state owned land is a public interest service that EPIC provides to our local and statewide community.

The US Forest Service holdings in our bioregion, namely the Mendocino, Six Rivers, Shasta-Trinity, and Klamath National Forests, lay squarely within the EPIC geography of concern. The time honored forest watch methodology enables EPIC to stay engaged on preventing and modifying potentially damaging projects proposed across the region.

Last Spring the Salmon River Ranger District on the Klamath National Forest decided to log 70 acres of mature forest with minimal environmental review. EPIC stopped the project, known as Little Cronan, from moving forward due to the fact that the Ranger illegally signed the decision by failing to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service as required by the Endangered Species Act.

This beautiful piece of forest has a trail leading to the Marble Mountain Wilderness, yet the agency wants to turn this trail into a logging road.  The project is on the Wild and Scenic North Fork Salmon River, a waterway considered critical for salmon recovery. The area surrounding and including the Little Cronan project is proposed as Critical Habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl, and contains increasingly rare nesting and roosting habitat.

The Salmon River Ranger District on the Klamath National Forest is a high priority area for EPIC because of its proximity to wilderness, and roadless areas, and because of its value as a landscape scale biological corridor.  Tucked between the Marble Mountains and Trinity Alps Wildernesses, the Salmon River RD is of undeniable conservation importance in terms of maintaining the long-term integrity of these protected core areas.

Unfortunately, though, the justification used for promoting the logging of these old forest stands that lie within an area of high conservation value is the same rhetoric commonly used, cutting big trees in the name of forest health and fire risk reduction, when the evidence is conclusive that cutting big trees is anything but healthy for the forest.  While we may see another incarnation of this ill-conceived project, thanks to EPIC we will have another opportunity for comment, to participate, and to protect our wild forests. 

Please stay tuned for future action alerts on this old growth forest stand that is Still Standing because EPIC, and all of our supporters, still stand with the big trees.


Support Gray Wolf CESA Listing

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012
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Gray Wolf photo by Todd Ryburn

Take action now!  Please write a letter to the California Fish and Game Commission supporting the listing of the Gray Wolf under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).  In response to a petition from EPIC and allies, the California Department of Fish and Game recommended that the Fish and Game Commission make the Gray Wolf a candidate for protection under CESA. The Commission will vote on Fish and Game’s recommendation on October 3, 2012 in Sacramento.  They need to hear from you.

Click Here to Take Action!

 

 


Injunction Sought to Stop Construction of Controversial Willits Bypass Project

Monday, September 10th, 2012
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The Center for Biological Diversity, Willits Environmental Center, Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) filed a motion in federal court on Friday seeking a preliminary injunction to halt imminent construction of the Willits Bypass, a proposed four-lane freeway to be built around the community of Willits in Mendocino County. Despite a pending lawsuit challenging the permits and approvals for the controversial project, which would destroy significant wetlands and habitat for endangered plants, as well as degrade salmon-bearing streams, the California Department of Transportation has awarded a construction contract that could result in the cutting down of mature oak forests and riparian vegetation as early as October.

“The Willits Bypass would be a disaster for local wetlands, oak forests and the wildlife that depend on them,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Caltrans has made significant changes to this project without fully evaluating the impacts of bulldozing a freeway through precious wetlands and endangered species’ habitats.”

“The Willits Bypass project is an egregious example of how Caltrans is totally out of touch with the needs of local communities and ecosystems on the North Coast,” said Gary Graham Hughes of EPIC. “We are asking the federal court to halt this project before irreparable damage is done to oak forests and critical aquatic habitats in the headwaters of the Eel River.”

Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration say they are pursuing the bypass on Highway 101 around Willits to ease traffic congestion. The agencies insist on a four-lane freeway and have refused to consider or analyze equally effective two-lane alternatives or in-town solutions. The currently planned project would be a 6-mile, four-lane bypass including several bridges over creeks and roads, a mile-long viaduct spanning the floodplain, and two interchanges.

Construction would damage wildlife habitat and biological resources in Little Lake Valley, including nearly 100 acres of wetlands, and it would require the largest wetlands fill permit in Northern California in the past 50 years. It would also affect stream and riparian habitat for Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout in three streams converging into Outlet Creek, harm the rare plant Baker’s meadowfoam and destroy increasingly scarce oak woodlands.

Background

A lawsuit was filed against Caltrans, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 2012 for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and Clean Water Act. The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the agencies to prepare a supplemental “environmental impact statement” that considers two-lane alternatives and addresses substantial design changes and new information about traffic volumes and environmental impacts. In August, the California Farm Bureau Federation filed a motion to intervene on behalf of the environmental plaintiffs, providing supporting arguments that Caltrans and the Army Corps of Engineers have violated environmental law in approving permits for this project. Since a 2006 environmental review, Caltrans has made significant changes and ongoing revisions to the project that will cause new environmental impacts, yet it has failed to supplement the environmental review. Project changes will destroy additional wetlands, oak woodlands and riparian habitat; increase habitat loss for the rare Baker’s meadowfoam; further degrade salmon habitat; and add significant new impacts to agricultural lands.

For more than half a century, Caltrans has promoted turning Highway 101 into a four-lane freeway from San Diego to the Oregon border, with a four-lane freeway bypass around Willits. Caltrans first discussed potential bypass designs and routes through Willits in 1988, but by 1995 had unilaterally discarded all non-freeway or two-lane alternatives.

The California Transportation Commission, the state funding authority, has repeatedly refused to fund a four-lane freeway, so Caltrans proposes to proceed in “phases,” grading for four lanes and constructing two lanes with available funds, then allegedly constructing two additional lanes when additional funding becomes available, a dubious prospect. Yet Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration did notdraft a supplemental “environmental impact statement” to examine impacts of this changed design or consider two-lane alternatives.

A 1998 Caltrans study found that 70 percent to 80 percent of traffic causing congestion in downtown Willits was local, and Caltrans internally conceded that the volume of traffic projected to use the bypass was not enough to warrant a four-lane freeway. Agency data showed the volume of traffic that would use the bypass did not increase from 1992 to 2005. New information shows that actual traffic volumes are below what the agencies projected when they determined that only a four-lane freeway will provide the desired level of service, and that a two-lane bypass will provide a better level of service than projected.

Phase I of the project would fill more than 86 acres of wetlands and federal-jurisdiction waters. Caltrans purchased approximately 2,000 acres of ranchland in Little Lake Valley to supposedly mitigate for loss of wetlands, but this approach makes little sense because functional wetlands already existed on the properties and Caltrans has no ability to “create” new wetlands there. To obtain the required wetlands fill permit under the Clean Water Act, the state and federal agencies submitted a significantly deficient “mitigation and monitoring plan” to the Army Corps to “enhance” wetlands. This plan itself alters existing wetlands and causes significant new impacts to wetlands, endangered species and grazing lands, as well as making design changes that were not analyzed or disclosed in the 2006 environmental review. The Corps improperly issued the permit in February 2012.

Press Release

Plantiffs Motion for Preliminary Injunction and Memorandum in Support