Environmental groups and local residents today sued the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) for approving a highway-widening project that would damage or destroy 1,000- to 2,000-year-old redwood trees in California’s iconic Richardson Grove State Park, along Highway 101 in Humboldt County.
Today’s lawsuit, filed in Humboldt County Superior Court, challenges the transportation agency’s latest approval of the controversial project. Three previous legal challenges blocked construction and forced Caltrans to rescind all project approvals in 2014. Caltrans quietly reapproved the project last month, purportedly to improve highway access for oversized commercial trucks.
“Caltrans keeps pushing this nonsensical project that would do terrible damage to ancient redwoods in our state park, with no benefits to the community,” said Aruna Prabhala, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “There’s just no compelling traffic or safety reason to destroy these beautiful trees. The changes Caltrans claims it’s made to the project won’t protect more than 100 giant redwoods from being damaged or killed.”
The “Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project” would cut into and pave over the roots of more than 100 of Richardson Grove’s ancient redwoods, including trees up to 2,000 years old, 18 feet in diameter and 300 feet tall. Caltrans has pursued this project solely to benefit passage for oversized commercial trucks and continues to rely on inadequate environmental review.
“EPIC is disappointed that Caltrans has continued to push forward, ignoring previous court warnings about the need to honestly evaluate the effects of its road widening on old-growth redwoods,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director and staff attorney at the Environmental Protection Information Center. “Caltrans’ road widening shows no respect for sacred parkland and irreplaceable ancient trees.”
“Caltrans does not seem to get that we the people, by law, have a place at the table when important decisions are made affecting our environment, and in the case of this iconic and beloved grove of ancient redwoods, just how important it is to protect irreplaceable magnificent old trees when decisions made are of such consequences,” said Patty Clary, executive director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics.
Today’s suit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity; the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC); Californians for Alternatives to Toxics; Friends of Del Norte; and longtime local residents Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen. The suit challenges Caltrans’ violations of the California Environmental Quality Act, and inadequate evaluation of environmental impacts, a misleading conclusion that the project would have no significant impact on the environment, and a flawed determination that none of the proposed highway alterations would threaten the stability of any old-growth redwoods.
Richardson Grove State Park, where tourists often first encounter large redwoods when heading north on Highway 101, is home to one of the last protected stands of accessible old-growth redwood trees in the world and is a jewel of the state park system. The park also contains essential habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the northern spotted owl, and its creeks support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead trout.
Caltrans first proposed the project in 2007, claiming the highway-widening is needed to accommodate large-truck travel. However, Caltrans acknowledges that Highway 101 through Richardson Grove is already designated for larger trucks and does not have significant safety problems. The agency cannot demonstrate that the project is necessary for safety or would benefit the local economy.
There has been substantial local opposition to the project, led by the Save Richardson Grove Coalition, a diverse group of community members including economists, business owners, scientists and Northern California tribes with longstanding ties to the grove. In 2012 a federal court stopped the project, citing numerous errors in Caltrans’ mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods and stating that the agency had been “arbitrary and capricious” in its use of what the court called “faulty data.” In 2014 a California Court of Appeal ordered Caltrans to reevaluate the environmental impacts of the project under state law, finding that it had failed to fully assess impacts on ancient redwoods or provide measures to reduce potentially severe harm to the trees.
Caltrans re-approved the project again and now claims it made changes to better protect old-growth redwood trees, such as impacting fewer trees, less excavation, and less depth of surface pavement.
However, the “changes” to the project do not markedly differ from what the courts previously rejected as inadequate, and Caltrans has not answered the questions and concerns raised about structural damage to redwoods from cutting into their roots.
The attorneys for the plaintiffs in this suit are Philip Gregory of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy LLP; Stuart Gross of Gross & Klein LLP; and Sharon Duggan, a staff attorney with EPIC and a long-time expert on environmental law.