A federal judge today ordered Caltrans to redo critical aspects of its environmental analysis for a controversial project that would widen and realign Highway 101 through the ancient redwoods of Richardson Grove State Park in Humboldt County. Citing numerous errors in Caltrans’ mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods, U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco ordered Caltrans to correct its errors and prepare a detailed new analysis that considers potential harm to the roots of each individual redwood tree in the project’s path. A coalition of conservation groups and local community members filed a lawsuit in 2010 to halt the project.
“Despite the importance of Richardson Grove and the incredible public outcry against this project, Caltrans didn’t even accurately measure and map the ancient redwood trees that its misguided highway expansion proposal puts at risk,” said Gary Hughes of the Environmental Protection Information Center, a plaintiff group based in Humboldt County. “This unnecessary project would cause irreparable damage to one of our most prized state parks, the venerable old-growth grove and its wildlife, and also harm tourism and the coastal communities of Humboldt County. It’s time to scrap this project for good.”
The proposal to realign a section of Highway 101 that winds through old-growth redwoods in Richardson Grove State Park to accommodate large-truck travel would require extensive cutting into the roots of towering redwoods along the highway. Root loss would likely kill at least some of the majestic trees, and highway work would also harm endangered species like the marbled murrelet and Northern spotted owl. Caltrans’ proposed assault on Richardson Grove, the fabled “redwood curtain” at the entrance to rural Humboldt County, has been met with widespread opposition from local residents, business owners, conservation groups, American Indians and economists. Conservation groups secured a federal court injunction in July 2011 stopping the project from moving forward until the case could be heard.
“Less than 3 percent of our ancient redwood trees remain, yet Caltrans wants to cut through, injure and pave over the roots of giant redwoods in a state park for the sake of a few more oversized trucks speeding through the grove, and expects us to believe there won’t be any damage,” said Peter Galvin, conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ll keep fighting until Caltrans drops this misguided project.”
“Caltrans must give us a clear and accurate description of how building a modern roadbed in Richardson Grove can harm precious and rare environmental resources that belong to us all,” said Patty Clary, Director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics. “That would be democracy in action. That’s what the court preserved in this ruling, the right of Americans to have these important decisions made in the light of day, not behind closed doors.”
Plaintiffs in the case are the Environmental Protection Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Trisha Lee Lotus, Bess Bair, Bruce Edwards, Jeffrey Hedin and Loreen Eliason. Trisha Lotus is the great granddaughter of Henry Devoy, who transferred the redwood forest that became Richardson Grove State Park to California in 1922. The plaintiffs are represented by San Francisco attorney Stuart Gross, Oakland attorney Sharon Duggan, a team from San Francisco law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy that includes Philip Gregory and former congressman “Pete” McCloskey, and Kevin Bundy of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Established in 1922, Richardson Grove State Park was recently rated as one of the top 100 state parks in the United States. The park attracts thousands of visitors from around the world every year to explore one of the last protected stands of accessible old-growth redwoods. It is here that drivers first encounter significant old-growth forest when heading north on Highway 101, and this popular tourist destination has provided many people with a transformative experience walking through some of the oldest living beings on the planet. The park also provides essential habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl, and its creeks still support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead. Currently, the California State Parks system is facing a multitude of threats beyond inappropriate highway development. Two parks near Richardson Grove on the South Fork of the Eel River are slated for closure.
The lawsuit was brought for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and Administrative Procedures Act. The environmental assessment prepared by Caltrans failed to acknowledge the full extent of the project’s impacts, as required by federal and state laws, including the effects of cutting through and paving over the widespread but shallow network of roots holding Richardson Grove together, the consequences of stockpiling lead-contaminated soil in an area draining to the designated “wild and scenic” South Fork Eel River, and the far-reaching impacts of opening the road to larger trucks. Caltrans also failed to adopt legally required measures to reduce these impacts and failed to consider less-damaging alternatives.
Caltrans first proposed the highway widening project in 2007 with minimal environmental and public review. Faced with immediate and widespread community opposition, the agency prepared a full “environmental impact report” but has still has not shown that its experimental, unproven construction methods will not irreparably harm Richardson Grove. Opposition to the project has continued to grow, led by the Save Richardson Grove Coalition, a diverse group of community members including economists, business owners, scientists, and a consortium of 10 federally recognized Northern California tribes with longstanding ties to the grove.
The proposed highway widening does not serve the region’s best interests. Caltrans claims it is needed to legally accommodate large-truck travel on this section of highway. However, it appears from Caltrans’ own statements and signage that this portion of road is already designated for larger trucks and that Caltrans has exaggerated potential safety problems. Caltrans has not established that this project is necessary either for safety or for goods movement and the economy. Since smaller-sized commercial trucks already travel through the grove to deliver goods to Humboldt County, the best alternative would be to leave the highway as it is and retain the integrity of the grove.