Conservation groups and Humboldt County residents have won a federal court victory halting Caltrans’ controversial Richardson Grove highway-widening project. The project would needlessly harm ancient redwood trees in California’s iconic Richardson Grove State Park along Highway 101 in Humboldt County. The U.S. District Court in San Francisco struck down the Caltrans plan in a 26-page order  issued late Friday afternoon.
“We’re elated that the court rejected Caltrans’ misguided and deeply destructive plan,” said Peter Galvin, co-founder and director of programs at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The ancient trees and wildlife of Richardson Grove are too important to pave over.”
“For too long, Caltrans has pushed this unpopular project at the expense of the taxpayers and the environment,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director of EPIC. “EPIC hopes that Caltrans focuses on road projects that are actually a priority, like Last Chance Grade.”
The highway-widening project could damage the roots of more than 100 of Richardson Grove’s ancient redwoods, including trees up to 3,000 years old, 18 feet in diameter and 300 feet tall. Caltrans has pursued this project solely to incrementally improve passage for heavy, oversized commercial trucks, with trailers up to 53 feet long.
In an order setting aside Caltrans’ inadequate environmental review and approval for the project, Judge William Alsup found that the agency failed to address four main issues: the roots of several ancient redwoods would risk suffocation due to increased paving in their root zones; construction within their structural root zones has the potential to impact or topple trees; heavy oversized trucks are more likely to collide with trees in the grove and the damage to redwoods could be more severe; and noise impacts from more and larger trucks rumbling through the park will be much worse than Caltrans is admitting and would diminish public enjoyment of the grove.
Judge Alsup stated that “all of these old-growth redwoods have lived many times longer than our nation has existed,” and “if we were today considering building a major highway through a grove of ancient redwoods, almost certainly the public would demand that the grove be spared and that the highway bypass the park.”
The court will next take arguments on whether Caltrans must prepare a new environmental assessment or provide a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement. Judge Alsup noted that studies cited by Caltrans were not provided to the public and that mastering Caltrans’ incomplete and confusing administrative record has been “awful” and “resembled decoding hieroglyphics.”
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. The park has 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 widening is needed to accommodate large-truck travel. But 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.
Litigation against the Richardson Grove project has been successful in both state and federal court. This is the third federal lawsuit challenging Caltrans’ violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, due to inadequate evaluation of the environmental impacts of cutting into or paving over tree roots.
A state court ruled in May 2018 against a Caltrans motion to dismiss the state lawsuit. The 2010 federal lawsuit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Protection Information Center, Friends of Del Norte, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, and longtime local residents Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen.
In 2012 the federal court issued a temporary injunction stopping the project, citing numerous errors in Caltrans’ mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods and use of faulty data. Previous legal challenges blocked construction and forced Caltrans to rescind all project approvals in 2014. The agency reapproved the project in 2017, claiming it had made significant changes. However, Caltrans still proposed to cut into tree roots, threatening the stability and viability of old-growth redwoods.
The attorneys for the plaintiffs in this suit are Stuart Gross of Gross & Klein LLP; Sharon Duggan, a staff attorney with EPIC and a long-time expert on environmental law; Philip Gregory of Gregory Law Group; and Camilo Artiga-Purcell of Artiga-Purcell Law Office.