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Caltrans Attempts to Appeal Federal Court’s Ruling and Protection of Richardson Grove

For over a decade, EPIC and our allies have defended the ancient redwoods in Richardson Grove State Park from Caltrans’ controversial proposal to widen Highway 101 through the protected state park. And for years, Caltrans has attempted to maneuver around state, federal, and environmental laws to push the project through with weak and insufficient environmental review documents. In 2019, Honorable Judge William Alsup from the Northern District Court of California ruled that Caltrans must go back to the drawing board and prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). 

Now Caltrans is attempting to appeal Alsup’s 2019 federal ruling that invalidated Caltrans’ revised Environmental Assessment and ordered the agency to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement. On October 13, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard oral arguments on the defendant’s appeal and plaintiff’s response briefs on Richardson Grove. The hearing was live streamed on the Court’s youtube channel and can be viewed here.

Initially, the agency attempted to use a categorical exemption, then prepared an Environmental Assessment (EA), then made a supplement to the EA, all of which have been determined by various courts to be inadequate to comply with state and federal laws. Alsup found that the agency’s EA omitted consideration of key elements of the proposed project and thus failed to take the “hard look” required under the National Environmental Policy Act, which prevents Caltrans from working on the proposed project until it has conducted a full EIS. 

In his ruling, Alsup stated that “After eight years of litigation, the Court is convinced and so finds that Caltrans has been bound and determined from the outset, regardless of the source, to arrive at a FONSI [Finding of No Significant Impact] and thus avoid the scrutiny of an EIS….Caltrans never gave the fair “hard look” required by NEPA but resorted to cherry picking the science to arrive at a preordained conclusion…At long last, the Court now orders that Caltrans stop trying to skate by with an EA/FONSI and that Caltrans prepare a valid EIS. Please do not try to systematically minimize the adverse environmental consequences and to cherry-pick the science.”

Attorney Stuart Gross represented the plaintiff group, which is made up of local neighbors to Richardson Grove State Park and nonprofit environmental groups, including EPIC, who are committed to protecting Richardson Grove. The three judge panel asked good questions and is expected to make a determination regarding Caltrans’ appeal of the district court’s grant of summary judgment and permanent injunction against proceeding with a proposed highway project in Richardson Grove State Park. 

No matter the determination, EPIC will stand strong for the protection of the incredible old-growth of Richardson Grove. Along with the federal court ruling currently being appealed, EPIC and allies were also victorious in a state court decision in 2019 that found the agency avoided public scrutiny by failing to include notice of new information in their EIR. While Caltrans continues to attempt to push forward this faulty project, we will continue to be a watchdog for the forest and stand in the way of what is unmistakably a bad project for the trees, the critters, and the public.


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