Photo by Juan Pazos
SAN FRANCISCO— Following two previously successful federal and state court legal actions, conservation groups and local residents filed a lawsuit in federal court today challenging Caltrans’ renewed approval of a controversial highway-widening project that would endanger ancient and irreplaceable redwood trees in Richardson Grove State Park in Humboldt County. Due to Caltrans’ flawed environmental-review process, the project to cut into and pave over the roots of old-growth redwoods along Highway 101 was halted by a federal court ruling in 2012 and a state court decision earlier this year.
“The shortsightedness of this project is dumbfounding,” said Peter Galvin with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Does Caltrans really expect the public to accept a multimillion dollar project that would needlessly damage this iconic grove of giant redwoods?”
“We will not allow Caltrans to put Richardson Grove’s ancient trees at risk,” said Natalynne DeLapp with EPIC. “Caltrans owes the public a full and honest account of how its highway-widening plans could damage this irreplaceable state park.”
The lawsuit filed in federal court for the Northern District of California alleges serious violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. The plaintiffs are the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, as well as local residents Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Bruce Edwards, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen.
The so-called “Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project” would require cutting into and paving over the roots of many of Richardson Grove’s ancient redwoods, some of which have stood for as many as 3,000 years, measure as much as 18 feet in diameter and reach heights of 300 feet. The project is being undertaken solely to benefit passage for large commercial trucks. While originally promoted by Caltrans as a safety project, the agency was not able to offer any evidence of safety concerns along the narrow, one-mile stretch of roadway through the state park.
The plaintiffs first sued in federal and state courts in 2010 when Caltrans certified inadequate environmental review documents and adopted a “Finding of No Significant Impact.” In 2012 the 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.” The California Court of Appeal in January 2014 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.
Today’s lawsuit was triggered when earlier this year Caltrans approved a “supplement” to its federal environmental review and renewed the project approval, while refusing to consider public concerns about the issues raised in the previous lawsuit. The complaint alleges that Caltrans failed to fix the numerous errors in mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods that were cited by the federal judge in his order.
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 redwoods in the world. The park also contains essential habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl, and its creeks support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead trout.
Caltrans first proposed the highway-widening project in 2007. Opposition to the project has grown substantially, 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.
Caltrans claims the highway widening project is needed to accommodate large-truck travel, yet the agency has acknowledged that this portion of road is already designated for larger trucks and does not have significant safety problems. Even with its “supplement” to the environmental review, Caltrans has not established that this project is necessary for safety or will benefit the local economy. Smaller-sized commercial trucks have travelled through the grove for years to deliver goods to Humboldt County, and legislative exemptions have functioned to allow the passage of oversize trucks.
Plaintiff Trisha Lotus is the great-granddaughter of Henry Devoy, who in 1922 transferred to California the redwood forest that became Richardson Grove State Park. Jeffrey Hedin is a disabled Vietnam veteran and a volunteer responder with the Piercy Fire Protection District. Bruce Edwards is a licensed contractor who frequently travels through Richardson Grove. Bess Bair is the granddaughter of Bess and Fred Hartsook, who for many years owned the Hartsook Inn resort next to Richardson Grove State Park. David Spreen is a long-time resident of Humboldt County and has extensive business experience negotiating rates and scheduling shipping of flooring materials in the North Coast region, nationally and internationally.
The attorneys for the plaintiffs are Philip Gregory and Pete McCloskey of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, LLP; Stuart Gross of Gross Law; and Sharon Duggan, a long-time expert on environmental law.