Drive north from San Francisco for a few hours, and the 101 will gradually melt into a slim road between giant sequoia trees. You’ve found your way to Richardson Grove State Park, where you can see thousand-year-old redwoods, the South Fork Eel River, and lots of campgrounds, but you won’t see any big box stores.
That’s thanks, at least in part, to the narrowness of the 101. With a speed limit of 35 miles per hour, most tractor-trailers are banned from the park. This has helped keep sprawl to a minimum, but some Humboldt officials have long complained that it isolates the county and limits commerce.
In response to the politicians, Caltrans spent about a decade working on the Richardson Grove Improvement Project, which culminated this May in a Final Environmental Impact Report.
As described, Caltrans’ project would widen the highway and eliminate detours for trucks, shortening the trip from Oakland to Eureka from 725 miles to 279.
And that’s where things get controversial.
The current roadway creeps right up to the edge of some old-growth redwood trees. As Streetsblog has reported in the past, impermeable pavement is bad news for root systems, since compacted earth weakens roots and impervious pavement keeps water out of the soil.
This month, a coalition of residents and environmental groups sued Caltrans to halt the plan. The widened roadway isn’t their only complaint: There’s lead in the soil, which they worry could leach into a nearby river. Excavation around the roots could potentially kill the trees. And looming over the entire project is the possibility that, with increased trucking, Wal-Mart might finally move into Eureka.
"It hasn’t been adequately justified by Caltrans," said Stuart Gross, an attorney with Burlingame-based Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, which filed the lawsuit pro bono. The firm handles numerous environmental cases, including litigation on behalf of fisherman affected by the Cosco Busan spill. "The purpose is not, they’ve admitted, to improve the safety," Gross told Streetsblog, "but merely to get lifted restrictions to which waivers already apply."
"Caltrans’ interest to get a faster highway has been on the table for a long time," said Kerul Dyer, Richardson Grove campaign coordinator for the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). "They’ve been trying to do it since the 50s."
She added, "Caltrans cannot offer any guarantee that they won’t destroy the old growth redwoods with the experimental techniques that they’re proposing to use."
"They’re excavating around the roots of trees that are one thousand to two thousand years old," she said. "That’s never been done before as far as we know. These models that they’re working off of are purely theoretical."
Admissions of Risk
Gross agreed with Dyer’s interpretation. "They admit it will put at risk a large number of old-growth redwood trees," he said.
The Caltrans EIR does address the risk to trees. "While some cutting of tree roots would be necessary," says the document, signed by Acting District 1 Director Matthew Brady, "it is anticipated that many of the roots can be saved by using an pneumatic excavator like an air spade, rather than heavy equipment to do the excavations near the large redwoods."
Elsewhere, the EIR states, "Realigning the roadway requires some minor to moderate cuts and fills which would necessitate vegetation removal including some 30 trees of various species. Construction activities in close proximity to these trees could result in impacts to the root systems of these trees. There would be both cut and fill activities occurring within the structural root zone."
The document also addresses the expanding of paved surfaces, claiming that since damage has already been done, the effect of highway widening would be minimal:
Many of the large redwoods within and adjacent to the project area are likely affected by compaction resulting from the existing US Route 101 roadway and park facilities (campsites, trails, roads, park structures). The proposed project is not anticipated to substantially increase the magnitude of compaction on old growth redwoods that presently exists as the edge of pavement in many instances is less than a foot away from the trunks.
Environmental groups aren’t buying the argument.
"The mitigation proposals included in the Draft EIR and the final report, those are both insufficient and inadequately explained," said Gross. "For example, in the final report, Caltrans suggests as one of the mitigation procedures, they’re going to remove a restroom. It’s not at all clear how removing a restroom from a state park will mitigate the damage to old growth redwood trees."
"Caltrans wants to cut through and pave over the life-giving roots of ancient redwoods in one of California’s most-loved state parks, yet expects us to believe there won’t be any damage," said Peter Galvin, conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
But not all experts are opposed. Caltrans’ consulted with their own certified arborist, Darin Sullivan, as well as with Dennis Yniguez with the Save the Redwoods League. They both determined that, under the plan, redwoods would not be "substantially adversely affected."
Ynguez wrote, "My professional opinion is that the highway alterations, as proposed, will have no significant detrimental effect on root health or on the availability of water to the roots of old growth redwoods adjacent to the highway construction."
"I question someone who works for Caltrans to produce an independent review of what Caltrans is going to do," responded Dyer.
Backers of the lawsuit are seeking an injunction to prevent Caltrans from beginning work in the Grove. They also want Caltrans to conduct further research under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
"We feel confident that if they conduct the CEQA process as the law requires, that the conclusion reached will be that the project as proposed cannot be conducted and should not go forward," said Gross.
Yet, it appears Caltrans is unlikely to adjust its plans. Alternatives such as a bypass and signaling changes were studied, but eliminated from consideration due to expense, engineering complications, and in some cases, an even greater ecological risk.
In fact, the EIR states that in some contexts, the current plan would cause no ecological damage whatsoever. "The project would not affect the visual characteristics of the river nor affect the water quality for fish," it states, despite also describing lead levels that exceed the threshold for hazardous waste.
"Caltrans, as part of its storm water management plan has prepared a spill contingency plan that includes identification of procedures and response crews in the event of an accidental release of hazardous materials," the EIR adds. In other words: trust us. What could go wrong?
Besides, she said, "STAA trucks pass through the grove every day without incident. Right now there’s a California legislative exemption that allows some STAA trucks through the grove every day." Those exceptions include moving vans and cattle rigs.
What’s further complicating the issue is the difficulty finding proponents of the highway-widening.
"My official comment would be that Caltrans has no comment," said Caltrans spokeswoman Julie East.
The Humboldt County Economic Development Division also declined to discuss the plan. "The person who’s been handling that is out on maternity leave," said the woman who answered the office phone.
The Eureka Chamber of Commerce did not respond to a request for comment.
"Who are the local businesses who will be benefited by this? Large box retailers," said attorney Stuart Gross. "It’s a gross mischaracterization to say that this is a project that the people of Humboldt County are screaming out for. There are already exceptions provided for moving vans, certain other types of other large trucks that would operate in this area. The primary beneficiaries are the big box retailers."
Caltrans has until August 24th to respond to the lawsuit. Then there will be a hearing and settlement conferences, which could last about a month. Gross expects that they’ll have a day in court in September, at which point they’ll argue that Caltrans needs to redo the CEQA process.
"What we’re talking about is the destruction of trees that range from one thousand to three thousand years old," said Gross. "This is truly an instance where the public’s interest in preservation of irreplaceable natural resources is being placed at risk for a project whose beneficiaries are, if they’re identifiable at all, large non-local businesses who simply want a regulation change so they can increase profits."
Of course, it’s possible that Caltrans’ assessment is correct, and the excavation and pavement expansion won’t cause any damage.
"We don’t feel that we have enough old-growth trees to risk," said Dyer. "I think it is a crime. And I think there are a lot of people who agree with me."