In Humboldt County, It’s Redwoods Versus the Phantom Wall-Mart


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.

grove_after.jpgRichardson Grove after construction. Source: Caltrans

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.

Further Obstacles

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?

Plenty, says Kerul Dyer, and pointed out that Caltrans was cited for numerous violations in connection with a highway bypass project near Confusion Hill.

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."

  • Sean H

    How much does this project cost? There is a perfectly good railroad ROW for freight if and when it ever runs again. There was a proposal during the turn of the century to lay RR tracks along the 299, which has a very stable slope and grade. It would probably be cheaper to build new tracks the fix the Eel River Canyon NWPRR.

    One sad thing about this problem was that Humboldt Brewery went bust and moved to Paso Robles to become “Nectar Ales” due to this shipping problem.

  • A little over five and a half million.

    Some of the public comment said exactly the same thing, that rail would be more effective. But there are no plans for expanding rail, so it would be many many many years away if it ever happens at all.

  • maaaty

    A thousand-year-old redwood tree shrivels in comparison to a $5.99 12-pack of tube socks. USA, USA, USA.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    If it’s really 700+ miles from Oakland, they should just land their goods in Portland, Oregon. That’s only 412 miles from Eureka!

  • Ray

    “shortening the trip from Oakland to Eureka from 725 miles to 279.”

    That’s some shortening! Are they detouring through hyper-space?

  • Mike Buettner

    Sean has never driven 299. The RR is literarily in the Eel River. FEMA estimated $650 million in 1998 to repair it. Humboldt Brewery is now HumBrews in Arcata. The Lost Coast Brewery does fine.

  • This may be controversial, but screw Eureka. If you want to live in the middle of nowhere in a part of the state most people realize dont exist (if san francisco is nocal, whats eureka, nonocal?) then you’ll have to deal with having less choices. We spend way, WAY too much subsidizing out of the way places. Essential air service, huge tax breaks for “rural” home ownership, and highways to reach these places.

    This goes for all tiny places far from civilization.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    I was skeptical of the 729 mile figure but it does appear in the EIR (as 725 miles actually). It seems that even US-199 is no good as a truck route and the trucks have to go all the way through SR-42, which is indeed about 725 miles one way from Oakland. I suppose it would be pointless to mention that Humboldt has its very own deep water cargo facility.

  • Don’t you just love environmental review in this state? You can’t build a bicycle network because it might slow down the cars. Yet putting at risk some of the remaining 2% of original old growth redwoods is just fine.

    Last time I walked by Caltrans headquarters in Oakland, the plants in front were all dying. That just about sums up this agency’s long term hostility to everything living.

  • Sean H

    Humbrews only sells brew locally or on site. Nectar Ales makes all of the old recipes Humboldt Brewery created, including Red Nectar and Hemp Ale in Paso Robles. I asked the head brewer in 2002 and he complained that they couldn’t use large trucks for their distribution network. Breweries operate on slim margins, and fuel costs hurt.

    Ive driven the 299 dozens of times, thats were the 700 mile number comes from, large trucks must take I5 to 299 instead of the 101. I agree the Eel River ROW is almost certainly busted for good. The old proposed railway to Humboldt actually follows the 199 from Grants Pass.

  • This is a scenic and environmentally sensitive area. Will widening the road and increasing the speeds, increasing the curve radii, contribute or detract? Will it be better or worse for the non-motorized users? Will it require safety barriers to protect drivers from collisions with trees? What are the other options? Has there been an origin-destination study?
    To me, this seems like a project that needs more scrutiny.
    Caltans’ design manual:

  • We cannot afford to sacrifice the Richardson grove old growth.

    Only 3% remains of our ancient forests. Why should the people(yes you, the tax payer) have to subsidize a few greedy businesses at the tune of $7 million dollars at the expense of losing our “Redwood Curtain”?

    The natural redwood forest processes of fire, flood and storm are nothing compared to excavating(up to 5′ for some of these ancient trees), cutting roots, filling with a base that contains Lyme(an extremely high pH, redwoods are acid loving(low pH)), and ultimately compacting and paving over the roots that have supported these trees for thousands of years.

    No one knows what damage was done when the current 101 was constructed through Richardson Grove. That’s the point. No one knows. Even Caltrans admits that this project may have damaging effects to the grove, admitted in both in the DEIR and FEIR. That’s not very reassuring…

    Let’s not ignore the glaring Caltrans fuck up called the Avenue of the Giants(aka The Avenue of the Spiketops…).

    This is a prime example of how changes in hydrology made by Caltrans during the Avenue bypass in the sixties have affected ancient redwoods. The damage to these trees is in your face and not getting any better.

    I feel John Muir said it best:
    “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”

    Only we can save them…

    Jeffrey “Muskrat” Musgrave

  • Lawrence LaBranche

    I feel a need to clarify things, that your article, and comment did not clarify, or point out.

    No old growth trees will be cut down. The largest tree to be cut down is 24″ in diameter at breast height. The old growth trees already have had pavement on their roots all the way up to the base of the tree for over fifty years now, with no ill effects, except from the cars, buses, and trucks hitting the trees themselves, causing gouges, injuring or killing the people involved.

    The environmentalists have cherry picked safety stats of no accidents in 6 years, yet ignore the very serious accidents that have happened there in the past. The environmentalists also ignore that the past road building, used bulldozers, with little or no care for the roots, yet the trees are fine through there.

    If the project doesn’t go through it will not prevent any more big boxes from opening up shop, that is a land use policy. It will hamper our local businesses, with high transportation cost due to the cost of trans-loading. If we can’t stay competitive, then more businesses will move out or go broke. Then we will be a further decline on the California economy, vs helping it, making the money part of the project minuscule.

    Currently we have Costco, Safeways, Target, Blockbuster in Humboldt. Up in Crescent City, they have Home Depot. So you can’t prevent what is already here.

  • Once-and-Future Humboldt Resident

    Richardson Grove is an appropriate entrance to a county that the U.S. Census has classified as “frontier” in terms of population density. The big joke is that Caltrans seems to have conjured up some imaginary throngs of people who are about to descend on Humboldt and require greater road capacity. This is also the justification for “improvements” to Highway 101 between Arcata and Eureka, which are similarly unnecessary. It would be lovely if Caltrans would invest some time and money into transit and high speed rail for places that actually have traffic, rather than forcing more concrete on the parts of this state that are still green and rural. I understand that engineers are smart people, but I’d appreciate their brainpower more if it were applied to real problems, not just made-up ones.


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