Round 5 in fight over highway widening through redwood trees

It’s unclear why CDOT persists in efforts to start a highway project that could pose a threat to redwood forests in Humboldt County, California. @bberwyn photo.

Activists stand their ground against destruction of trees

Staff Report

A contentious proposal to widen U.S. Highway 101 through redwood groves in Humboldt County, California is once again facing a court challenge from conservation groups and local residents, who say the state transportation agency failed to adequately review and disclose environmental impacts.

This is the fifth time CDOT has been sued over the project that could needlessly damage or destroy thousand-year-old redwood trees in California’s iconic Richardson Grove State Park. Some of the trees in the park are 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 oversized commercial trucks, and continues to rely on inadequate environmental review.

“This ancient grove is special and I cannot let those trees die,” said plaintiff Bess Bair, whose grandparents owned the adjacent Hartsook Inn and worked to preserve Richardson Grove. “Caltrans can’t show any science that cutting into their roots won’t kill these redwoods. The local community does not want this project.”

“My great grandfather Henry Devoy entrusted 120 acres of old-growth redwoods here in 1922 at the inception of Richardson Grove,” said plaintiff Trisha Lotus, who is intent on maintaining her family’s legacy to protect Richardson Grove State Park. “That’s why we’re fighting Caltrans’ plan to cut into their roots, which could compromise their health and could kill these trees.”

“People made tremendous sacrifices to protect our state parks and we can’t let Caltrans’ ill-conceived project and hasty decision threaten the wonders of Richardson Grove,” said plaintiff Jeff Hedin of Piercy, Calif. “Caltrans owes the public a robust and thorough discussion of our environmental and safety concerns. They haven’t done that.”

The latest lawsuit challenges Caltrans’ violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, due to inadequate evaluation of the environmental impacts of cutting into tree roots, and the Transportation Act, which requires highway projects with federal funding to minimize harm to natural resources in state parks.

Previous legal challenges had blocked construction and forced Caltrans to rescind all project approvals in 2014. The agency quietly reapproved the project in May 2017. Caltrans claims it has made significant changes but still intends to cut into tree roots, a procedure that would threaten the stability and viability of old-growth redwoods. The conservation groups also filed suit challenging the new approval in state court in June.

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. However, 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.

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