SAN FRANCISCO— A federal judge today refused to halt imminent environmental destruction by the California Department of Transportation in preparation for construction of the Willits Bypass, a proposed four-lane freeway to be built around the community of Willits in Mendocino County. Caltrans has awarded a construction contract that could result in cutting of mature oak forests and clearing of riparian vegetation along critical salmon streams as early as this month.
“We’re disappointed Caltrans may be able to start cutting trees and destroying streamside habitat in the headwaters of the Eel River right as salmon are beginning to migrate into spawning rivers,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It will be a shame if irreparable harm is done to salmon habitat before we get our day in court, since we have a strong case that environmental review for the project is weak.”
“A $200 million project to bulldoze a six-mile freeway through major wetlands and endangered species habitats while we are facing unprecedented climate disruption is 1950s-style planning — is this the best we can do?” said Gary Hughes with the Environmental Protection Information Center. “We intend to redouble our efforts in this lawsuit to force Caltrans to consider alternatives which will not harm wetlands, salmon streams, endangered plants, and productive farmland and rangeland.”
“We will press forward with our lawsuit against this ill-conceived highway project,” said Ellen Drell with the Willits Environmental Center. “We cannot allow Caltrans and the Army Corps of Engineers to use taxpayer money for such extensive damage to our environment just because one intersection in Willits backs up for a few hours a day.”
The court denied a motion for a preliminary injunction requested by the Center for Biological Diversity, Willits Environmental Center, Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), despite a pending lawsuit challenging the permits and approvals for the controversial project, which will not be heard until December at the earliest. Although the court agreed there is a risk of irreparable environmental harm in allowing the cutting of legacy oaks and riparian vegetation to go forward before the trial, its ruling could allow Caltrans to initiate tree-cutting and degrade salmon-bearing streams.
The court’s ruling is limited, and Caltrans has indicated it will only proceed with “topping” trees and clearing vegetation in the near future. As far as filling wetlands and excavating the roadway, Caltrans claims these activities will not occur until 2013. In the meantime, the court will hear the merits of the entire case.
Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration are pursuing a bypass on Highway 101 around Willits, supposedly to ease traffic congestion. The agencies insist on a four-lane freeway and have refused to consider or analyze equally effective two-lane alternatives or in-town solutions. The project would construct a six-mile, four-lane bypass including several bridges over creeks and roads, a mile-long viaduct spanning the floodplain, and two interchanges. This would hurt wildlife habitat and biological resources in Little Lake Valley, including nearly 100 acres of wetlands, and require the largest wetlands fill permit in Northern California in the past 50 years. It would damage stream and riparian habitat for chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout in three streams converging into Outlet Creek, harm the rare plant Baker’s meadowfoam, and destroy increasingly scarce oak woodlands.
Conservation groups sued Caltrans and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 2012 for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and Clean Water Act. The California Farm Bureau Federation has since intervened on behalf of the plaintiffs due to its concerns about threats to productive agricultural lands. The plaintiffs contend that Caltrans refused to consider two-lane alternatives and failed to prepare a supplemental “environmental impact statement” for substantial design changes and new information about lower traffic volumes and more severe environmental impacts. The Army Corps improperly issued a wetlands fill permit in February 2012.
Although Caltrans documents show that traffic projected to use the bypass is not enough to warrant a four-lane freeway, the agency unilaterally discarded all nonfreeway or two-lane alternatives. New information shows that traffic volumes are below what Caltrans projected when it determined a four-lane freeway was needed.
For Immediate Release, November 1, 2012
Contacts: Gary Hughes, Environmental Protection Information Center, (707) 223-5434
Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185
Ellen Drell, Willits Environmental Center, (707) 459-4110