Drought & Implications for the Caltrans Willits Freeway Bypass

Dear Governor Brown:

You recently declared a drought emergency in the State of California. The week before, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors and the Willits City Council had both declared a state of emergency in our area. Our county and its residents are experiencing water rationing. Even with severe restrictions, there is uncertainty, if we do not receive substantial amounts of rainfall to fill our reservoirs and recharge our groundwater aquifers, that we can make it through 2014 with water for basic human needs.

Under these circumstances, it would be unconscionable to proceed with extremely water-intensive construction on the Willits Bypass project this year. In 2013, Caltrans reports having used at least 4 million gallons from local wells for dust control and compaction on the project. Activities during the coming 2014 season would far exceed that amount, with continued earth-moving, dust control, compaction and adding cement mixing for construction of bridges and a one-mile long aqueduct.

Those local wells and those millions of gallons of water are essential for the survival of 13,000 people living in the Willits area!

At the same time that the bypass project plans to use large amounts of water, it also plans to pave over nearly 90 acres of wetlands in our small valley. Those wetlands are critically important in recharging our aquifers, not to mention their role in flood control, cleansing water going into salmon-spawning creeks and supporting other wildlife. In your declaration about our water crisis, you also wisely mentioned the importance of protecting and restoring wetlands.

Even if or when the current drought eases, there is a way to substantially reduce the wetlands impact of the Willits Bypass project. Some of the damage has already been done, but at the northern terminus of this 6-mile bypass, only about one-tenth of the fill has been placed so far. An I-5 style interchange is planned, covering 40-acres of wetlands almost 30 feet deep, even though the project is only 2 lanes connecting with an existing 2-lane highway and even though, north of Willits, traffic averages only 8,000 vehicles per day. By scaling back this over-sized interchange, some 30 acres of wetlands could be restored to their original high-functioning natural state, at the sensitive convergence of several streams feeding Outlet Creek into the Eel River. (See graphic below.)

I urge you to:

a)  Delay any further water-using construction activities on this project; and

b)  Before construction resumes, order Caltrans to redesign the northern interchange by scaling back to either a round-about or at-grade intersection (both already designed), thus minimizing further unnecessary filling and instead restoring these wetlands.

By the way, the project appears to already be considerably over budget, with just one example being the wetlands mitigation bids that came in three-times more than Caltrans’ estimate. Scaling back the northern interchange could reduce costs for construction as well as for massive, untested wetlands mitigation measures.

Finally, this common-sense revision in the plans would not only benefit wetlands and save State taxpayers money, it would also substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions during construction. It would be a tangible, major step toward the more sustainable transportation policy you have called for and that we all want.

Sincerely,

Madge Strong

CC:     Congress member Jared Huffman,Alexis Podesta, Director, Governor’s Office of External Affairs Gareth Lacy, Deputy Secretary, Business Transportation & Housing, Senator Noreen Evans, Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, Willits City Council

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Caltrans must evolve with state’s transportation needs

Published 3:15 pm, Sunday, February 2, 2014 by the SF Gate

The California Department of Transportation got a major wake-up call this week from an external review of the department’s policies and procedures.

The report, which was written by the State Smart Transportation Initiative at the University of Wisconsin, described Caltrans as being “significantly out of step with best practice in the transportation field and with the state of California’s policy expectations.”

The report follows Gov. Jerry Brown‘s request in May 2013 for a top-to-bottom review of the agency, which is in charge of the state’s highway systems and the much-maligned Bay Bridge construction.

Not all of the issues identified in the report are the fault of Caltrans. Some of its problems stem from the state’s funding practices, which allow local governments to dictate the shape of what should be a statewide transportation system.

There has also been a lack of statewide thinking about how the role of Caltrans should shift as California moves away from heavy reliance on the automobile. Development patterns are rightly changing away from low-density exurbs that require lots of highways. Younger Californians are already driving less than their parents did. And as California confronts climate change, Caltrans has to be more than just a highway department. It will have to work with many different partners to focus on different systems of transportation.

But a highway department, rather than a transportation department, is exactly what Caltrans is right now, according to the report. The review calls for Caltrans to overhaul its mission and goals to align with the state’s changing demands. “Too many in the department understand the word (mobility) to mean “moving cars faster,” says the report, urging the department to focus more on the state’s interconnectivity and different systems of transportation for freight.

It also calls for Caltrans to redevelop the way that it does business. “Systemic and operational issues have not received enough attention,” the report reads.

That won’t be news to anyone who’s been following the endless Bay Bridge saga. The report didn’t specifically talk about the nightmarish cost overruns, delays, safety concerns and construction problems on the Bay Bridge, but it’s an obvious example of where and why the department needs to make improvements.

Changing things won’t be easy. The department will need to improve its managerial systems for staff and update “its dated, rigid design policies.” It will need to develop “sufficient communication skills and procedures,” a charge that once again brings the Bay Bridge, with its ill-considered exemption from the state’s open meetings law, to mind.

These are enormous, transformative changes, and they would be challenging for any agency or business. But Caltrans has left this work undone for too long. California’s needs and demands are evolving, and the state needs a transportation department that can evolve with it.

To read the full report click here.

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Richardson Grove Update-Some Very Good News-Win in Appeals Court

Greetings … and with some very good news for all who have supported the effort to protect the old growth redwoods of Richardson Grove State Park.  As you may remember, after the years-long struggle to even get CALTRANS to write an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the resulting EIR was so inadequate and pock-marked with errors that it could not be allowed to stand unchallenged.  The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATS), local individuals and dedicated pro-bono attorneys took it upon themselves to challenge the mighty bureaucratic monolith that is CALTRANS in two separate Court actions – one lawsuit in Federal Court for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and one action in State Court for violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA.)

The Federal Court action resulted in the injunction that has halted the project to date.  The State Court action was heard in Humboldt County Superior Court and ruled that CALTRANS had followed the requirements of CEQA, upholding the EIR.  The plaintiffs (the opponents of the project) disagreed and appealed the verdict to the California Court of Appeals.  The appeal was heard in January in San Francisco.  We felt it had gone well.  Yesterday a decision was handed down by the three-judge panel.  The panel ruled unanimously that: “The EIR fails to comply with CEQA insofar as it fails to evaluate the significance of the project’s impacts on the root systems of old growth redwood trees adjacent to the roadway.” 

The Appeals Court reversed the judgement of the Trial Court and decertified the EIR pending modification by CALTRANS of those portions of the EIR discussing impacts on old growth redwood trees and proposed mitigation measures in compliance with CEQA.

What does this all actually mean?  Is the fight over?  Can we relax?  Unfortunately no. With all the resources of the State behind it and with all of your taxpayer dollars paying the way, this outfit will not mend its ways.  Like the terminator, we expect that “they will be back” with another attempt to push this project through so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, as a result of Governor Brown’s call to reorganize the State government, a new State Super Agency has been created called CalSTA which takes all the scattered State agencies dealing with transportation under its umbrella. In conjunction with this effort, a study of CALTRANS was undertaken by a think-tank in Wisconsin called the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI) to provide an assessment of the performance of CALTRANS and recommendations for improvement.  The study was just published yesterday, 01-30-2014 and can be found at:

It should make for interesting reading!

Finally, thanks to all who have supported the effort to protect the ancient old growth redwoods of Richardson Grove State Park.  The battle is not over and your continued support is VITAL.  Financial support is needed to continue these efforts.  Please consider sending whatever funds you can spare to EPIC (a tax-deductible contribution.)  You can reach their website at:

In addition, if you are able, please also consider a contribution (tax-deductible) to the Center for Biological Diversity at:

Feel free to send any comments or questions to me at bkenn202@att.net.  Regards, Barbara Kennedy

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Victory for Richardson Grove

A Victory for Richardson Grove – Appeals Court Rules Caltrans Failed to Consider Highway Project’s Impacts on Old-Growth Redwoods

The California Court of Appeal today ordered Caltrans to reevaluate the environmental impacts of a controversial highway-widening project in Humboldt County that would harm irreplaceable old-growth redwood trees in Richardson Grove State Park. The appeals court unanimously found that Caltrans failed to follow the law in assessing impacts to ancient redwoods and providing mitigation measures to reduce potentially severe harm to the trees. Caltrans’ project—intended to allow bigger trucks to travel Highway 101 through the park—would require excavation, fill, and paving within the fragile root zones of Richardson Grove’s ancient trees.

“This is a victory for Richardson Grove’s ancient trees and for the generations of travelers, hikers and campers who have enjoyed their magnificence,” said Center for Biological Diversity attorney Kevin Bundy. “Caltrans owes the public a full and honest account of how its highway-widening plans could damage this irreplaceable state park.”

“The significance of this ruling cannot be overstated,” said Gary Graham Hughes, executive director at the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). “Our ancient redwoods are invaluable, and we hope Caltrans gets the message that their survival cannot be put at risk by a careless highway development proposal.”

“This illustrates how important the California Environmental Quality Act is for ensuring that major projects are subject to a thorough environmental review,” said Patty Clary of CATs. “The court has made an important decision that respects our responsibility to protect Richardson Grove as a natural treasure for future generations.”

EPIC, Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics and local residents Trisha Lotus, Jeffrey Hedin, Loreen Eliason and Bruce Edwards challenged an Environmental Impact Report approved for the project by Caltrans in 2010. The Humboldt County Superior Court ruled in 2012 that Caltrans’ report complied with the California Environmental Quality Act. Today’s ruling overturns that decision.

A separate lawsuit filed in federal court resulted in a 2012 ruling that Caltrans must redo critical aspects of its environmental analysis under federal law. The court cited numerous errors in mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods, and found that Caltrans had been “arbitrary and capricious” in their use of “faulty data.”

Background

Richardson Grove State Park is home to one of the last protected stands of accessible old-growth redwoods in the world, where drivers first encounter significant ancient redwoods when heading north on Highway 101. The park also contains essential habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl, and its creeks still support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead trout.

Caltrans first proposed the Richardson Grove highway-widening project in 2007. Opposition to the project has continued to grow, led by the Save Richardson Grove Coalition, a diverse group of community members including economists, business owners, scientists, and a consortium of 10 federally recognized Northern California tribes with longstanding ties to the grove.

The proposed Richardson Grove highway widening is one of several Caltrans projects that threaten sensitive environments on the North Coast of California. Caltrans is currently mired in controversy regarding the unnecessary and destructive Willits Bypass project, which has been fraught with permitting irregularities and is the largest wetlands fill project to be pursued in Northern California in 50 years.

Caltrans claims the Richardson Grove highway widening is needed to accommodate large-truck travel, yet Caltrans’ own statements and signage indicate that this portion of road is already designated for larger trucks and that Caltrans has exaggerated potential safety problems. Caltrans has not established that this project is necessary for safety or movement of goods and the economy. Smaller-sized commercial trucks already travel through the grove to deliver goods to Humboldt County and legislative exemptions have functioned to allow the passage of 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 travels the highway in both directions on a daily basis for his work. Loreen Eliason co-owned the popular Riverwood Inn in Phillipsville until her passing late last year.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs are Philip Gregory and Pete McCloskey of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, Stuart Gross of Gross Law, Kevin Bundy of the Center for Biological Diversity, and Sharon Duggan, a long-time expert on environmental law.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 675,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) works to protect human and natural communities on the North Coast of California. EPIC uses an integrated science-based approach, combining public education, citizen advocacy, and strategic litigation.

Court of Appeal Decision for Richardson Grove

Press Release

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Caltrans Water-Wasting Highway Project Brings a Crowd to the Water Board

Jan. 30, 2014
For immediate release
Contact: Karen Pickett (925) 376-7329

Caltrans Water-Wasting Highway Project Brings a Crowd to the Water Board

 
Santa Rosa, CA—Citizens concerned about California’s unprecedented drought have zeroed in on Caltrans’ Willits Bypass highway project in Mendocino County, which is slated to fill in more wetlands than any such project since WWII. Opponents of the bypass project will converge on the January 30 meeting of the North Coast Water Quality Control Board (NCWQCB), taking place in Santa Rosa (5550 Skylane Blvd.) on that day.  At issue is a water supply crisis faced by the town of Willits and the massive water use by Caltrans for their nearby highway project, which broke ground in February of 2013.
Demands brought to the Water Board include that they direct NCWQCB staff  to issue a Cease and Desist order to Caltrans, due to the significant damage to the watershed where construction is occurring. Water Board staff has already expressed concern that the mitigation plan which is supposed to make up for the unprecedented loss of wetlands in the Willits Valley is unfunded, unstaffed and not in place as required by law.
In a Jan. 15, 2014 letter to District One Caltrans Director Charlie Fielder, NCWQCB executive officer Matthias St. John expressed that he is “very concerned” that a Mitigation and Monitoring Plan (MMP) that satisfies the Water agency’s requirements is not yet in place, and moreover, that the “majority of Project impacts have already occurred”…without “an MMP to inform the scope, nature and timing of the compensatory wetland mitigation.”  Since mitigation plan deadlines were already missed in 2013, the NCWQCB letter advises Caltrans that avoidance of “formal enforcement of past deadlines,” Caltrans must complete mitigation requirements prior to resumption of dumping of fill onto the wetlands. This letter can be sent upon request.
 During this first year of construction, there have been numerous permit violations, Migratory Bird Act violations, County code violations, and violations of deadlines set by the Army Corps of Engineers. A significant archeological and cultural site has been bulldozed and buried with fill dirt, which may contain toxic contaminants.
“The damage already done to our wetlands and groundwater is devastating”, said Willits resident Rosamond Crowder. “Caltrans has already used approximately eight million gallons of water, half of that pulled from local wells in an area where the water table is already severely compromised. Their mitigation plan is in shambles. Add this to the drought and we have a crisis facing our waters, our fish and ourselves.  It’s time to stop and take a step back.”
Gov. Jerry Brown in his “State of the State” address on Jan. 22, called for “serious groundwater management”, citing the need for “wetlands and watershed restoration,” due to the drought disaster that California is facing. Bypass opponents are calling on Brown’s office to back a plan that would scale back the northern (wetlands) end of the bypass project, which currently call for an immense I-5 style interchange on a two-lane road in a region with declining population and negligible long-distance traffic.
North Coast residents in favor of downsizing or halting the Bypass project point out that critical wetlands are being drained and buried for this highway project that most local residents regard as an unnecessary multi-million dollar boondoggle. At the very least, they say, the compromise plan offered by City Councilwoman Madge Strong—putting in place an already approved but smaller northern interchange–would save at least half the wetland area now being drained and millions of taxpayer dollars.
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Will Parrish Announces Decision in Key Willits Bypass Case

Will Parrish Announces Decision in Key Willits Bypass Case

Willits, CA-At a press conference to be held at noon at the Ukiah County Courthouse (100 N. State St.) today, environmental activist, teacher and journalist Will Parrish will announce the outcome of negotiations with District Attorney David Eyster, which will determine whether Parrish’s trial on 17 misdemeanors for protesting the Willits Bypass will go forward as scheduled on Jan. 28. Speaking at the press conference will be Will Parrish, attorney Omar Figueroa and SOLLV member Rosamond Crowder.

An addendum to this press release will be emailed out at noon today with the decision as it is announced.

Parrish is among the most visible of the dozens of activists arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience during the year-long protests against Caltrans Willits Bypass. He most famously occupied and shut down a wick drain “stitcher” tower for eleven days in June and July of 2013. During that time, Caltrans was prevented from driving thousands of drain tubes deep into the Little Lake Valley wetlands.

Parrish was originally charged with three simple infractions, an unspecified amount of restitution and no right to trial. After Parrish asserted his right to trial, Mendocino County DA David Eyster increased the charges to 17 misdemeanors and demanded $490,000 dollars in restitution. The issue of restitution has been a major sticking point in resolving the case. Many observers believe the restitution fees claimed by Caltrans were massively inflated and designed to have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights in general.

“The cost of dealing with the protestors has been grossly exaggerated by Caltrans. These costs are dwarfed by Caltrans’ mega-million dollar project which should be downsized”, said attorney Omar Figueroa, who represented Parrish pro bono. 

Local community leaders and business owners say that costs could be greatly reduced or avoided entirely if Caltrans would take the reasonable course of building a roundabout on the north end of the proposed Bypass, saving tax dollars and wetlands. Plans for a roundabout and ground level two-lane freeway on the north end of Willits already exist and were once approved by Caltrans. This modification would save millions of dollars and protect about two thirds of the wetlands, an option Caltrans has so far refused to consider.

The final cost of the six mile, $210 million dollar project, including bond interest and overruns, is likely to exceed $500 million in an area with a falling population and decreasing traffic. Opponents charge Caltrans with falsely inflating traffic data to justify the need for a four-lane freeway and misrepresenting a federal funding mandate to do so.

The project will use untold amounts of ground water during six years of construction and is predicted to add more carbon to the atmosphere from cement and vehicle emissions than it could save in over 80 years of use. While the bypass will not use water from the reservoir that supplies the City of Willits, it will use treated wastewater for dust control and compaction. Local farmers say Caltrans’ wells are already depleting local ground water.

The Willits City Council has declared a Mandatory Level V water emergency. Additional supplies from wells are being sought to supplement the town’s fast dwindling reserves. Governor Brown has declared a statewide drought.

 “We can’t conserve water and reduce carbon while simultaneously building more humongous freeways with great carbon inputs and enormous water demands that perpetuate burning more fossil fuel. This is madness.” said Parrish.

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Addendum to Press Release sent out this morning Jan 23, 2014 re. Will Parrish trial in Caltrans Willits Bypass case:

More info: Naomi Wagner  707-459-0548, 832-2310 cell
11:30 am, Jan. 23, 2014
After a hearing in Mendocino County Court this morning before Judge Benke, a settlement was reached that cancelled the upcoming trial, scheduled for Jan. 28.
The particulars of the settlement are:
*15 of the 17 misdemeanors were dropped, retaining two charges of trespass, which drop to infractions after the probation period of 24 months.
*100 hours of community service
*Entry of judgement is deferred for the 24 month probation duration–i.e., sentencing remains open during that time.
*aforementioned 2 years probation
*In addition, a previous violation of a stay-away order was dropped, and the stay-away order was modified so that Parrish can participate in lawful public gatherings at or near the Bypass site.
A restitution hearing will take place April 25, unless a stipulation is reached before then.
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Richardson Grove Update-State Court Of Appeals Oral Argument

New Year’s Greetings to all and let’s hope for some rain soon in 2014!
Sad to say, we suffered a loss in late 2013 of one of our strongest supporters, Loreen Eliason, co-owner of the Riverwood Inn in Phillipsville on the Avenue of the Giants.  Loreen came forward and volunteered to be a plaintiff in our Federal and State Court cases and was one of a number of our business supporters brave enough to stand up for Richardson Grove.  More than that, however, Loreen was a big hearted, community minded individual who never hesitated to speak out for her beliefs.  She was a true Humboldt County original and will be sorely missed.
You may remember that two lawsuits were filed to stop the CALTRANS Richardson Grove project – one suit in Federal Court and one suit in California State Court.  The Federal suit resulted in an injunction that has stopped the project to date.  The State suit suffered a defeat at the lower Court level but has been appealed and oral argument at the State Court of Appeals is set for January 15 in San Francisco at 9:00AM at 350 McAllister Street, Fourth Floor.  Your attendance is encouraged if you are able to attend.  However, Court dates can change at the last minute so if you plan to travel from a distance watch your email for any updates.
2013 also dealt a blow to the opponents of the Willits ByPass in the form of a defeat in Federal Court of their suit against CALTRANS. 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 in approving the ByPass project.  CALTRANS refused to consider two-lane alternatives and new information about lower traffic volumes, and failed to conduct adequate environmental review for substantial design changes resulting in more severe environmental impacts. Local residents have protested the destruction, occupied the construction site, chained themselves to equipment and sat in trees to stop the project.

To add insult to injury CALTRANS is colluding with the Mendocino District Attorney in a heavy-handed attack on Will Parrish.  Will had occupied one of the wick drain “stitchers” in an act of peaceful civil disobedience.  CALTRANS says that Will Parrish owes them about half a million dollars ($481,588 to be exact) to cover the “direct and indirect costs” of the delays in the construction of the Willits Hwy 101 freeway ByPass.   These costs were incurred, according to CALTRANS, during Will Parrish’s 11 day occupation of the contractor’s wick drain machine in his attempt to stop the largest wetlands fill operation in northern California in half a century.  CALTRANS seeks to bill Mr. Parrish for this half million dollars.  They have informed the District Attorney’s office that they wish to include these claims for “restitution” in connection with Mr. Parrish’s prosecution for unlawful entry onto the CALTRANS project site in the case of  People v. Parrish.  Mr. Parrish’s case is currently scheduled to be heard in Mendocino Superior Court on January 27, 2014 at 8:30 am.  Please attend this important event if you are in the Ukiah area.

This heavy-handed approach, coupled with the use previously of the armed California Highway Patrol just goes to show how out of control this agency has become.  It is high time that this rogue agency is made accountable to the citizens whose tax dollars fund it.  We must remain committed to pursuing this objective at all costs. This is why it is so important to support the non-profits that are defending our environment against this monstrous agency.  Please send a donation to EPIC if you are able.  You can reach them at <http://wildclaifornia.org> . Thank you and feel free to email me at bkenn202@att.net with any concerns.  Best regards, Barbara Kennedy
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Info On Will Parrish Trial (Jan. 27th), Legal Status, & Crime-Fighting Activities

Dear friends,

I’ve put you on an e-mail list to receive irregular updates about what’s happening with my case whereby the Mendocino County DA is prosecuting me for 17 misdemeanors (max jail sentence: about eight years) and seeking nearly a half million dollars in “criminal restitution” for some non-violent crime-fighting I carried out in Little Lake Valley — Willits, CA — over the summer.

My case represents a broader effort by the California Department of Transportation and our local DA to criminalize eco-defense direct action.  Caltrans is pressing ahead with numerous environmental crimes across the state, and they have exerted pressure on the DA to pursue a prosecution strategy that would put a chilling effect on efforts to stand up against these things (including in Willits).

I wanted to let you know that my trial is currently scheduled to begin on Jan. 27th. The trial is expected to last four days, the first day of which will probably be jury selection. It is open to the public.

Also, folks are organizing a big political rally to support me and the things I stand for to take place on the Ukiah courthouse steps, probably on January 28th. Please consider attending all or some of these things. Packing the courthouse does make a big difference. I’ll let you know more details as this approaches. (Of course, the trial could always be postponed yet again. It’s been postponed several times already.)

Much more info on my case is at http://www.savelittlelakevalley.org/free-will/

Also, there’s been some really good coverage of the case in the AVA, such as this article – http://theava.com/archives/24526. 

There was a pretty good article in the North Bay Bohemian (which mischaracterized my background as an activist and my motivations for requesting a jury trial, but does have a lot of good reporting and is very sympathetic) -  http://www.bohemian.com/northbay/bypass-mayhem/Content?oid=2480892. 

Sara Grusky of Green Uprising Farm in Willits wrote a really good piece called “The Value of Stopping Wetlands Destruction” – http://www.savelittlelakevalley.org/2013/12/30/the-value-of-stopping-wetlands-destruction/.

And be on the look-out for a copy of The New Settler interview, which has put out a great Bypass resistance themed issue.

In solidarity,
Will

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Federal Court Allows Destructive Willits Bypass Project to Move Forward

SAN FRANCISCO— A federal judge ruled today that the California Department of Transportation’s environmental review and permits for the Willits Bypass were adequate and the agency can continue construction of a four-lane freeway around the community of Willits in Mendocino County. The disappointing ruling comes despite the fact that construction has destroyed and damaged sensitive wetlands, the headwaters of salmon-bearing streams, oak woodlands and endangered species habitats.

Earlier this year Caltrans began cutting mature oak forests and clearing riparian vegetation along critical salmon streams in Little Lake Valley, and began extensive draining and filling of wetlands, despite violations and improper issuance of federal and county quarry and fill permits.

“It’s disappointing that the court accepted Caltrans’ inadequate review and flawed rationale for the purpose and need of this project,” said Aruna Prabhala, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We disagree with the determination that the environmental impacts of the Willits Bypass project are not significant – Little Lake Valley is being devastated by the construction. Unfortunately this is just one of the irrational and expensive highway projects Caltrans is pushing throughout the state that will cause extensive environmental damage without solving traffic or safety concerns.”

“This is a painful lesson in how Caltrans operates with impunity to justify building unnecessary and oversized projects,” said Ellen Drell of the Willits Environmental Center. “Caltrans made false claims to permitting agencies and the courts saying that only a four-lane freeway bypass, with two enormous interchanges, would solve the traffic congestion in Willits, when smaller alternatives would have done the job.”

“The irregularities of the review and permitting process for this massive project have undermined the legitimacy of the Willits Bypass project,” said Gary Graham Hughes of EPIC. “It is a disappointment that the court did not hold Caltrans accountable for playing fast and loose with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act, two of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws.”

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 in approving the bypass project. Caltrans refused to consider two-lane alternatives and new information about lower traffic volumes, and failed to conduct adequate environmental review for substantial design changes resulting in more severe environmental impacts. Local residents have protested the destruction, occupied the construction site, chained themselves to equipment and sat in trees to stop the project.

Background

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 will construct a six-mile, four-lane bypass including several bridges over creeks and roads, a mile-long viaduct spanning the floodplain, and two interchanges.

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 non-freeway or two-lane alternatives. New information shows that Highway 101 traffic volumes through Willits are below what Caltrans projected when it determined a four-lane freeway was needed. Caltrans has used unrealistic traffic and growth projections in several projects around the state to justify large highway widening projects.

Bypass construction will harm wildlife habitat and biological resources in Little Lake Valley, including more than 80 acres of wetlands and more than 400 acres of farmland, and requires the largest wetlands fill permit in Northern California in the past 50 years. It will 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.

A statewide coalition of conservation organizations is challenging irresponsible and damaging highway-widening projects around the state by Caltrans, and calling attention to the agency’s pervasive refusal to consider reasonable alternatives to massive highway projects, shoddy environmental review, lack of transparency, reliance on flawed data and disregard for public input. The Caltrans Watch coalition aims to put the brakes on Caltrans’ wasteful spending, institutionalized disregard of environmental regulations designed to protect natural resources, and pattern of refusal to address local concerns. The EPIC Rein in Caltrans campaign is focused specifically on challenging unnecessary and destructive Caltrans projects on the North Coast.

Click here to view EPIC press release.

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Richardson Grove Update-Over 9,000 Took Action-Thank You!

We did it. In only eleven days more than 9,000 people from California, out of the state and even out of the country, spoke up in defense of ancient redwoods of Richardson Grove State Park.
This response from the community has been exhilarating. I am reminded of the worldwide significance of the temperate redwood rainforest and its phenonmenal power to inspire action. So many people are speaking up and sharing their stories and connections to Richardson Grove and I see how valued this place is to people from all over the world.
Together we are stopping this project. Your recent online action to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) sent a message loud and clear that Richardson Grove State Park is important, worth fighting for and reminds Caltrans that they will face massive community opposition if they think they can begin construction in our sacred grove next year.
Please continue to pay attention to this project. There will be more instances when EPIC and our allies need your help and your voice. Our legal team is working hard in both the California State and Federal Courts to prevent this project from moving forward. And we are working with a statewide coalition of organizations that are calling into question transportation planning and infrastructure needs. In order to make decision makers in Sacramento listen, it will take all of us raising our voices again and again. Please stay with us as we continue this work into the future..
If you are able to make a financial contribution to the Richardson Grove campaign, you can do so here. To those of you who already contributed–thank you! And to those of you who are not in a place financially to make a donation–then please help spread the word, tell your friends and family about why Richardson Grove is important to you. Let us keep this story going and our recent victory in heart and mind.
For the Redwoods!
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