Save Richardson Grove: Think Globally, Act Locally

If everyone cared for their own wild back yard, the world would be a better place. Northwest California is known for having some of the wildest lands, including the Lost Coast and the tallest trees on the planet, which have been preserved behind the redwood curtain since time immemorial. With less than three percent of the planet’s old growth redwood trees remaining, it is imperative that every ancient tree is protected, especially if they are entrusted into a park system, which has vowed to protect them in perpetuity.

Since 2007, EPIC has been working to protect some of the most well-known giant redwoods in the world from the California Department of Transportation’s destructive highway-widening project. A grass roots coalition of community members, business owners, economists, conservation and Native American groups have opposed the Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project, which proposed tree removal and destruction of the root systems of ancient redwood trees in Richardson Grove State Park – trees that are supposed to be protected by the state park system.

Richardson Grove is the first cluster of old-growth redwoods people see as they head up the coast on Highway 101, it is essentially the “redwood curtain” that has allowed Humboldt County to retain its rural character. The redwoods in Richardson Grove also serve as critical habitat for Marbled Murrelets, Northern Spotted Owls and streams going through the Grove are critical habitat for endangered Coho Salmon. Maintaining the integrity of these trees is incredibly important not only to the ecosystem, but to the community, since these trees are the pinch point that do not allow for larger trucks serving corporate chains that are characteristic of sprawling urban areas, and which many people feel would change the essential character of Humboldt County.

For eight years EPIC and allies have organized community support, provided comments, and filed substantive lawsuits that convinced a federal judge to grant an injunction halting the Richardson Grove project citing that the agency had been “arbitrary and capricious” in its use of what the court called “faulty data.” This past December Caltrans revoked its approval of the project. If the agency decides to pursue the project, a complete and comprehensive environmental review and approval process will have to start over. This is a victory, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and rest assured that the trees in Richardson Grove State Park will not be harmed for now.

An important lesson has been learned because of this case, that Caltrans consistently breaks the rules, violating environmental laws and risking important public trust resources. For this reason, EPIC will continue to engage with Caltrans and hold them accountable to the environmental standards that have been put in place to protect our natural treasures.

A related proposal that should be watched closely is Caltrans’ “Last Chance Grade” project, located along Highway 101 ten miles south of Crescent City where the roadbed is sliding into the Pacific Ocean. Caltrans is in the beginning planning phases of this project and is looking at potential alternative routes to the east, away from the sliding cliffs, which includes multiple alternatives that would go through the middle of Redwood State and National Parks. EPIC is committed to finding the least environmentally destructive project alternative that meets the needs of the community, while holding Caltrans accountable to environmental laws.

The loss of large tracts of intact wild lands may be the single biggest threat to our way of life. Climate disruption will only compound the threats that future generations face. In order to secure a sustainable future, it is clear that protecting and restoring Northwest California’s forest ecosystems will provide necessary habitat, clean air and water, carbon sequestration, and improve quality of life for people and native wildlife for generations to come.

In order to hone EPIC’s effectiveness in protecting wild forestlands within our bioregion, we have restructured the organization, added two new attorneys to our staff, and developed a new strategic plan to focus on three primary campaigns:

•Achieving permanent connectivity of working and wild forestlands, a campaign called “Connecting Wild Places;”

•Ensuring best management of public forestlands; and

•Ensuring best management of private industrial forests with an emphasis on the Elk, Mattole and Freshwater watersheds.

With your help, we can protect wild places and ensure that public and private lands are managed responsibly to maintain healthy intact ecosystems. We have our work cut out for us, but we are dedicated and determined to leave our children with a legacy we can all be proud of.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Plans Halted for Widening Highway Through Ancient Redwoods in California’s Richardson Grove State Park

After years of opposition, Caltrans has rescinded its approvals for a controversial highway-widening project that would endanger ancient redwood trees in Richardson Grove State Park, along Highway 101 in Humboldt County. Conservation groups and local residents this week dismissed a lawsuit they filed in federal court in July in exchange for Caltrans abandoning the project approvals and agreeing to restart the environmental review if the agency pursues the project. Caltrans has been prohibited from any project construction activities by both a 2012 federal court injunction and a recent state court order.

“This is an important victory stopping a nonsensical project that would have done terrible damage to an ancient grove of giant redwoods in our state park,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ll be ready to go back to court if Caltrans decides to pursue the project, and it’ll have to completely start over on environmental review and the approval process.”

Conservation groups and local residents have now won three consecutive lawsuits challenging the “Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project,” a proposal that would cut into and pave over the roots of many of Richardson Grove’s ancient redwoods, including some that are 2,000 years old, are 18 feet in diameter and reach heights of 300 feet. Caltrans has pursued this project solely to benefit passage for oversized commercial trucks.

“It’s time to investigate the huge amount of taxpayer money Caltrans has wasted pursuing this ill-conceived project,” said Natalynne DeLapp with the Environmental Protection Information Center. “Caltrans should have to answer why the agency continues to pour money down the drain pursuing a project that cannot be legally approved. Regulatory agencies and the public will not allow Richardson Grove’s ancient trees to be damaged.”

The latest lawsuit was filed by the Environmental Protection Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Bruce Edwards, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen. The lawsuit challenged Caltrans’ violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

Background

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 also contains 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 highway-widening project in 2007. Opposition to the project has grown substantially, led by the Save Richardson Grove Coalition, a diverse group of community members including economists, business owners, scientists and Northern California tribes with longstanding ties to the grove.

Caltrans claimed the highway-widening project was needed to accommodate large-truck travel, but acknowledged that the portion of road in question was already designated for larger trucks and did not have significant safety problems. The agency did not establish that the project was necessary for safety or would benefit the local economy. Smaller-sized commercial trucks have travelled through the grove for years to deliver goods to Humboldt County, and legislative exemptions have functioned to allow the passage of oversize trucks.

The plaintiffs first sued in 2010 when Caltrans certified inadequate environmental review documents and adopted a “finding of no significant impact.” In 2012 a federal court stopped the project, citing numerous errors in Caltrans’ mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods and stating that the agency had been “arbitrary and capricious” in its use of what the court called ‘faulty data.” The California Court of Appeal in January 2014 ordered Caltrans to reevaluate the environmental impacts of the project under state law, finding that it had failed to fully assess impacts on ancient redwoods or provide measures to reduce potentially severe harm to the trees.

The latest lawsuit was filed earlier this year when Caltrans approved a “supplement” to its federal environmental review and renewed the project approval, while refusing to consider public concerns about the issues raised in the previous lawsuit. Caltrans failed to fix the numerous errors in mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods that were cited by the federal judge in his order.

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

EPIC Richardson Grove Press Release 12.5.14

Posted in Richardson Grove | Comments Off

Updated: Richardson Grove lawsuit dismissed

Times Standard: 12/5/14

UPDATE: Caltrans has issued the following statement in regards to the recent Richardson Grove lawsuit dismissal:

Caltrans has voluntarily withdrawn its Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), part of its federal National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) documentation pertaining to the Richardson Grove Improvement Project. Based on this, the State of California filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), as it would be an unnecessary expenditure of judicial, attorney, and public resources for plaintiffs to pursue the federal litigation when further environmental review due to the state court writ may affect the federal environmental document and/or determinations.

Caltrans made its decision to withdraw its FONSI on November 17, following the October 21 entry of the state court writ. Plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the action after Caltrans informed them of this decision and after being served with Caltrans’ motion to dismiss.

Caltrans is conducting further environmental review to comply with the State court order. If that review affects existing or previous environmental determinations, they will be addressed accordingly.

Caltrans conducted a thorough and comprehensive environmental analysis of the project, which the State Appellate Court upheld except as to certain aspects of the redwood tree root impact analysis.  Caltrans is taking appropriate actions to comply with the Appellate Court decision and resulting Superior Court Writ.

The Richardson Grove Improvement Project was designed to be environmentally protective, with emphasis on the protection of old growth redwood trees and their root systems. Caltrans thoroughly and systematically examined the potential effects of the project on individual old growth redwood trees in the project area. No old growth redwood trees will be removed for the project.

PREVIOUSLY:

In the latest federal lawsuit against Caltrans’ Highway 101 widening project through Richardson Grove State Park, the state agency agreed to rescind its approval of its federal environmental reviews of the project in exchange for the lawsuit to be dismissed, according to a release issued today by one of the plaintiffs, the Environmental Protection Information Center.

“I don’t want to say that its over and done completely, but it’s definitely good news,” EPIC Executive Director Natalynne DeLapp said.

Several questions regarding the decision have been submitted to Caltrans’ District 1 Public Information Office, which stated it would respond today when more information becomes available to them.

COURT HISTORY

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco in July by eight plaintiffs — the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Bruce Edwards, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen — is the second federal lawsuit filed against the project. The project, named the Richardson Grove Improvement project, seeks to increase the width of 1.1 miles of Highway 101 that winds through the redwood park in order to allow passage of industry standard-sized trucks that conform to the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), according to the Caltrans website. These STAA trucks are currently prohibited north of Leggett.

The first federal lawsuit was filed against the project in 2010 after Caltrans’ federal environmental review found no significant environmental impacts. The lawsuit ended with U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup issuing an injunction that halted future construction in April 2012, and ordered Caltrans to revise its environmental assessment to address inaccuracies in its data and revise its analysis of potential redwood root zone damage.

A second lawsuit filed at the state level ended with Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholtsen ruling in 2012 that Caltrans did not violate the California Environmental Quality Act when it found no significant environmental impacts in its project review. The plaintiffs — four individuals, the EPIC, the Center for Biological Diversity and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics — appealed the ruling with the state appellate court, which ruled in January that Caltrans did not provide enough information on potential impacts on old growth redwood trees in the grove and did not provide mitigation measures to reduce those impacts. The court ruled Caltrans had to reevaluate its submitted environmental impact report, but DeLapp said that has not occurred yet. A request for Caltrans’ response to this aspect of the lawsuit was not immediately returned.

Caltrans responded to the 2012 federal court order by submitting a supplemental to its environmental assessment, stating that it had reassessed potential impacts to old growth redwoods lining the roadway, updated the number and species of trees that will be removed, updated its tree mapping and made minor changes to the design of existing and proposed barrier rails.

“No old growth redwoods would be removed for the project, and the department has evaluated the potential for project impacts to their roots,” the supplement states.

Caltrans’ notice of approval for its environmental assessment was published in February.

The third lawsuit was filed by the eight plaintiffs and stated the supplement and federal environmental assessment violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by not adequately addressing impacts to old growth redwoods, nearby rivers and waterways, and endangered species known to travel through the park.

DeLapp said Caltrans fell short of addressing the issue by not conducting a more in-depth environmental review.

“If they wanted to really push this project forward, they should have done an environmental impact statement and a very thorough environmental analysis,” she said. “Barring they do that, I don’t think they would be able to get approval for the project.”

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

Posted in Richardson Grove | Comments Off

Highway 101 improvements should bypass unique redwood grove

Sacramento Bee: 9/1/14

By Dan Walters

Over the last six decades – mile by expensive mile – California’s transportation department has upgraded Highway 101 on the scenic North Coast from a narrow, twisting, two-lane road into a modern four-lane expressway.

Well, not quite. There are still a couple of bottlenecks in Highway 101’s 265 miles of pavement between San Francisco and Eureka – not to mention a big one in Eureka itself, where logging trucks still rumble through its business district.

One choke point is in Willits, halfway between San Francisco and Eureka, and another is farther north in Richardson Grove State Park, home to one of the state’s most magnificent stands of old-growth redwood trees.

Willits’ residents have tolerated the often dense, noisy and noxious auto, truck and recreational vehicle traffic on its main drag for decades while the state Department of Transportation studied alternatives for a 6-mile-long bypass.

It finally settled on a route, only to face years of litigation from environmental groups, which raised specious arguments against the project – favoring, one supposes, continuing to choke Willits streets over some minor, even theoretical, damage to small patches of wetlands.

Finally, after much reworking of the project, it cleared all of the environmental and legal hurdles and construction is now underway.

The environmental objections to the Willits bypass never made much sense. But the groups that opposed it are on much firmer ground in opposing Caltrans’ plans for Richardson Grove’s bottleneck.

The coalition has filed its third lawsuit against Caltrans’ project to widen the narrow, 1915-vintage stretch of Highway 101 that snakes through the immense trees, and make it suitable for large trucks meeting a new federal standard.

Caltrans says its 1.1-mile project would carefully avoid damage to old-growth trees, but environmental groups say it could undermine their shallow roots.

The Richardson Grove bottleneck needs to go, but widening the existing road is a poor solution at best because traffic would still disrupt what should be quietude in such a unique corner of California.

A better solution would be to bypass the park altogether, or at least the portion containing old-growth trees.

Caltrans had planned for decades to do exactly that, shifting the highway across the Eel River to the east, and leaving the old road as a quiet driveway for visitors.

In 2000, after 45 years of inaction on that plan, it was re-evaluated, and highway officials ultimately decided that the path of least resistance would be to widen the existing highway to make it safe for the federally approved freightliners.

Moving the highway eastward is still the better plan, albeit costlier than a widening that, if anything, would allow even more noisy and dangerous traffic in the redwood grove.

Posted in Richardson Grove | Comments Off

Third lawsuit filed against Richardson Grove highway widening project

Willits News: 7/30/14

A third lawsuit has been filed against Caltrans’ highway-widening project through Richardson Grove State Park, which claims that the state agency failed to properly analyze and address the environmental impacts of its plan as it was instructed to in a 2012 federal court decision.

The complaint was filed Monday evening at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco by the same seven plaintiffs who had previously filed a federal and state lawsuit against Caltrans after the agency approved the project and adopted a federal environmental assessment that found widening had no significant impacts on old growth redwoods. The project seeks to increase the road width of about 1 mile of U.S. Highway 101 that passes through Richardson Grove in order to allow the currently restricted Surface Transportation Assistance Act-sized trucks to use the highway north of Leggett.

“STAA trucks have been restricted from this section of U.S. Route 101 because the tight radius curves between the large redwood trees make it difficult for the longer trucks to stay within the travel lane without using part of the opposing lane of traffic (‘off-tracking’) or traveling off the roadway and using unpaved shoulders,” a Caltrans project document states.

After U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup issued an injunction that halted future construction in April 2012, he ordered that the stage agency revise its environmental assessment to address inaccuracies in its data and revise its analysis of potential redwood root zone damage.

Natalynne DeLapp, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center and one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said a proper environmental assessment never occurred.

“The judge told them you need to go back and do an accurate analysis. The judge found there was a lack of analysis and mismeasurements made,” she said. “They’ve gone back, they’ve done this little bit of work, but they’re not using that to do a new analysis. They’ve looked and saw there are more trees that may be affected, but still find that there are no significant impacts.”

Caltrans’ District One Public Information Officer Phil Frisbie Jr. said the agency had not received a copy of the complaint yet.

“Caltrans was just made aware of this third lawsuit this morning when we saw the press release like everyone else,” he said Tuesday. “At this point, we have not seen the official court documents.”

REASSESSMENT

In late January, Caltrans released a supplement to its environmental assessment, stating that it had reassessed potential impacts to old growth redwoods, updated the number and species of trees that will be removed, updated its tree mapping and made minor changes to the design of existing and proposed barrier rails.

“No old growth redwoods would be removed for the project, and the Department has evaluated the potential for project impacts to their roots,” the supplement states.

Caltrans published its notice of approval in February, according to the complaint.

Peter Galvin, director of programs for the Center for Biological Diversity and another plaintiff in the dispute, said Caltrans has shown that it’s more interested in completing the project than addressing environmental damages by filing an environmental assessment rather than a more in-depth environmental impact statement.

“They’ve never taken a hard look at this project,” Galvin said. “They’ve determined from day one to do their highway expansion project at great impact on root zones of the redwoods. Caltrans has been basically trying to constrain the analysis and make it seem as if this is a small project impacting a grove of redwoods, when in fact it’s a project that would have severe impacts on the root zone.”

The seven plaintiffs in the case, four individuals and three environmental organizations — EPIC, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics — said they filed the suit to protect old growth redwoods along with the nearby Eel River and several species, such as the endangered northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet and coho salmon.

“I believe the number is now over 100 trees are within the project area that would be disturbed by this project,” DeLapp said. “We believe that Richardson Grove State Park is supposed to be protective. These trees were put under the protection of the state park to be protected into perpetuity.”

Caltrans’ supplemental report states that it found no marbled murrelets in the project area.

TRANSPORTATION LIMITS

Humboldt County Economic Development Coordinator Jacqueline Debets said by allowing standard-sized shipping trucks into the county, the project will relieve financial burdens and increase economic opportunities for local businesses. Limiting businesses to smaller trucks is creating its own environmental impacts, she said.

“We’re using older refrigerator trucks, which have to be run at a higher level, and they’re not going to be as anywhere as fuel- or emission-efficient,” she said. “Cypress Grove Chevre is moving a refrigerated, perishable project. It costs them eight times as much to move it here to San Francisco than it is to move it from San Francisco to New York.”

According to Debets, one Arcata-based business relocated some of its services to Louisiana after an East Coast company that bought patented pollution control equipment from the business stipulated that the products not be shipped out of Humboldt county due to transportation difficulties on U.S. Highway 101.

“We exported our innovations and our jobs to Louisiana to have that product made,” she said. “That’s a really sad outcome.”

The plaintiffs argue in the complaint that there are alternatives to construction such as granting more exceptions to STAA trucks or relying on one of its other highway improvement projects, like the ongoing Big Buckhorn Summit project on Highway 299, to create an access point into Humboldt County.

“Let that open and see what our community’s needs are after that,” DeLapp said. “Once that project is completed, we can see what the needs of our community are, if they still exist.”

While Highway 299 would provide access to Redding and other areas, Debets said many industries ship products north and south from San Francisco.

“It’s trying to tell industry how to design itself and where it should be,” Debets said about the suggestion. “I try to talk to every industry leader, they all said it’s south. It’s much bigger. It’s not looking at the reality of global markets and the forces at work. Transportation is not a route, it’s a system. Caltrans is never looking at a route. It’s looking at a system of intermodal transportation and how does it fit together and work together.”

At the state level, the plaintiffs requested the Humboldt County Superior Court at a July 23 hearing to issue a writ of mandate directing Caltrans to vacate approval of the project and its certification of its environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act. The request comes after the California Court of Appeal reversed a 2012 trial court decision in January that stated the project’s environmental impact report did not violate CEQA. The appellate court also directed Caltrans to reevaluate the document.

DeLapp said the plaintiffs are currently waiting to hear back from both the federal and state courts.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

Posted in Richardson Grove | Comments Off

Third Lawsuit Filed to Prevent Caltrans From Vandalizing Ancient Redwoods in Richardson Grove State Park

SAN FRANCISCO— Following two previously successful federal and state court legal actions, conservation groups and local residents filed a lawsuit in federal court today challenging Caltrans’ renewed approval of a controversial highway-widening project that would endanger ancient and irreplaceable redwood trees in Richardson Grove State Park in Humboldt County. Due to Caltrans’ flawed environmental-review process, the project to cut into and pave over the roots of old-growth redwoods along Highway 101 was halted by a federal court ruling in 2012 and a state court decision earlier this year.

“The shortsightedness of this project is dumbfounding,” said Peter Galvin with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Does Caltrans really expect the public to accept a multimillion dollar project that would needlessly damage this iconic grove of giant redwoods?”

“We will not allow Caltrans to put Richardson Grove’s ancient trees at risk,” said Natalynne DeLapp with EPIC. “Caltrans owes the public a full and honest account of how its highway-widening plans could damage this irreplaceable state park.”

The lawsuit filed in federal court for the Northern District of California alleges serious violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. The plaintiffs are the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, as well as local residents Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Bruce Edwards, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen.

The so-called “Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project” would require cutting into and paving over the roots of many of Richardson Grove’s ancient redwoods, some of which have stood for as many as 3,000 years, measure as much as 18 feet in diameter and reach heights of 300 feet. The project is being undertaken solely to benefit passage for large commercial trucks. While originally promoted by Caltrans as a safety project, the agency was not able to offer any evidence of safety concerns along the narrow, one-mile stretch of roadway through the state park.

The plaintiffs first sued in federal and state courts in 2010 when Caltrans certified inadequate environmental review documents and adopted a “Finding of No Significant Impact.” In 2012 the federal court stopped the project, citing numerous errors in Caltrans’ mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods and stating that the agency had been “arbitrary and capricious” in its use of what the court called “faulty data.” The California Court of Appeal in January 2014 ordered Caltrans to reevaluate the environmental impacts of the project under state law, finding that it had failed to fully assess impacts on ancient redwoods or provide measures to reduce potentially severe harm to the trees.

Today’s lawsuit was triggered when earlier this year Caltrans approved a “supplement” to its federal environmental review and renewed the project approval, while refusing to consider public concerns about the issues raised in the previous lawsuit. The complaint alleges that Caltrans failed to fix the numerous errors in mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods that were cited by the federal judge in his order.

Background

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 redwoods in the world. The park also contains essential habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl, and its creeks support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead trout.

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

Caltrans claims the highway widening project is needed to accommodate large-truck travel, yet the agency has acknowledged that this portion of road is already designated for larger trucks and does not have significant safety problems. Even with its “supplement” to the environmental review, Caltrans has not established that this project is necessary for safety or will benefit the local economy. Smaller-sized commercial trucks have travelled through the grove for years to deliver goods to Humboldt County, and legislative exemptions have functioned to allow 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 frequently travels through Richardson Grove. Bess Bair is the granddaughter of Bess and Fred Hartsook, who for many years owned the Hartsook Inn resort next to Richardson Grove State Park. David Spreen is a long-time resident of Humboldt County and has extensive business experience negotiating rates and scheduling shipping of flooring materials in the North Coast region, nationally and internationally.

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

Posted in Richardson Grove | Comments Off

Caltrans Agrees to Reevaluate Impacts of Del Norte 199/197 Highway Project on Endangered Salmon

In response to a lawsuit by EPIC and other conservation groups, Caltrans has agreed to reassess impacts of a controversial highway-widening project in Del Norte County on protected salmon and their habitat along the Wild and Scenic Smith River. A settlement agreement will keep in place a court-ordered halt of construction work until Caltrans completes consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service under the Endangered Species Act and Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Act.

Photo by Scott Harding

“The North Coast community deserves a project that does not put salmon and the Smith River at risk, as well as an honest assessment of the impacts of highway development on the region,” said Natalynne DeLapp with EPIC. “This is an opportunity for Caltrans to reassess whether this project is in the best interests of taxpayers and the environment.”

Caltrans is attempting to widen narrow sections of highways 197 and 199 along the Smith River in California’s remote Del Norte County to provide access for oversized trucks. Construction would increase erosion and delivery of sediment into the Middle Fork Smith River, harming habitat for threatened coho salmon runs that already face a high risk of extinction. The project would undermine public safety by increasing heavy and oversized truck use on narrow roadways along the Smith River Canyon; it would hurt tourism and local residents.

“Caltrans should reevaluate the whole premise of this expensive, unnecessary project that would cause erosion and sediment impacts to critical salmon habitat,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Caltrans has already wasted more than $9 million of taxpayer money by starting major construction work along a pristine river without first doing a valid environmental review.”

Friends of Del Norte, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Protection Information Center filed lawsuits in state and federal court in 2013 challenging Caltrans’ approval of the $26 million “197/199 Safe STAA Access Project” due to inadequate review of the environmental impacts. The state agency began cutting trees and removing vegetation close to the Smith River in January and was scheduled to begin major earthmoving and construction work in May.

“Caltrans and the National Marine Fisheries Service should have pursued a scientific study to start this process rather than pay lip-service to written environmental law, said Don Gillespie with Friends of Del Norte. “The important issues of highway motorist safety on Highways 199/197 can be addressed on a smaller scale, without the massive erosive bank cuts required to allow STAA truck passage, that endanger the Smith River water quality and threaten our vital fisheries.”

A Northern District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction in early May stopping Caltrans from doing any further work, citing substantial violations of the Endangered Species Act, a “haphazard” consultation process with the federal fisheries agency, and the potential for irreparable harm to the Smith River and salmon habitat. The court characterized both agencies’ biological assessment documents for the project as “contradictory and unclear.”

As part of the new settlement, Caltrans has now reinitiated consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service to properly analyze whether the project would jeopardize threatened coho salmon and their critical habitat in the Smith River or adversely affect the essential fish habitat of all salmon species in the river. The conservation groups retain the right to challenge any further agency decisions or environmental documents for the project.

Caltrans has not considered alternatives besides widening the highway and tried to downplay project impacts on salmon habitat and water quality along the Smith River. The agency refused to evaluate safety hazards from increased truck traffic and ignored the cumulative impacts of numerous other associated Caltrans highway-widening projects in Northern California for oversized truck access. Despite the Fisheries Service’s own data on the imperiled status of coho salmon in the Smith, the fisheries agency rubber-stamped the original project without sufficient review. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Stuart G. Gross and Sharon Duggan and the nationally recognized firm of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy.

Background

Highway 199 is a scenic byway along the Smith River Canyon that passes through the Six Rivers National Forest and the Smith River National Recreation Area and provides access to Redwood National and State Parks. The Smith River is the only undammed river in California, with the longest stretch of designated “wild and scenic” river in the lower 48. A 1989 Caltrans report acknowledged the physical constraints of the narrow, steep and rocky Smith River Canyon and concluded that environmental concerns make Highway 199 “a poor candidate for extensive upgrading.”

Highway 197 is a seven-mile, two-lane country road that runs north to south along the lower Smith River just northeast of Crescent City. It is a rural-residential route with 72 driveways directly entering onto the road. In order to avoid Jedediah Smith State Park at the western edge of the project, oversized trucks would divert off Highway 199 and travel along Highway 197 to the north of Crescent City to reach Highway 101.

Court challenges to the related Caltrans road-widening project through Richardson Grove on Highway 101 in Humboldt County have resulted in rulings determining that Caltrans failed to adequately analyze the potential impacts of highway development on the ancient redwoods protected in Richardson Grove State Park.

A recently released independent review of Caltrans called for sweeping reforms of the agency and cited a “culture of fear” within Caltrans when it comes to deviating from standard policies. The statewide Caltrans Watch coalition has highlighted 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.

Posted in 197/199 Smith River Project | Comments Off

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

Posted in Willits ByPass | Comments Off

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.

Posted in Rein In Caltrans | Comments Off

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

Posted in Richardson Grove | Comments Off