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Plan to widen Hwy. 101 too risky for giant redwoods on North Coast, court tells Caltrans


A controversial Caltrans plan to widen a stretch of Highway 101 through a popular state park on California’s North Coast and home to ancient stands of old-growth redwoods was blocked again by a federal judge last week who said the project would threaten the mighty trees.

U.S. District Judge William Alsop in a 26-page ruling on May 3 scolded the state’s transportation agency for not taking a harder look at the proposed project’s impacts on the redwoods along Richardson Grove State Park in far-southern Humboldt County.

It was Caltrans’ third attempt since 2006 to win permission to expand the road through the park. Alsop sided with environmental groups in ruling the Caltrans plan would imperil the root systems of the roadside redwoods, thousands of years old and more than 300 feet tall.

“While none of these ancients will be cut down outright under this proposal, the question remains whether the agency has adequately ruled out any significant risks to these giants,” Alsop wrote.

The judge also suggested that public sentiment sides with the court decision: “If we were today considering building a major highway through a grove of ancient redwoods, almost certainly the public would demand that the grove be spared and that the highway bypass the park.”

For more than a decade, Caltrans has sought to widen the winding one-mile stretch of U.S. 101 that serpentines through the state park about 200 miles northwest of Sacramento to allow extra-long tractor-trailers – semis longer than 18-wheelers – to drive through. The project would widen the section – one of Humboldt County’s most narrow at 22 feet, explained Alsop’s decision – to allow the longer semis to travel in opposite directions as they negotiate the road’s twists and turns.

That means paving over potentially vulnerable root systems, the trees’ pipeline for water, nutrients and oxygen, Alsop wrote, chiding Caltrans for failing to ever file an environmental impact statement for the project, now in its third iteration. Caltrans analysts have touted the theory that the redwoods can regenerate new roots even after sustaining damage to its root system.

But Alsop in his order took aim at the agency’s theory and its proposed workarounds such as using a thinner cement to expand the roadway. The federal judge said Caltrans could not ensure the pavement work wouldn’t suffocate the trees and said “at least three old-growth redwoods seem at risk,” calling the agency’s analysis “short-shrift.”

“Over and again, redwood ‘resiliancy’ became the answer to virtually every question considered by Caltrans,” Alsop wrote. “Accepting as true that the trees have enjoyed health so far despite some pavement and accepting as true that the amount of new pavement seems small, this still begs the question of whether pushing the needle further into the red zone will be a push too far.”

Caltrans maintains the long-sought project is needed to speed truck traffic up Highway 101 from the busy Port of Oakland. Though standard 18-wheel big rigs are allowed through the park, the longer models driven on other California roadways and elsewhere in the U.S. are banned from the state park.

Truckers piloting the extra-long rigs up Highway 101 must get off at Interstate 5, cross the state line into Oregon then climb back onto southbound 101 to complete the trip to Eureka – a 725-mile haul that the plan’s proponents say raise the costs of goods and services to North Coast businesses and residents.

Caltrans argued that allowing the trucks to stay on 101 and drive through the state park would shave hours and nearly 450 miles from the journey north.

Caltrans officials in a statement Monday said the agency “remains committed to serving the public with a safe and sustainable highway system that supports the local economy and jobs while preserving the natural beauty of the North Coast,” the Eureka Times-Standard reported.

But environmental groups cheered the decision: “We’re elated that the court rejected Caltrans’ misguided and deeply destructive plan,” said Peter Galvin, co-founder and director of programs at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement Monday. “The ancient trees and wildlife of Richardson Grove are too important to pave over.”

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