AN FRANCISCO— On September 27, 2010, five individuals and three environmental advocacy organizations filed a federal lawsuit against the California Department of Transportation, challenging a major construction project along Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park in Humboldt County. The project will destroy and damage prized old-growth redwoods to allow access for large commercial trucks. The lawsuit — the second suit citizens have filed to stop the controversial project — was filed due to Caltrans’ failure to conduct a thorough environmental review of the project, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
“We can see no other option than to seek help from the courts to protect this threatened grove,” said Kerul Dyer, Richardson Grove Campaign coordinator for the Environmental Protection Information Center. “Caltrans not only failed to evaluate the harm this complex project would cause to these ancient trees, they railroaded this multi-million-dollar project through, disregarding the public’s concerns and grossly understating the impacts the project would have.”
“We are determined not to let this protected grove of old-growth redwoods and the endangered species that depend on them be cut into for the sake of letting a few more oversized trucks speed through the grove,” said Peter Galvin, conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Caltrans should scrap this misguided project, which has been opposed by dozens of groups, local business owners, scientists, elected representatives and tens of thousands of concerned citizens.”
Bess Bair, lead plaintiff on the federal lawsuit, was born and raised in Humboldt County near Richardson Grove. Bair is the granddaughter of Bess and Fred Hartsook, originators of the historic Hartsook Inn, near Richardson Grove. Bair joined the lawsuit to carry on her century-long family legacy of protecting the majestic giant redwoods from harm.
“I know these trees intimately; I was raised among them,” said Bair. “There are ways to resolve this situation that do not put these trees at risk and preserve them for all Californians.”
A lawsuit was filed under state law in June 2010 for violations of the California Environmental Quality Act. A “finding of no significant impact” that Caltrans published in May contradicts the agency’s own conclusions that the project is likely to harm or destroy ancient redwoods in the grove. The newly filed Federal Complaint details numerous violations of federal law due to inadequate environmental review for the project; it also cites Caltrans’ own findings that the project would cause harm to old-growth trees. The project would harm and destroy ancient and irreplaceable redwoods in the grove by cutting their roots or compacting hundreds of cubic yards of soil and paving over the roots. The work will affect at least 72 old-growth trees, and Caltrans acknowledges that “adverse effects to old-growth trees may be a significant impact to this unique natural community.”
The project is opposed by individuals from throughout California, the Environmental Protection Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Save Richardson Grove Coalition, North Coast Environmental Center, Friends of the Eel River, and the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters, among others.
The lawsuit was filed by Philip Gregory, Pete McCloskey and Stuart Goss of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, Sharon Duggan of the Law Offices of Sharon Duggan, and Kevin Bundy on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Established in 1922, Richardson Grove State Park was recently rated as one of the top 100 state parks in the United States. The park attracts thousands of visitors from around the world every year to explore one of the last protected stands of accessible old-growth redwoods. Drivers first encounter this significant old-growth forest when heading north on Highway 101. This popular tourist destination has provided many people with a transformative experience walking through some of the oldest living things on the planet. The park also provides essential habitat for threatened and endangered species like the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl, and its creeks still support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead.
Caltrans first proposed the highway-expansion project in 2007 with minimal environmental and public review. Faced with immediate and widespread community opposition, the agency prepared an environmental assessment but has still has not shown that its experimental, unproven construction methods will not irreparably harm Richardson Grove. Opposition to the project has continued to grow, led by the Plaintiffs, and Save Richardson Grove Coalition, a diverse group of community members including economists, business owners, and scientists. More than 25,000 concerned citizens have contacted Caltrans officials and elected representatives urging denial of the project.
The proposed widening does not serve the region’s best interests and threatens the area’s environment. Caltrans claims this “realignment” project is needed to legally accommodate large-truck travel on this section of highway. However, it appears from Caltrans’ own statements and signage that this portion of road is already designated for larger trucks and that Caltrans has exaggerated potential safety problems. Caltrans has not established this project is necessary either for safety or for goods movement and the economy. Since smaller-sized commercial trucks already travel through the grove to deliver goods to Humboldt County, the best alternative would be to leave the highway as it is and retain the integrity of the grove.