Highway 101 through Richardson Grove

We are beyond disappointed at a decision handed down on Dec. 2 by the Ninth Circuit regarding a controversial highway project through a grove of ancient redwood trees, reversing a lower court ruling that halted planned construction. The trees are part of Richardson Grove State Park, established in 1922 to protect the ancient redwoods that are as high as 300 feet and can be as old as 3,000 years.

A panel of three judges, one a Trump appointee, reversed a District Court’s previous ruling in favor of the environmental plaintiffs, pending further environmental impact assessment.

Caltrans, the California state transportation agency pushing approval of this road widening project for over 13 years, has faced widespread opposition from local residents, the public in general, and from environmental experts who point to the almost certain damage to the majestic old growth redwoods that line that section of Highway 101 in Southern Humboldt County. Caltrans wants to widen and “realign” the stretch of road to accommodate larger commercial big rig trucks, most of which traverse Highway 5, the interstate that runs from Mexico to the Canadian border.

The case has been in the courts many times, at the state and federal levels, challenging Caltrans’ claim that their excavation around the lateral spreading anchor roots of the giant trees would cause no significant impact. Courts have sided with environmental groups several times, most recently last year when U.S. District Judge William Alsup found Caltrans failed to address the potentially serious impacts of construction and paving in the redwoods’ root zones, along with other impacts. Judge Alsup said in his 2019 ruling that there was evidence that road widening could suffocate some of the ancient trees, and cause other root damage with unknown effects on the trees’ vitality.

Wednesday’s ruling reversed that decision. In an absurd part of the opinion, one judge wrote that the project could provide valuable new data on the effects of construction on old growth redwoods. This assumes it might be sound to experiment with the survival of 2000 + year old trees to inform future road building projects, despite scientific testimony to the contrary and simple logic that without a tap root, the surface roots of trees this large cannot be compromised without threatening their very survival. We don’t need experiments to illustrate that truth.

Stuart Gross, the attorney representing the environmental groups suing Caltrans said “It is the loss of one battle, [but] not the war, to protect Richardson Grove’s redwoods from this misguided project.” There remain other claims to pursue in the legal arena, and other alternatives. We laud the plaintiffs in the case, including EPIC, the Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Friends of Del Norte and individuals, for persevering with this case for so long, keeping the forest safe.

We will post updates as both the environmental litigants and Caltrans consider their next steps. Stay tuned.
An addendum: What about the precautionary principles?

Given the loss overall of redwood forests (less than 5% of the original 2 million acres of virgin forest), the supposed protection of biological resources in state parks (Richardson Grove State Park was established expressly to protect ancient redwoods), and the value of ancient beings thousands of years old that humans cannot even imagine, but should only have reverence for—shouldn’t even the chance of a road project (where a road already exists) compromising the old trees’ ability to survive and thrive be enough to say NO to an unnecessary project? The values are askew.

Note: As defined in the 2010 EA, “the structural root zone is a circular area with the tree trunk at the center with a radius equal to three times the diameter of the tree trunk measured at 4.5 feet above ground level,” and “is where most of the [tree’s] nutrient and water absorption occurs.”

We always need your support to continue! Support BACH by sending checks made out to Ecology Center/BACH to P.O. Box 2022, Berkeley CA 94702 or clicking on the DONATE button at the top of our website HeadwatersPreserve.org. Thank you. May the forest be with you.


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