Saturday, September 23, 2023

Caltrans and Environmental Groups Continue The Never-Ending Fight Over Richardson Grove

A semi-truck makes its way through the curves of Richardson Grove [Picture from Caltrans]

The struggle over a proposal to loosen up the curves on a mile of Highway 101 through a beloved grove of old-growth redwoods continues. The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, wants to change the curvature of the road in Richardson Grove to allow legal access for industry standard-sized trucks coming from the south.

The first public meeting about the subject took place in 2007. EPIC, the Environmental Protection Information Center, objected at the time, and continues to oppose the project out of concern that redwoods could be damaged by road construction activities, including severing roots and paving over them. The project was halted again in 2010, 2013, and 2017, due to environmental concerns. Caltrans approved the project again last month, though the agency will have to ask the Humboldt County Superior Court to lift an injunction in order to proceed. The estimated cost for the project in 2017 was $20.7 million.

An industry standard-sized truck, according to the Federal Surface Transportation Assistance Act, is a 25-foot truck hauling a 53-foot trailer. The road, which was built in 1915, is too narrow to allow rigs of that size to take the curves without “off-tracking,” or moving out of their lane. STAA trucks are currently not allowed on Route 101 between Benbow and Leggett, which Caltrans estimates adds three hours to the trip for trucks traveling from the Bay Area.

“We’re fighting over the subjective idea of, what is a significant impact,” said Tom Wheeler, the Executive Director of EPIC. He thinks Caltrans is too certain that altering the road is the only solution, and would like to see consideration for one-way traffic control signals or escorts through the grove.

Both sides are deeply skeptical of the other’s scientific interpretation of what constitutes damage to redwood trees alongside roads. Save the Redwoods League funded a study led by Cody Dangerfield of Utah State University, which was performed at Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The study found that, “Tree-ring growth data indicated that the construction of Highway 101 disproportionately impacted the growth of trees that were within 30 miles of the highway and that these effects were particularly elevated in trees that currently exhibit crown dieback.” Climate modeling indicated that trees near the highway also experienced “elevated water stress for several decades following the construction of the highway.”

Caltrans was unimpressed. In its responses to comments on the addendum to the Final Environmental Impact Report for the Richardson Grove project, the agency said the tree-rings that were analyzed in the Dangerfield study at Pepperwood were nine miles away from the section of 101 that was being built in Dyerville at the time. Construction on the highway next to the study trees would start five years later.

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Wheeler said Caltrans data on road impacts to redwoods consists of “arborists looking into the canopy and saying everything looked fine;” but that it can take years for redwood canopies to show damage from stress to their roots. And he worries that if the trees alongside the road start to show signs of ill health, Caltrans will use emergency authority to cut them down. The current proposal calls for the removal of 38 trees, including two small redwood trees, which are 4-8 inches in diameter at breast height. Caltrans literature asserts that, “No old-growth specimens of any species would be removed;” and that protective measures on the project would include using handheld tools instead of heavy machinery to excavate around tree roots.

Caltrans also said the proposed work in Richardson Grove is not comparable to the construction of 24 miles of 101 through the Dyerville area during the 1950s and 1960s, noting that, “These monumental, historic projects cut into steep hillsides, redirected drainages, and rerouted segments of the South Fork Eel River. In contrast, the Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project would make only slight adjustments to the existing two-lane highway.”

Wheeler isn’t convinced. He says there’s not enough data to prove that road-building doesn’t harm redwood trees, and that, “Caltrans doesn’t seem to care about that risk.” He plans to file paperwork with the Humboldt County Superior Court in Eureka next week, asking the court not to lift the injunction that would allow work on the project to begin. “We’d like to pack the courthouse,” he said.

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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