Environmentalists battle Caltrans highway project

November 19, 2010 9:11:11 PM PST
There is a heated battle over a Caltrans road project cutting right through a grove of ancient redwood trees. Caltrans says the improvements will bring the highway up to modern standards, but opponents say the project could kill old growth redwoods - and they're doing whatever they can to stop it. They've filed lawsuits and tried another more unexpected type of protest.

Fifty people, many from the bay area, are getting into position on Highway 101 in Humboldt County. A documentary film crew shot video of what was happening.

With a few clicks of the camera, Marin County photographer Jack Gescheight gets the shot he's after.

"We wanted to make a dramatic statement of our affinity, our affection, our love for a giant, old ancient, ancient, over a thousand year old redwood trees," he said.

All these people took off their clothes to protect Richardson Grove. It's a state park in Humboldt County, considered the gateway to Northern California's tallest redwoods. The park is known for its tranquil beauty - with one big exception. A narrow stretch of Highway 101 cuts right through the middle.

A lot of 101 is a wide four-lane road. It's the only major highway into Humboldt County, but the one mile section through Richardson Grove does not meet federal standards.

So although some trucks are allowed to drive through here - the longest commercial rigs are not.

"There are very few roads in the U.S. anymore, major highways, that have these length restrictions and most of the trucking companies have newer equipment that don't even have the shorter trailers," Rob McBeth from O & M Industries said.

McBeth says he's losing business because the biggest trucks can't get to his steel fabricating plant in northern Humboldt County, and he's not the only one. So Caltrans plans a $7 million project in Richardson Grove to realign the road.

Caltrans wants to widen the shoulders and move the curves to help trucks stay in their lanes. The project manager showed us the spot where the most change would happen.

"The trees on that cut slope will be removed," Caltrans project manager Kim Floyd said.

In total, about 50 trees would be cut, including five small redwoods. No old growth trees will be removed.

But what concerns environmentalists most is the plan to cut and disturb the sensitive roots of ancient redwoods.

"Caltrans cannot guarantee that their project will not harm the old growth. They are going to go in and they are going to cut through the roots of around 60 old growth redwood trees. We don't have enough old growth redwood to risk that, Kerul Dyer from the Environmental Protection Information Center said.

Caltrans promises to take all possible precautions.

"We won't be cutting roots larger than two inches and we're not going to work in the whole structural root zone," Floyd said.

But a coalition of environmental groups claims there is no scientific evidence to support Caltrans' methods, so they are suing. Caltrans won't comment on that, but defends its plan.

"The conclusion we've reached with our certified arborist is the way we are proposing to do this work will not have a significant long term impact to the trees," Floyd said.

Businesses near Richardson G rove that depend on the redwoods to bring in tourists are worried.

Dan Beleme operates a gift shop and the One-Log House, a home built into a single hollowed out redwood. He believes nine to twelve months of construction near his business will drive away tourists.

"This particular project is just to help one particular part of the economy - the trucking industry and a few really large retailers, and it's going to hurt the environment and the local businesses here," he said.

But the manager of Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka says that making room for larger trucks will help all consumers get products they want. He believes environmentalists are overstating the risk.

"It's a very, very small incremental improvement that we are asking for on that stretch of highway," he said.

Those who think it's a much bigger deal are reaching out to the Bay Area for support. Remember that photo of people posing au natural with the redwoods? The picture was unveiled at an Albany City Council meeting, just before members voted to ask the governor to block the construction.

"We should all be concerned about this. It's a very unique area and it's also a sustainability issue. This is at the core of the idea that we should build faster, build more, consume faster, consume more," Robert Lieber from the Albany city council said.

So far no response from the outgoing governor, but things could change when Jerry Brown takes office. So even with two lawsuits pending, Caltrans plans to start taking bids soon with construction to start by spring.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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