EPIC: The Struggle to Save Richardson Grove Continues

Tom Wheeler, EPIC Executive Director

Truck transporting logs through Richardson Grove. Photo by Amber Jamieson.

For more than a decade, EPIC and our allies have fought off the misguided and controversial Richardson Grove Project, a proposal to realign a section of Highway 101 that runs through the ancient redwoods of Richardson Grove State Park. While we have held off the bulldozers and cement trucks through successive lawsuits, Caltrans’ dogged determination and persistence threatens the grove once again. Caltrans has released its most recent “analysis” of the project—an arborist report that actually admits that the project will hurt the redwood trees of the grove but not enough to be legally significant—in their most recent attempt to jam the project through. After careful review of the new analysis, EPIC remains concerned that Caltrans has failed to take an honest accounting of the likely impacts to old-growth redwoods through Richardson Grove State Park.

Caltrans first proposed the Richardson Grove Project in 2007. The agency’s stated desire for the project is to allow for so-called STAA trucks—named after the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 that allowed for these monstrously large trucks—to pass through Richardson Grove State Park. The sinuous road, which winds around old-growth redwoods, in theory limits these trucks because the over-length trucks have difficulty staying within their lanes. Caltrans’ solution: soften the curves to help these over-length trucks better navigate turns. To do this, Caltrans needs to cut into the root system of old-growth redwood trees and put down new pavement. That’s why EPIC is concerned. Redwoods have shallow roots that both provide water and nutrients to the trees and help provide stability.

Richardson Grove State Park entrance sign. Photo by Rob DiPerna.

Emerging science confirms what EPIC has long suspected. In a 2021 paper, “Long-term impacts of road disturbance on old-growth coast redwood forests,” Cody Dangerfield and colleagues examined whether redwood trees in Humboldt Redwoods State Park were impacted by highway construction in the 1950s and 1960s. From looking at tree ring width—roughly how large or small tree growth was as recorded in tree rings—Dangerfield et al. found that trees near the road consistently showed stunted growth after road construction that the control plot, neighboring trees far from the road, did not show. Further, examination of carbon isotopes suggests that drought stress was the likely cause of this decline. By cutting roots, the road impaired the ability of nearby trees to bring in sufficient water. By compaction and paving related to road construction, the road also likely changed the way that water flowed through the area, also impacting the ability of nearby trees to obtain sufficient water. The result of all this stress: dead tops and impaired growth.

In the long gulf of time between when the project was first proposed to today, the underlying need for the project is in doubt. Boosters of the Richardson Grove Project highlight the economic need for the project, arguing that a lack of STAA access to the North Coast drives up the cost of shipping. Their argument has been largely silenced by the completion of other projects. In 2017, Caltrans completed the Buckhorn Summit Project on Highway 299, providing another route for STAA trucks in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. Despite this new route, Caltrans continues to plough forward. Caltrans refuses to consider whether there remains a purported “need” for the project or whether this need could be met by other less impactful alternatives.

What is the opportunity cost of Caltrans’ dogged determination and pursuit of highway widening through Richardson Grove State Park? What was left unaccomplished or unplanned, as Caltrans has wasted 14 years trying to force through a project? Where could we be now, had more resources gone into creating a solution for Last Chance Grade or finding a stable path through Highway 299?

EPIC is going to continue to press back against the multi-billion dollar agency in our David vs. Goliath struggle to safeguard Richardson Grove. Thank you for your support of our efforts.