Judge rules against highway widening project in state park. Old growth redwoods safe from bulldozers again… for now.
On Friday, May 3, Judge William Alsup of the Northern District Court of California ruled in favor of EPIC and other plaintiffs in the most recent round of litigation on the controversial Richardson Grove Project. The project would widen the highway through the iconic Richardson Grove State Park, requiring the removal of some trees and potentially damaging the roots of many more. The project would purportedly allow for a larger type of truck—so-called “STAA heavies” by Judge Alsup—to move through the grove. These extra-long trucks are currently prohibited due to high risk of crossing the double yellow lines on this section of highway.
This decision is déjà vu all over again. Caltrans first proposed the highway widening project in 2007, and the project engendered controversy from the outset. The first lawsuit against the project was filed in 2010 which led to a 2011 injunction after the judge found numerous critical errors concerning impacts to old growth redwoods in Caltrans’ analysis. After modifications were made to the project intending to correct these errors, Caltrans again approved it. This time, in 2014, the project was halted in state court, with an appellate court finding that the agency again had failed to take an honest accounting of the project’s impacts on the trees.
Fast forward to 2017, Caltrans again approves the project. Again, a lawsuit is filed in opposition.
The court’s recent decision finds fault in four important places:
First, the Judge recognized that the agency never looked at the impact paving over shallow root systems of old-growth redwoods would have on root oxygen levels. Roots need oxygen to survive; without it, they are at increased risk of root rot.
Second, the judge questioned why the agency had ignored guidance from State Parks that urged avoidance of construction in the “Structural Root Zone” of the old growth. While the judge noted that Caltrans wasn’t bound by this guidance as a separate agency, Caltrans still had an obligation to explain its departure from these standards.
Third, Judge Alsup found that the agency had failed to look at the disturbance extra truck traffic would cause through the grove. The judge noted that the project would likely increase truck traffic through the grove and that Caltrans had done an insufficient job considering the impact of these additional lumbering trucks.
Lastly, Caltrans failed to consider the risk to old-growth redwoods from truck collisions. More (potentially heavier) trucks mean a greater risk to the redwoods from an out-of-control truck colliding with a tree.
The ball is now in Caltrans’ court, so to speak. The agency has lost legal battles over this project three times, wasting public money in the process. The “slap-dash” work of the agency—Judge Alsup’s words—is disappointing and has played an important role in engendering public opposition to the project. At time of press, the agency is still weighing its options, including whether to file an appeal.
The project is currently on the ropes—now is the time for the knockout blow! Please write to Caltrans to ask that they shelve this controversial project for good.
Write to: Matthew Brady, Caltrans District 1 Supervisor, California Department of Transportation, P. O. Box 3700, Eureka, CA 95502-3700 or [email protected]