The Decade Long Battle Over Richardson Grove is Still Going

Liam Gwynn, EcoNews Intern

Highway 101 winding through old-growth redwoods in Richardson Grove State Park. Photo by EPIC.

On June 26, EPIC’s legal team and a host of public supporters appeared in court to defend Richardson Grove from Caltrans’ decade-long pursuit to expand the portion of Highway 101 running through the iconic redwood forest. Caltrans originally tried to pass this expansion in 2007, and EPIC has successfully fought it in court ever since. 

Caltrans is trying to expand this 1.1-mile stretch of highway in order to allow large transport trucks passage. Currently, “industry-standard-sized trucks” are not allowed through the grove because of limitations set by the state due to the small winding roads, making it difficult for large transport trucks to stay in one lane. EPIC has called into question the necessity of this project due to the 2017 Buckhorn Summit Project on Highway 299 that already allows passage for industry-standard-sized trucks to Humboldt County. 

Caltrans’ Richardson Grove project would include widening the road, constructing a below-the-road retaining wall, and the construction of guardrails. EPIC’s legal team, along with fellow plaintiffs Friends of Del Norte, Center for Biological Diversity, and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, claim that this expansion would damage the roots of old-growth redwoods and have an overall harmful effect on the forest. 

They claim that this expansion violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In the face of legal conflict, Caltrans made an addendum to its Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that included slight reductions in the project, mainly involving a reduction of soil depth. This report was circulated for public review due to a court order in 2021. June’s court case mostly revolved around this addendum. 

The attorney for the plaintiffs, Ross Middlemiss, claims the addendum was never addressed by the court and that the EIR was not an accurate representation of the harm that could be done to the redwoods by the expansion. Middlemiss claims that Caltrans is in violation of CEQA due to it making no changes after circulating its EIR. EPIC cites recent scientific studies such as “Long-term impacts of road disturbance on old-growth coast redwood forests” by Cody Dangerfield as evidence that Caltrans’ EIR is inaccurate in its representation of the impact that a highway expansion would have on the old-growth redwoods. Caltrans refutes these claims, saying that its EIR was accepted by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. 

“We looked at all the feedback, we heard from the experts, from state parks, and we responded to all that and decided that nothing needed to be changed,” said Lucille Baca, the attorney representing Caltrans. Baca’s primary argument was that the plaintiffs were trying to relitigate an argument that had already been decided in previous hearings, while Middlemiss claimed that this litigation revolved specifically around the 2017 addendum and had never been reviewed by the court. Despite over a decade of dedication and determination from environmental advocates, the future of Richardson Grove continues to hang in the balance. Both Caltrans and EPIC have been locked in a consistent legal battle since 2007, and now Humboldt County Judge Timothee Canning has 90 days to make a written ruling regarding the case.