Richardson Grove: A Setback But Not A Loss

By
Thursday, December 10th, 2020

A setback but not a loss. That’s what I told my board and staff after we received news on Wednesday that the Ninth Circuit reversed our lower court victory. Don’t worry. Bulldozers are not set to start ripping into the roots of old-growth redwoods…yet. But this setback should inspire us to work harder to stop the project, something that will demand concentrated grassroots advocacy and political action. In other words, we need you.

Here’s how we got here:

In 2017, Caltrans sought to restart the Richardson Grove Project, which had been on hiatus since 2014 because of previous litigation, by issuing a new “addendum” to the project file. EPIC immediately filed two lawsuits, one at the Humboldt County Superior Court (state court) alleging violations of CEQA and one at the Northern District Court of California (federal court) alleging NEPA and other federal law violations. In 2019, we won at both the state and federal level. At the state level, Judge Kelly Neal of the Humboldt County Superior Court found that the addendum contained significant new information that required Caltrans to offer a new public comment period. At the federal level, EPIC and allies won on a number of our NEPA claims, with Judge William Alsup finding that Caltrans failed to consider a number of impacts from the project on old-growth redwoods in their review of impacts. (Importantly, the Northern District Court did not rule on all of the claims that EPIC brought, only certain NEPA claims.) Caltrans appealed the federal case but not the state case and in October 2020, the Ninth Circuit heard oral argument on Caltrans’ appeal.

On Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court. In each place that Judge Alsup found that Caltrans had inadequately reviewed potential impacts to old-growth redwoods, the Ninth Circuit found that Caltrans had adequately considered those impacts. While we disagree with the decision, the reversal was not wholly stunning, as courts are generally deferential to agency determinations about what environmental impacts they must consider. Four judges considered the issue. One agreed with us, three did not. If we had drawn a different panel, it may have bounced the other way. So it goes. Importantly, the Ninth Circuit did not rule on any of our other claims, leaving them for resolution by Judge Alsup on remand.

Here’s where we are going:

It is not over for our litigation to save Richardson Grove. Not even close. At the federal level, we are considering whether to ask for a rehearing at the Ninth Circuit, but whether or not we do so, we still have our other claims to pursue and we are going to vigorously prosecute them. As this most recent decision shows, there is no way to guarantee how courts will decide things, but we are confident in our chances. At the state level, Caltrans has not yet completed the new public comment and review period mandated by the state court.  Until they do so, the project cannot move forward.

Beyond the courts, we will need you to continue to voice your opposition and outrage at this project. The next steps and strategies are in the works and we will shortly call upon you for help.

Thank you all for your support over the past ten years in the fight to save Richardson Grove.

We press on!

Tom Wheeler, Executive Director

Background
Richardson Grove State Park, is considered the gateway to the Redwoods, where tourists often first encounter large Redwoods when heading north on Highway 101. It is home to one of the last protected stands of accessible old-growth redwood trees in the world. The park has essential habitat for protected species and its creeks support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead trout.