Rein in Caltrans

Update on Last Chance Grade: Winter 2021

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021
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The Redwood Highway, also known as Highway 101, is the main north-south arterial connection for North Coast residents and visitors alike. “Last Chance Grade” is a stretch of Highway 101 about ten miles south of Crescent City, which sits precariously above the Pacific Ocean. Built on an active landslide, the road has steadily slipped towards the Pacific Ocean. Most recently, landslides have resulted in the temporary closure of the road and significant delays as Caltrans works day and night to safely repair damages and to keep the road safe. This pattern–of regular landslides and land closures, patched together with stop-gap fixes–is far from ideal. Instead of extending this period into perpetuity, Caltrans wants to figure out a more permanent solution. 

Figuring out that permanent solution is tricky. Last Chance Grade is surrounded on either side by Redwood National and State Park land, including a magisterial stand of old-growth redwoods. Further to the east are industrial timberlands owned by Green Diamond Resource Company, although a bypass through this area would necessitate crossing back through those old-growth redwoods. Through all areas are steep slopes and an extremely erosive soil prone to sliding. 

The recent closures have caused many of you to write to EPIC to ask about the various alternatives, timelines, and our feelings on the project’s progression. 

A Review of Alternatives Currently Under Consideration

Caltrans began its analysis by examining 11 potential alternatives. Today, Caltrans is down to seven alternatives, cleverly named X, L, F, A1, A2, G1, G2. Below are longer descriptions of each. EPIC anticipates that Caltrans will further reduce the range of alternatives under consideration before the first formal opportunity for public comment, as lengthy consideration of each alternative adds time and money to the project. In deciding what alternatives to further evaluate, and ultimately which alternative to pursue, Caltrans will likely need to balance a range of considerations, most particularly: cost (of construction and of mitigating impacts to the environment), environmental impacts, the risk of future short-term and long-term failures, and challenges to construction. In our review of the existing alternatives, two stand out: X and F. Based on our current information, we hope that either of these alternatives becomes the “preferred” alternative.

Alternative X

Alternative X would be a full rebuild of 1.1 miles of highway, but unlike the other alternatives, this alternative would maintain the current alignment as much as possible. Caltrans believes that current sliding is a product of too much water in the soil, which promotes landsliding. X would rebuild the road, including digging back and armoring the slope in areas, as dewatering the route through wells and pumps to promote greater soil stability. Because this alternative would more-or-less stay in its current alignment, the ground disturbance impacts from the project are the least significant, with 10 acres of coastal shrub likely affected. The pricetag is also among the least expensive, at $300 million, and a relatively quick construction timeline at 3.5 years to complete. The downside? Caltrans is still figuring out if this alternative is technically feasible or if it would result in a significant enough improvement over the existing road to justify its construction. So far, however, Caltrans is optimistic that this will be viable. Dewatering as a form of slope stabilization has been successfully pursued in other areas of California. 

Alternative F

Alternative F is a BIG tunnel dug beneath the active landslide, a feat of engineering that Caltrans feels very confident is doable. As a tunnel, it would avoid most above-ground environmental impacts except for the tunnel mouth openings, which would result in some loss of mature/old-growth trees. Once built, this alternative would have a very low risk of future closures and the cost to maintain would be low. The downside? Cost. A large tunnel through Last Chance Grade won’t come cheap, likely topping one billion dollars. 

Alternative L

Alternative L would push the road higher up the coast-facing ridge, with the idea that by moving up in elevation, the road could sit above or atop the slide area. EPIC was initially excited about Alternative L because it appeared that it could largely stay out of mature forested areas. However, further development of this alternative has found that impacts would likely be larger than initially anticipated. Caltrans is also unsure of the potential future performance of this alternative. Both are significant knocks on this alternative and we would not be surprised or disappointed if it was removed for further study.

Alternative G2, includes Coastal scrub/grassland /spruce: 22 acres, Riparian: 1 acre, Clear cut: 3 acres, Young Redwood Forest: 28 acres, Mature Redwood Forest: 3 acres, Old Growth Redwood Forest: 3 acres

Alternatives A1, A2, G1 & G2

These four alternatives are all permutations on the same general theme. Each bypass the slide area by going east–the A alternatives making a broad S-shaped curve and G barreling up and over the coastal ridge. Once east, the road would reconnect with Highway 101 in one of two ways, either through a short tunnel (A1 and G1) or through a causeway through an old-growth redwood forest. All four alternatives share certain things in common: all would require significant earthwork and all would impact old-growth forests and natural resources, although the A alternatives generally perform better than the G alternatives in both respects.

Admittedly, these alternatives have made EPIC nervous in the past. The old-growth stand where both the tunnel and causeway would reconnect with Highway 101 are superlative and surprisingly wild, given their location near the highway, with evidence of marbled murrelet, bears, and elk. (See EPIC’s groundtruthing of A2 from 2018 here.)

Like Alternative L, EPIC would not be surprised or disappointed if these alternatives were removed for further study. The cost, both in time and money, to further study these alternatives is likely unnecessary, given that X and F appear to outperform these alternatives in nearly every metric conceivable.

Project Timeline

Caltrans anticipates that a new alternative will not open until 2039. 18 years is a long time. Avoiding impactful and controversial alternatives is one way that Caltrans can both cut time from the project and reduce the likelihood of litigation that can stop or slow a future project. By reducing the range of alternatives to remove more-impactful alternatives, Caltrans can save on timely and costly studies. (The more impactful of an alternative, the more studies are demanded to document the likely impacts and ways to mitigate these impacts.) The risk of litigation is likely related to the choice of alternatives as well, with more impactful alternatives increasing the odds that some group or some individual attempts to delay or kill the project in court. 

Thankfully, Caltrans has taken the right steps to eliminate some early impactful alternatives and to engage major stakeholders, including EPIC. Through engagement with nearby landowners, Caltrans has been able to more expeditiously receive permission to do geotechnical analysis to determine alternative feasibility. Stakeholder engagement also works to relieve tension among groups with potentially competing interests and by early consideration of issues raised by stakeholders that may have otherwise escaped attention. In this, we can see a “new” Caltrans emerging. EPIC can only imagine that if a similar stakeholder engagement had occurred for Richardson Grove or any other court-bound project, that it might have been possible to avoid a protracted fight.


Take Action For Richardson Grove!

Monday, December 14th, 2020
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We need your support at the Board of Supervisors weekly Zoom meeting on the morning of Tuesday, December 15th. Staff have provided the Board with an alternative statement expressing community opposition to the Richardson Grove Project and highlighting that the county takes no formal position on the project. This is BIG!

Please let the Supervisors know that you support the alternative statement!

The meeting starts at 9am and this item will likely be heard in the morning session. (There is no time certain.)

How to Zoom public comment: When the Board of Supervisors announce the agenda item that you wish to comment on, call the conference line and turn off your TV or live stream. Please call 669-900-9128, enter Meeting ID 931 8995 1592 and press star (*) 9 on your phone, this will raise your hand. You’ll continue to hear the Board meeting on the call.

We need you to let them know that you love Richardson Grove State Park and that you don’t support highway widening that threatens old-growth redwoods. Share why you feel passionately about the grove–perhaps you have a favorite memory of the park, or that when you hit the park after a long road trip you feel like you are home again–why you are opposed to the project, and politely ask that they remove support from the project from the document. Positive comments are much more effective than negative or angry responses to the Supervisors. 

How to watch: You may access the live stream of the meeting by using the following link: Watch live: http://humboldt.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?publish_id=2

Agenda: https://humboldt.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=A&ID=736535&GUID=DD19A2F4-6FF5-49E6-BA94-C955867B50A5

Can’t make it? It is important that Supervisor Fennell and Supervisor Bass hear from their constituents. Please write them at [email protected] and [email protected]


Richardson Grove: A Setback But Not A Loss

Thursday, December 10th, 2020
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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.


Caltrans Attempts to Appeal Federal Court’s Ruling and Protection of Richardson Grove

Monday, October 26th, 2020
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For over a decade, EPIC and our allies have defended the ancient redwoods in Richardson Grove State Park from Caltrans’ controversial proposal to widen Highway 101 through the protected state park. And for years, Caltrans has attempted to maneuver around state, federal, and environmental laws to push the project through with weak and insufficient environmental review documents. In 2019, Honorable Judge William Alsup from the Northern District Court of California ruled that Caltrans must go back to the drawing board and prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). 

Now Caltrans is attempting to appeal Alsup’s 2019 federal ruling that invalidated Caltrans’ revised Environmental Assessment and ordered the agency to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement. On October 13, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard oral arguments on the defendant’s appeal and plaintiff’s response briefs on Richardson Grove. The hearing was live streamed on the Court’s youtube channel and can be viewed here. 

Initially, the agency attempted to use a categorical exemption, then prepared an Environmental Assessment (EA), then made a supplement to the EA, all of which have been determined by various courts to be inadequate to comply with state and federal laws. Alsup found that the agency’s EA omitted consideration of key elements of the proposed project and thus failed to take the “hard look” required under the National Environmental Policy Act, which prevents Caltrans from working on the proposed project until it has conducted a full EIS. 

In his ruling, Alsup stated that “After eight years of litigation, the Court is convinced and so finds that Caltrans has been bound and determined from the outset, regardless of the source, to arrive at a FONSI [Finding of No Significant Impact] and thus avoid the scrutiny of an EIS….Caltrans never gave the fair “hard look” required by NEPA but resorted to cherry picking the science to arrive at a preordained conclusion…At long last, the Court now orders that Caltrans stop trying to skate by with an EA/FONSI and that Caltrans prepare a valid EIS. Please do not try to systematically minimize the adverse environmental consequences and to cherry-pick the science.”

Attorney Stuart Gross represented the plaintiff group, which is made up of local neighbors to Richardson Grove State Park and nonprofit environmental groups, including EPIC, who are committed to protecting Richardson Grove. The three judge panel asked good questions and is expected to make a determination regarding Caltrans’ appeal of the district court’s grant of summary judgment and permanent injunction against proceeding with a proposed highway project in Richardson Grove State Park. 

No matter the determination, EPIC will stand strong for the protection of the incredible old-growth of Richardson Grove. Along with the federal court ruling currently being appealed, EPIC and allies were also victorious in a state court decision in 2019 that found the agency avoided public scrutiny by failing to include notice of new information in their EIR. While Caltrans continues to attempt to push forward this faulty project, we will continue to be a watchdog for the forest and stand in the way of what is unmistakably a bad project for the trees, the critters, and the public.

 


Victory! Old-Growth Redwood Saved from Caltrans Project

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020
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By Josefina Barrantes

In response to our previous post about the old-growth redwood at risk of removal through a Caltrans project, Caltrans has reached out and decided to modify their project’s plans to be more mindful of the environment in the surrounding area of their proposed project. Before this intervention, their project titled “HUM-36 Three Bridges Project” was set out to rebuild a bridge that went over Hely Creek at Van Duzen County Park. 

The original plans for the Hely Creek bridge would have negatively altered a half-acre of the forest, a six-foot-wide old-growth redwood, other large trees along with their root systems, as well as pruning sacred old-growth redwoods. We are pleased to announce that the liaison between Caltrans and EPIC informed us that they will now be cutting their previous eight-foot shoulder down to a four-foot shoulder on the new bridge to preserve the lives of several large trees including a six-foot-wide old-growth redwood. 

In addition to this, their plans that had previously set out to impact the root zones of another large redwood tree have been altered so that a temporary access road will not be intruding on them. In response to stakeholder input Caltrans has modified its project of replacing a 93-year-old bridge on State Route 36 so that it is accessible to standard California legal trucks, without harming our first line of defense against climate change– old-growth trees. Thank you to all who submitted comments on behalf of preserving this incredible redwood!


Proposed Caltrans Roadwork Places Old-Growth Redwood At Risk

Monday, July 20th, 2020
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The HUM-36 Three Bridges Project would rebuild two bridges and widen a third bridge along Highway 36 in Humboldt County to provide better bridge rails and wider shoulders on the bridge. Because of impacts to old-growth redwoods, EPIC urges Caltrans to modify the project slightly: to the “Two Bridges Project,” not three. One bridge in particular, a proposed rebuild of a bridge over Hely Creek at Van Duzen County Park, would impact a half-acre of forest, including the removal of an old-growth redwood that measures six feet in diameter, the removal of several other large trees, and impacts to the root systems and pruning of other old-growth redwoods. All bridge projects have the potential to “take” protected salmonids through adverse habitat modification and direct mortality from construction.

The new Hely Creek bridge is designed to be both longer and wider. To conform to Caltrans’ design criteria, particularly curve radii for large trucks, the centerline of the new bridge would need to shift to the north, requiring realignment and widening of the roadway approaches to the bridge. Caltrans deviates from its standard design criteria frequently, and does so in places in this project, so a strict-adherence to design manuals is not always best. Projects present competing values which must be balanced. Here, we would like to see more emphasis placed on retaining the big, large trees of the Van Duzen. Given that the current bridge appears structurally sound and that it performs well as-built, we question the need to replace this bridge at this time. In our view, the public is best served by a slightly reduced project that focuses efforts on the bridges over Butte and Little Larabee Creeks.

Caltrans has expressed an interest in working with the environmental community to reduce impacts from this project. We hope that this interest is sincere. We would love to avoid another knock-down drag-out fight à la Richardson Grove and, as we express above, a compromise seems reasonable.

For more on the project, please check out the Initial Study prepared for the project, which you can access here. If you have any comments on the project, please send them to [email protected] by August 3rd.


EPIC’s 2018-2019 Annual Report

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019
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The Environmental Protection Information Center is proud to present the 2018-2019 Annual Report featuring our achievements, highlights and statistics from 2018 and a sneak peak into the coming year. We invite you to take some time, pour a cup of tea and check what we have been working on to further the protection and restoration of our region’s forests and wildlife. From endangered species protections and timber sale litigation, to challenging big timber’s sustainability certifications, EPIC staff has kept a full court press on industry and agencies to preserve one of the most iconic forest ecosystems on the planet for more than four decades, and we will continue do this public interest work for years to come.

Mark your calendar! Enclosed is an official announcement for the EPIC Fall Celebration, which will be an evening to remember honoring Dennis Cunningham, the attorney for the pepper spray trials, followed by Delhi 2 Dublin, a Canadian world music group that connects roots to future with a heavy electronic backbone, live traditional Indian instruments, and the stunning punjabi-english vocals of frontman Sanjay Seran. The event will be held at the Mateel Community Center on Saturday, November 9th, 2019. Stay tuned for event details and ticket info.

In a time when bedrock environmental policies are on the chopping block and big business is striving to take whatever it can, we need your help to grow stronger. In the coming year, we will be working double time to weather this political storm and continue sticking up for the forests, rivers and wildlife of the Pacific northwest. With you by our side, EPIC will face these challenges head on to ensure that lasting protections are in place to safeguard wild California.

If our annual report is your usual cue to make a financial contribution, please make a donation online by clicking here. Remember, its people like you who make our work possible.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead


Richardson Grove Court Update

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019
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On Monday, EPIC was back in court for what felt like the millionth time to defend the ancient old growth Redwood trees of Richardson Grove State Park from Caltrans’ proposed highway widening. Sharon Duggan, longtime attorney and friend of EPIC, represented EPIC and allies in court before Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Kelly Neel. As the plaintiff, EPIC was allowed to argue first. In her defense of the grove, Sharon was masterful.

At the heart of the case are two important arguments. First, Caltrans substantially changed the project—increasing the amount of cut and fill—earthwork, involving heavy machinery across sensitive shallow roots—and the public should be afforded the opportunity to comment on the proposed changes. Second, the “addendum” provided by Caltrans that describes the new changes contained numerous and substantial errors, such that no reasonable person could understand what the heck the agency is proposing to do or what the impacts would be. (I can confirm that trying to figure out what Caltrans is doing or what the impacts might be is like trying to learn Trigonometry from a textbook written in Phoenician.)

In its rebuttal, Caltrans dismissed our claims with sophisticated sophistry. To our first issue, Caltrans responded: “Why should we offer new public comment, when we allowed public comment back in 2008-2009?—that should be enough.” (Seriously, that was their argument.) The judge appeared to doubt the agency’s case. After Caltrans’ attorneys concluded their argument, the judge asked, “What’s the harm in allowing new public comment?” To which Caltrans had no argument other than it didn’t think it was necessary. The truth of the matter is that Caltrans wants to keep the “administrative record” for the project closed and not allow another opportunity for EPIC and the public to poke holes in their arguments.

To the second issue, Caltrans admitted that there were errors and discrepancies, but instead of owning up to their mistakes, Caltrans pointed to all of the paper that it had created in developing the project, some 19,000 pages. Their argument: Yes, there may be errors in some places, but that’s to be expected when you have a big project. This trick—to bury a court under a heaping mound of paper—is a common one used by any party that wants to make it look like it did a thorough job and make an overburdened judge’s work more difficult by forcing her to sort the wheat from the chaff. But it masks a fatal flaw. While there are a lot of pages, not all pages have the same weight. Where it matters—the most consequential documents—are where those errors and internal discrepancies matter. Throughout the project’s development, Caltrans has failed to generate public support because of their sloppy work. How can we trust an agency that no old growth will be adversely impacted if the agency can’t keep their facts straight?

The case is now in Judge Neel’s hands. She stated that she would take the case seriously and appreciated the broad public show of support for Richardson Grove. Cross your fingers and think good thoughts. And when you are traveling through Richardson Grove, Go Slow for the Grove!


If you held the purse strings to Caltrans, how would you spend your tax dollars?

Monday, August 24th, 2015
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CRTP_LOGO_2ColorWould you build bigger freeways or fix existing failing roadways and infrastructure?

Would you chose to bulldoze through a wetland in order to reduce a five and a half hour drive time by five minutes or would you make improvements to portions of the road known to regularly cause deadly accidents? Would you design projects to accommodate the needs of commercial interests or the regional community who use the roads?

These are the questions, we at EPIC continue to ask ourselves and we would like to know what you think—what are your transportation priorities?

For the past 7-years, EPIC has defended the ancient redwood forest of Richardson Grove State Park and the Wild and Scenic Smith River from two highway realignment projects the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has designed in order to allow oversized trucks into sensitive environments. The purpose of these projects is questionable, with dubious economic justifications and known negative environmental impacts. Are these projects what the North Coast wants and needs?

Our court cases have stopped the projects and have shown a lack of agency consideration to legal obligations; and over the years public perception has changed, especially in Sacramento, regarding what should Caltrans’ priorities be. EPIC is committed to holding the line for the legal defense for Richardson Grove, and the Smith River 197/199 Project; however lawsuits slow, they do not typically make projects go away. We believe that with increased public pressure and new information, we can build the political momentum needed to stop these projects once and for all.

I would like to introduce you to a newly created organization called the, Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities (CRTP). CRTP is dedicated to a new vision for transportation on California’s North Coast. Their vision is to build on the geographic advantage of the North Coast by encouraging spending of limited transportation infrastructure dollars on projects that ensure a high quality of life for the community. They reject the outdated idea that limited transportation dollars should be spent on building ever-wider roads, but instead, focus on maintaining the roads and bridges we have in order to ensure that people can continue to get to local homes and businesses—and then improve our community-level infrastructure to ensure that they want to stay.

The Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities will be on redwood coast community radio station, the KMUD Environment Show, on Tuesday, August 25th, from 7-8pm. Listen live at 99.1FM or stream it live or archived at KMUD.org

On Wednesday, August 26th CRTP is hosting a “Meet and Greet” from 5-7pm at the Chapala Café (201 Second St, Eureka). These are informal occasions for anyone interested in the issues to talk about CRTP’s plans and priorities as well as other local transportation topics.

CRTP Priorities

Spend our limited transportation dollars on maintenance and repairs first. For many years, our state and our nation have built more and bigger infrastructure than we can afford to maintain. On the North Coast, the rugged and unstable terrain combined with the age of our roads and bridges make this problem particularly acute. Our crumbling roads and bridges put basic access for residents and emergency services at risk. Fixing these problems needs to come before we even consider expanding existing roadways.

Only fund new infrastructure that supports healthy, livable, sustainable communities. The road-building, road-widening approach to transportation planning is a relic of an earlier era—a fact reflected by Caltrans’ current mission and policies. When we build new infrastructure today, it should be with the goal of supporting safe, environmentally sustainable, community-building modes of transportation, such as walking, bicycling, mass transit, and responsible marine transportation.

Cancel counterproductive road expansion projects. We can no longer afford new infrastructure for the biggest fossil fuel-burning vehicles. Thanks to the “Buckhorn Grade” project, the biggest trucks on the road will soon have two ways to enter Humboldt and Del Norte Counties—via US 101 from Oregon and Highway 299 from Redding. The proposed Caltrans projects at Richardson Grove and on Highways 199/197 would add two more segments to this STAA trucking network, inviting even more big trucks into our communities and increasing greenhouse gas emissions at a time when Governor Brown has required Caltrans to reduce them. These projects are expensive, unnecessary and damaging to our roads, communities and environments. They reflect outdated planning priorities, and they do not serve our local needs. They can and should be canceled.


Last Chance Grade: Looking at Alternatives

Monday, June 8th, 2015
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Last Chance GradeThe Redwood Highway, also known as Highway 101, is the main north-south arterial connection for north coast residents and visitors alike. “Last Chance Grade” is a stretch of Highway 101 about ten miles south of Crescent City, which sits precariously high above the Pacific Ocean and experiences frequent landslides due to the geological instability of the area. Within this corridor, landslides have been an ongoing problem for decades, resulting in regular road closures. Currently, Caltrans is in the beginning stages of planning for the Last Chance Grade Project. The agency is considering possible alternatives and reroutes that would take the road along an inland path to the east through coastal scrub, riparian and young, mature and old-growth forests within the Del Norte Coast State and National Park boundaries.

lcg_cultural-and-environmental-resourcesThe project bypass proposals are big and expensive and one could result in the removal of up to three acres of old-growth redwoods (30-50 trees); all would result in significant cuts to the hillside with nearly a million cubic yards of fill that would need to be disposed of (and not in the nearby creeks). All bypass alternatives would directly impact the natural resources in and visitor access to Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. If Caltrans were to follow its traditional methods of operation, the project would result in major conflict and controversy.

Perhaps sensing that Last Chance Grade could be yet another disastrous Caltrans project, Congressman Jared Huffman stepped in and commissioned the creation of the Last Chance Grade Stakeholder Working Group. Elected officials from Humboldt and Del Norte County, three tribes, members of the public, business interests and environmental organizations, including EPIC, have a seat at the table. Over the next ten meetings, the group is tasked with reaching consensus to recommend one or two alternatives to Caltrans that would be the “preferred” alternative(s) to address the geological instability and potential for roadway failure at Last Chance Grade.

Thus far, the stakeholders have meet twice, toured the slide area and spoken with Caltrans’ geotechnical engineer about the slide and learned about existing construction fixes to the roadbed. According to Caltrans, the slide is nearly one mile long, about 2,500 feet wide and at a minimum 250 feet deep. The sheer size of the slide, the steepness of the cliff and the composition of the geology make the project area difficult to design around. Caltrans repaves the roadway monthly to combat sinking. The stakeholders are exploring all viable options including using the existing right of way, by way of a viaduct, and a tunnel.

This multi-stakeholder process is the first for Caltrans District 1. Perhaps the agency is learning that the community deserves an honest and open discussion about the social and environmental impacts of highway development? This process is a far cry from the way in which Caltrans District 1 first attempted to fast-track approval of the STAA highway-widening project at Richardson Grove State Park back in 2007. For the past seven years, EPIC has been calling on the agency to explain its decisions, take into account community concerns and operate in accordance with the law. “These should not be ridiculous expectations for a public agency,” said Natalynne DeLapp, Executive Director of EPIC. “However, three contentious lawsuits: Richardson Grove, Willits Bypass and the Smith River’s 199/197 projects have shown that Caltrans was not forthcoming with the public or respecting our laws.”

Caltrans has an opportunity to get it right with Last Chance Grade. There is little question among EPIC staff that the project has a legitimate need: to maintain motorist safety and connectivity of the major highway between Oregon and California. “We appreciate the opportunity to participate in the process and will work cooperatively with the stakeholders to find solutions that will adequately address the needs of the community, while protecting the rare and sensitive environments,” said Natalynne. “As this project unfolds, EPIC will continue to advocate for full public transparency and protection of old-growth redwood forest and salmon habitat values.”

Click here to listen to KHSU’s May 28 Thursday Night Talk as Eric Kirk interviews Natalynne DeLapp about Last Chance Grade and other transportation projects on the North Coast.

Click here to listen to KMUD’s May 25 Environment Show host Natalynne DeLapp discusses transportation, the environment and quality of life on the North Coast with Dave Spreen. 


Update on Caltrans’ Last Chance Grade Project

Thursday, February 19th, 2015
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Drilling Last Chance Grade

Caltrans recently held a series of public workshops seeking input from the public as the agency considers possible alternatives and reroutes in an attempt to find a long-term solution for the Last Chance Grade — a stretch of U.S. Highway 101 about ten miles south of Crescent City, which sits precariously high above the Pacific Ocean and experiences frequent landslides due to the geological instability of the area.

lcg_preliminary-alternativesThe road-building agency is currently examining a number of preliminary alternatives that would reroute Highway 101 to the east through Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park and private timberland. The reroutes would impact old-growth, mature and young redwood forests, coastal spruce forests and Mill Creek, which provides the best spawning habitat for the federally endangered Coho salmon  in the Smith River basin. The price tag for these projects run between $200 million to over $1 billion.

There is little question among the staff at EPIC that the project has a legitimate need: to maintain motorist safety and to connectivity of the major highway between Oregon and California; but we believe that all viable options for avoiding impacts to our natural resources must be thoroughly studied, and these studies must be made available to the public, before the project proceeds.

Specifically, studies regarding the feasibility of using the existing right of way for the project – through more permanent stabilization efforts than are currently taking place, use of a viaduct, or other measures – must be conducted and made available to the public. Despite what Caltrans officials said at the public meetings, EPIC does not consider this to be a “no action” alternative. Instead, we would like to see the feasibility of taking action within or near the existing roadway first. If a study concludes that this is infeasible, Caltrans should select an alternative that avoids impacts to old-growth redwoods to the greatest extent possible. For impacts that are truly unavoidable, Caltrans should implement mitigation that enhances old growth redwood and salmon habitat values. EPIC supports keeping the project as a 2-lane, 55mph road.

As this project unfolds, EPIC will continue to advocate for full public transparency and protection of old-growth redwood forest and salmon habitat values.

Click here to be redirected to Caltrans’ website for technical documents.


EPIC in Review

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015
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salmon-river-spring-M-Aaron CowanEPIC in Review, a summary of original comments submitted and letters signed to support conservation across the state and nation.

EPIC submitted substantive comments on the Draft Working Group Charters for the California Timber Regulation and Forest Restoration Program. The California Natural Resources Agency (CRNA) and the California Environmental Protection Agency (CAL EPA) are implementing the provisions and intent of Assembly Bill 1492. EPIC has reviewed the draft working group charters for Ecological Performance, Data and Monitoring and Administrative Performance Measures. The draft charters lack fundamental foundation definitions, goals, and objectives; and EPIC does not believe it to be a true public process designed to deliver necessary change. If ecological standards and performance measures are intended to secure vibrant forests, healthy rivers, and abundant, self-sustaining wildlife populations, then measurable objectives must be defined and monitored. They must be science-based, and done out-in-the-open in a collaborative process using the input of stakeholders from outside of the usual agency and industry suspects. EPIC supports the concept of a comprehensive review and analysis of the existing forest practice regulatory system.

Six Rivers & Klamath National Forest road maintenance plans: EPIC submitted scoping comments on the Six Rivers Road Maintenance Project. The project proposes to maintain and treat portions of up to 2,682 miles of National Forest Transportation System roads on Six Rivers National Forest and Klamath National Forest. We urge the agency to scale down the project either in size, timing or by other means to allow a sufficient analysis to the impacts.

Grazing leases in the King’s Range: EPIC joined with Western Watersheds and submitted comments on the proposed renewal of Grazing Leases in the King’s Range National Conservation Area.  The HJ Ridge grazing lease includes 1,160 acres of public land with approximately 1,000 acres in wilderness. The Spanish Flat grazing lease includes 9,100 acres of public land, all entirely within wilderness. EPIC believes that livestock grazing is degrading wilderness character, impacting cultural and ecological resources, and recreational experience. With ongoing drought and climate change issues, and lack of water for livestock, the Bureau of Land Management should be working with the public to close these allotments to further commercial livestock use. We urge the BLM to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement before renewing these leases.

EPIC Submitted comments in support of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rule to list the West Coast Distinct Population Segment of the Pacific Fisher as a “threatened” species under the federal Endangered Species Act. The letter encourages the Service to designate Critical Habitat for the Fisher at the time of listing.

Vote NO on H.R. 161, the Natural Gas Pipelines Permitting Reform Act: EPIC co-signed a letter urging representatives to oppose HR 161, a bill that would spread pipelines into parks, forests, and private property, across the country thereby fragmenting forests and causing loss of critical habitat. HR 161 seeks to rubber-stamp Federal Energy Regulatory Committee permits, superseding states’ authority to provide their own protection under the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Protection Act.

EPIC signed a coalition letter opposing H.R. 399, the “Secure our Borders First Act of 2015.” Under the guise of enhancing border security, H.R. 399 would further militarize areas already glutted with walls and roads; undermine environmental laws, and allow more damage to the fragile border environment. Sections 3 and 13 would only harm wildlife, and communities on the border while doing nothing to increase border security.

EPIC signed on in support of Booker’s Amendment #155 to the Keystone XL Pipeline bill, S.1. This amendment ensures agencies disclose any significant new circumstances or information on the environmental, public health, social, and other impacts resulting from the project and that the Keystone XL Pipeline is subject to the same requirements as all other major pipelines.

EPIC signed on to letter challenging unmitigated Navy Testing and Training in the Pacific Northwest: The Navy shows a continued failure to protect whales, dolphins and other marine life from behavioral disruptions such as the separation of mothers and calves, and injury such as permanent hearing loss. They must develop alternatives and mitigation measures in a wholesale revision of the DEIS.

EPIC signed on to a Letter to Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior re: the Aquatic Conservation Strategy (ACS) of the Northwest Forest Plan: The ACS is largely responsible for higher quality aquatic habitats, enhanced water quality, sustenance of imperiled salmon and associated recreational and commercial fisheries, restoration of sediment and hydrologic regimes, increased floodwater retention, and countless other ecological and economic benefits that flow from healthy watersheds. Emerging science on climate change, stream conditions, nutrient retention and other issues justify more, not less, protection, yet despite its success, the ACS is under attack. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, the land management agencies charged with its administration, are being pressured by Congress to dismantle or significantly weaken the ACS.


Action Alert: Tell Caltrans to study impacts before advancing the Four Bridges Project

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015
By
Avenue of the Giants

Avenue of the Giants

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is proposing to upgrade four existing  bridges along the Avenue of the Giants, a world-famous scenic drive along old Highway 101, through the ancient redwood groves of Redwood State Park.

Take Action: Tell Caltrans that it needs to adequately study impacts, and adequately inform the public, before they move forward with the project.

Elk Creek Bridge

Elk Creek Bridge

Caltrans released an Initial Study with Proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration for the “Avenue of the Giants – Four Bridges Project” over the holidays, comments are due on Monday, February 2.  (A “Mitigated Negative Declaration” is a CEQA document that essentially says that environmental impacts will be mitigated below significant levels, and therefore that further study of the project impacts is unnecessary.) As proposed, this project would involve upgrades to bridge and guard railings and repaving of the existing roadway on each side of four bridges on Avenue of the Giants/Route 254, and all of this work would occur within and around ancient redwoods and important salmon habitat. Yet, despite the precious resources potentially threatened by this project, Caltrans is pushing the project through without adequately analyzing or disclosing to the public the impacts of the project.

 Tell Caltrans:
* Impacts to redwoods need to be fully analyzed, and all conclusions need to be fully explained to the public, before work begins in and around their roots.
* Adequate, and fully explained, measures to avoid spills or other stream disturbances need to be developed before Caltrans begins working over streams with important fish habitat.
* Caltrans needs to recirculate the Initial Study with Proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration with all underlying studies and documents in order to be transparent with the public about the project and its potential impacts to public resources, and in order to comply with CEQA which requires that the public be provided this information for comment.

Impacts to Trees
Caltrans maintains that the project area contains 46 coastal redwood trees. While the Initial Study and Proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration notes that “[i]t is difficult to develop a mitigation strategy that adequately offsets a project’s impacts to old growth redwood trees, due to their size and age,” it nevertheless concludes that the study will have “less than significant” impacts on these trees. The impacts on each tree in the area were rated on a 0-6 scale corresponding with the magnitude of impacts of the projects on the tree: eleven trees were rated “0” (no effect); fourteen were rated “1” (effect of root zone disturbance is extremely minor with no decline in foliage density or tree health); and twenty-two were rated “2” (effect of root zone disturbance is very slight with no decline in foliage density or tree health). Exactly how this rating system was developed, or how the trees were rated, however, was not disclosed. For trees rated “2,” for instance, the Initial Study indicates that there may be project activities closer than 10 feet from the base of these trees. Caltrans needs to explain why it believes that this work occurring so close to the trees would cause only “very slight”  root zone disturbance.

Various avoidance, minimization, and mitigation measures are proposed to reduce impacts to redwoods. Many, however, contain inadequate descriptions regarding how they will be carried out. For example, one such measure is “no roots greater than two inches in diameter will be cut,” however the Initial Study does not describe how work crews will achieve this.

In short, Caltrans has not demonstrated that it takes seriously the great responsibility of working near our precious ancient redwoods, and that it deserves our trust when they say that the project will leave these trees unharmed.

Impacts on Fish
The bridges at issue span Ohman Creek, Elk Creek, Bridge Creek and Bear Creek, all four of which provide habitat for Chinook and Coho salmon, among other aquatic creatures. As with its analysis of impacts on redwoods, Caltrans concludes that the impacts of the project on fish will be “less than significant,” but it provides little evidence to support this conclusion.

Furthermore, the document acknowledges that unexpected impacts to fish can occur from “unintended spills, increased sedimentation, and alteration of pH.”

Collapse Jan. 22, 2015. Photo Credit: Steve Eberhard Willits News

Collapse Jan. 22, 2015. Photo Credit: Steve Eberhard Willits News

As we have unfortunately learned from the recent collapse of the overpass at Willits Bypass, which spilled wet concrete into a nearby stream, raising the pH of the stream to a level that can kill fish immediately, unintended events can have huge impacts. But the “avoidance, minimization, and/or mitigation measures” provided in the Initial Study for the Four Bridges Project for potential impacts to anadromous fish are vague and inadequate. Before starting work above and around these streams, Caltrans should provide additional assurances that spills and other disturbances of the creeks in the project area will be prevented, and it should develop and circulate for public review a site-specific emergency response plan for spills or other disturbances of the streams.

CEQA violations
CEQA requires that all documents referenced in a proposed mitigated negative declaration be made available to the public. (See Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21092; CEQA Guidelines  § 15072). In this Mitigated Negative Declaration, however, many conclusions rely entirely on referenced documents and surveys, which were not made publicly available, in clear violation of CEQA.

While ultimately it may be that Caltrans believes it has put adequate measures in place to reduce environmental impacts of this project to acceptable levels, it needs to prove this to the public by publicly releasing all underlying documents so that the public – as a participant in the process for informed decision-making – can review and comment on all the information.

This must be done before Caltrans can act to decide this project.

Click here to be directed to Caltrans’ website for technical studies.


Save Richardson Grove: Think Globally, Act Locally

Sunday, January 25th, 2015
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Madrone Hugging Ancient RedwoodIf everyone cared for their own wild back yard, the world would be a better place. Northwest California is known for having some of the wildest lands, including the Lost Coast and the tallest trees on the planet, which have been preserved behind the redwood curtain since time immemorial. With less than three percent of the planet’s old growth redwood trees remaining, it is imperative that every ancient tree is protected, especially if they are entrusted into a park system, which has vowed to protect them in perpetuity.

Since 2007, EPIC has been working to protect some of the most well-known giant redwoods in the world from the California Department of Transportation’s destructive highway-widening project. A grass roots coalition of community members, business owners, economists, conservation and Native American groups have opposed the Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project, which proposed tree removal and destruction of the root systems of ancient redwood trees in Richardson Grove State Park – trees that are supposed to be protected by the state park system.

Richardson Grove is the first cluster of old-growth redwoods people see as they head up the coast on Highway 101, it is essentially the “redwood curtain” that has allowed Humboldt County to retain its rural character. The redwoods in Richardson Grove also serve as critical habitat for Marbled Murrelets, Northern Spotted Owls and streams going through the Grove are critical habitat for endangered Coho Salmon. Maintaining the integrity of these trees is incredibly important not only to the ecosystem, but to the community, since these trees are the pinch point that do not allow for larger trucks serving corporate chains that are characteristic of sprawling urban areas, and which many people feel would change the essential character of Humboldt County.

For eight years EPIC and allies have organized community support, provided comments, and filed substantive lawsuits that convinced a federal judge to grant an injunction halting the Richardson Grove project citing that the agency had been “arbitrary and capricious” in its use of what the court called “faulty data.” This past December Caltrans revoked its approval of the project. If the agency decides to pursue the project, a complete and comprehensive environmental review and approval process will have to start over. This is a victory, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and rest assured that the trees in Richardson Grove State Park will not be harmed for now.

An important lesson has been learned because of this case, that Caltrans consistently breaks the rules, violating environmental laws and risking important public trust resources. For this reason, EPIC will continue to engage with Caltrans and hold them accountable to the environmental standards that have been put in place to protect our natural treasures.

A related proposal that should be watched closely is Caltrans’ “Last Chance Grade” project, located along Highway 101 ten miles south of Crescent City where the roadbed is sliding into the Pacific Ocean. Caltrans is in the beginning planning phases of this project and is looking at potential alternative routes to the east, away from the sliding cliffs, which includes multiple alternatives that would go through the middle of Redwood State and National Parks. EPIC is committed to finding the least environmentally destructive project alternative that meets the needs of the community, while holding Caltrans accountable to environmental laws.

The loss of large tracts of intact wild lands may be the single biggest threat to our way of life. Climate disruption will only compound the threats that future generations face. In order to secure a sustainable future, it is clear that protecting and restoring Northwest California’s forest ecosystems will provide necessary habitat, clean air and water, carbon sequestration, and improve quality of life for people and native wildlife for generations to come.

In order to hone EPIC’s effectiveness in protecting wild forestlands within our bioregion, we have restructured the organization, added two new attorneys to our staff, and developed a new strategic plan to focus on three primary campaigns:

•Achieving permanent connectivity of working and wild forestlands, a campaign called “Connecting Wild Places;”

•Ensuring best management of public forestlands; and

•Ensuring best management of private industrial forests with an emphasis on the Elk, Mattole and Freshwater watersheds.

With your help, we can protect wild places and ensure that public and private lands are managed responsibly to maintain healthy intact ecosystems. We have our work cut out for us, but we are dedicated and determined to leave our children with a legacy we can all be proud of.

 


Caltrans Setting Sights on Redwood National Park

Thursday, January 15th, 2015
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Last Chance GradeCaltrans is in the beginning stages of planning for the Last Chance Grade Project along Highway 101 (10-miles south of Crescent City), where the highway is slipping into the Pacific Ocean. This project would have significant environmental impacts, as the highway would likely be rerouted to the east through Redwood State and National Parks.

EPIC is committed to finding the least environmentally destructive alternative for this project and will work tireless to hold Caltrans to the law. We need your help. Please attend the meeting most convenient to you. We need to show Caltrans that the community is paying attention to this project and let them know we will protect our ancient redwood forests and coho salmon-bearing streams. Click here to learn more about the project.

A series of community workshops will be held to get public input and ideas on a range of possible alternatives for Last Chance Grade. Come to a workshop to learn more and share your ideas:
Crescent City – Monday, January 26, 2015
5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Del Norte County Fairgrounds
Arts & Crafts Building
421 Highway 101 North

Eureka – Tuesday, January 27, 2015
5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Wharfinger Building
Great Room
Eureka Public Marina, #1 Marina Way

Klamath – Wednesday, January 28, 2015
5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Yurok Tribal Office
Klamath Community Room
190 Klamath Boulevard

These meetings are being characterized as a series of workshops, with small breakout groups. There are six different preliminary alternatives for consideration that will be further analyzed as part of the design engineered feasibility study that will be completed by July 2015. All meetings will be verbally recorded so that the content is sufficiently captured. We have seen no notification to the public regarding these meetings.


Plans Halted for Widening Highway Through Ancient Redwoods in California’s Richardson Grove State Park

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014
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RichardsonGroveAfter years of opposition, Caltrans has rescinded its approvals for a controversial highway-widening project that would endanger ancient redwood trees in Richardson Grove State Park, along Highway 101 in Humboldt County. Conservation groups and local residents this week dismissed a lawsuit they filed in federal court in July in exchange for Caltrans abandoning the project approvals and agreeing to restart the environmental review if the agency pursues the project. Caltrans has been prohibited from any project construction activities by both a 2012 federal court injunction and a recent state court order.

“This is an important victory stopping a nonsensical project that would have done terrible damage to an ancient grove of giant redwoods in our state park,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ll be ready to go back to court if Caltrans decides to pursue the project, and it’ll have to completely start over on environmental review and the approval process.”

Conservation groups and local residents have now won three consecutive lawsuits challenging the “Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project,” a proposal that would cut into and pave over the roots of many of Richardson Grove’s ancient redwoods, including some that are 2,000 years old, are 18 feet in diameter and reach heights of 300 feet. Caltrans has pursued this project solely to benefit passage for oversized commercial trucks.

“It’s time to investigate the huge amount of taxpayer money Caltrans has wasted pursuing this ill-conceived project,” said Natalynne DeLapp with the Environmental Protection Information Center. “Caltrans should have to answer why the agency continues to pour money down the drain pursuing a project that cannot be legally approved. Regulatory agencies and the public will not allow Richardson Grove’s ancient trees to be damaged.”

The latest lawsuit was filed by the Environmental Protection Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Bruce Edwards, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen. The lawsuit challenged Caltrans’ violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

Background

Richardson Grove State Park, where tourists often first encounter large redwoods when heading north on Highway 101, is home to one of the last protected stands of accessible old-growth redwood trees in the world. The park also contains essential habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the northern spotted owl, and its creeks support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead trout.

Caltrans first proposed the highway-widening project in 2007. Opposition to the project has grown substantially, led by the Save Richardson Grove Coalition, a diverse group of community members including economists, business owners, scientists and Northern California tribes with longstanding ties to the grove.

Caltrans claimed the highway-widening project was needed to accommodate large-truck travel, but acknowledged that the portion of road in question was already designated for larger trucks and did not have significant safety problems. The agency did not establish that the project was necessary for safety or would benefit the local economy. Smaller-sized commercial trucks have travelled through the grove for years to deliver goods to Humboldt County, and legislative exemptions have functioned to allow the passage of oversize trucks.

The plaintiffs first sued in 2010 when Caltrans certified inadequate environmental review documents and adopted a “finding of no significant impact.” In 2012 a federal court stopped the project, citing numerous errors in Caltrans’ mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods and stating that the agency had been “arbitrary and capricious” in its use of what the court called ‘faulty data.” The California Court of Appeal in January 2014 ordered Caltrans to reevaluate the environmental impacts of the project under state law, finding that it had failed to fully assess impacts on ancient redwoods or provide measures to reduce potentially severe harm to the trees.

The latest lawsuit was filed earlier this year when Caltrans approved a “supplement” to its federal environmental review and renewed the project approval, while refusing to consider public concerns about the issues raised in the previous lawsuit. Caltrans failed to fix the numerous errors in mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods that were cited by the federal judge in his order.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs are Philip Gregory and Pete McCloskey of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, LLP; Stuart Gross of Gross Law; and Sharon Duggan, a long-time expert on environmental law.

EPIC Richardson Grove Press Release 12.5.14


Third Lawsuit Filed to Prevent Caltrans From Vandalizing Ancient Redwoods in Richardson Grove State Park

Monday, July 28th, 2014
By
Photo by Juan Pazos

Photo by Juan Pazos

SAN FRANCISCO— Following two previously successful federal and state court legal actions, conservation groups and local residents filed a lawsuit in federal court today challenging Caltrans’ renewed approval of a controversial highway-widening project that would endanger ancient and irreplaceable redwood trees in Richardson Grove State Park in Humboldt County. Due to Caltrans’ flawed environmental-review process, the project to cut into and pave over the roots of old-growth redwoods along Highway 101 was halted by a federal court ruling in 2012 and a state court decision earlier this year.

“The shortsightedness of this project is dumbfounding,” said Peter Galvin with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Does Caltrans really expect the public to accept a multimillion dollar project that would needlessly damage this iconic grove of giant redwoods?”

“We will not allow Caltrans to put Richardson Grove’s ancient trees at risk,” said Natalynne DeLapp with EPIC. “Caltrans owes the public a full and honest account of how its highway-widening plans could damage this irreplaceable state park.”

The lawsuit filed in federal court for the Northern District of California alleges serious violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. The plaintiffs are the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, as well as local residents Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Bruce Edwards, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen.

The so-called “Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project” would require cutting into and paving over the roots of many of Richardson Grove’s ancient redwoods, some of which have stood for as many as 3,000 years, measure as much as 18 feet in diameter and reach heights of 300 feet. The project is being undertaken solely to benefit passage for large commercial trucks. While originally promoted by Caltrans as a safety project, the agency was not able to offer any evidence of safety concerns along the narrow, one-mile stretch of roadway through the state park.

The plaintiffs first sued in federal and state courts in 2010 when Caltrans certified inadequate environmental review documents and adopted a “Finding of No Significant Impact.” In 2012 the federal court stopped the project, citing numerous errors in Caltrans’ mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods and stating that the agency had been “arbitrary and capricious” in its use of what the court called “faulty data.” The California Court of Appeal in January 2014 ordered Caltrans to reevaluate the environmental impacts of the project under state law, finding that it had failed to fully assess impacts on ancient redwoods or provide measures to reduce potentially severe harm to the trees.

Today’s lawsuit was triggered when earlier this year Caltrans approved a “supplement” to its federal environmental review and renewed the project approval, while refusing to consider public concerns about the issues raised in the previous lawsuit. The complaint alleges that Caltrans failed to fix the numerous errors in mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods that were cited by the federal judge in his order.

Background

Richardson Grove State Park, where tourists often first encounter large redwoods when heading north on Highway 101, is home to one of the last protected stands of accessible old-growth redwoods in the world. The park also contains essential habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl, and its creeks support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead trout.

Caltrans first proposed the highway-widening project in 2007. Opposition to the project has grown substantially, led by the Save Richardson Grove Coalition, a diverse group of community members including economists, business owners, scientists and Northern California tribes with longstanding ties to the grove.

Caltrans claims the highway widening project is needed to accommodate large-truck travel, yet the agency has acknowledged that this portion of road is already designated for larger trucks and does not have significant safety problems. Even with its “supplement” to the environmental review, Caltrans has not established that this project is necessary for safety or will benefit the local economy. Smaller-sized commercial trucks have travelled through the grove for years to deliver goods to Humboldt County, and legislative exemptions have functioned to allow the passage of oversize trucks.

Plaintiff Trisha Lotus is the great-granddaughter of Henry Devoy, who in 1922 transferred to California the redwood forest that became Richardson Grove State Park. Jeffrey Hedin is a disabled Vietnam veteran and a volunteer responder with the Piercy Fire Protection District. Bruce Edwards is a licensed contractor who frequently travels through Richardson Grove. Bess Bair is the granddaughter of Bess and Fred Hartsook, who for many years owned the Hartsook Inn resort next to Richardson Grove State Park. David Spreen is a long-time resident of Humboldt County and has extensive business experience negotiating rates and scheduling shipping of flooring materials in the North Coast region, nationally and internationally.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs are Philip Gregory and Pete McCloskey of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, LLP; Stuart Gross of Gross Law; and Sharon Duggan, a long-time expert on environmental law.

 Click here to download the complaint.


Caltrans Agrees to Reevaluate Impacts of Del Norte Highway Project on Endangered Salmon

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014
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SmithIn response to a lawsuit by EPIC and other conservation groups, Caltrans has agreed to reassess impacts of a controversial highway-widening project in Del Norte County on protected salmon and their habitat along the Wild and Scenic Smith River. A settlement agreement will keep in place a court-ordered halt of construction work until Caltrans completes consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service under the Endangered Species Act and Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Act.

“The North Coast community deserves a project that does not put salmon and the Smith River at risk, as well as an honest assessment of the impacts of highway development on the region,” said Natalynne DeLapp with EPIC. “This is an opportunity for Caltrans to reassess whether this project is in the best interests of taxpayers and the environment.”

Caltrans is attempting to widen narrow sections of highways 197 and 199 along the Smith River in California’s remote Del Norte County to provide access for oversized trucks. Construction would increase erosion and delivery of sediment into the Middle Fork Smith River, harming habitat for threatened coho salmon runs that already face a high risk of extinction. The project would undermine public safety by increasing heavy and oversized truck use on narrow roadways along the Smith River Canyon; it would hurt tourism and local residents.

“Caltrans should reevaluate the whole premise of this expensive, unnecessary project that would cause erosion and sediment impacts to critical salmon habitat,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Caltrans has already wasted more than $9 million of taxpayer money by starting major construction work along a pristine river without first doing a valid environmental review.”

Friends of Del Norte, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Protection Information Center filed lawsuits in state and federal court in 2013 challenging Caltrans’ approval of the $26 million “197/199 Safe STAA Access Project” due to inadequate review of the environmental impacts. The state agency began cutting trees and removing vegetation close to the Smith River in January and was scheduled to begin major earthmoving and construction work in May.

“Caltrans and the National Marine Fisheries Service should have pursued a scientific study to start this process rather than pay lip-service to written environmental law, said Don Gillespie with Friends of Del Norte. “The important issues of highway motorist safety on Highways 199/197 can be addressed on a smaller scale, without the massive erosive bank cuts required to allow STAA truck passage, that endanger the Smith River water quality and threaten our vital fisheries.”

A Northern District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction in early May stopping Caltrans from doing any further work, citing substantial violations of the Endangered Species Act, a “haphazard” consultation process with the federal fisheries agency, and the potential for irreparable harm to the Smith River and salmon habitat. The court characterized both agencies’ biological assessment documents for the project as “contradictory and unclear.”

As part of the new settlement, Caltrans has now reinitiated consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service to properly analyze whether the project would jeopardize threatened coho salmon and their critical habitat in the Smith River or adversely affect the essential fish habitat of all salmon species in the river. The conservation groups retain the right to challenge any further agency decisions or environmental documents for the project.

Caltrans has not considered alternatives besides widening the highway and tried to downplay project impacts on salmon habitat and water quality along the Smith River. The agency refused to evaluate safety hazards from increased truck traffic and ignored the cumulative impacts of numerous other associated Caltrans highway-widening projects in Northern California for oversized truck access. Despite the Fisheries Service’s own data on the imperiled status of coho salmon in the Smith, the fisheries agency rubber-stamped the original project without sufficient review. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Stuart G. Gross and Sharon Duggan and the nationally recognized firm of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy.

Background

Highway 199 is a scenic byway along the Smith River Canyon that passes through the Six Rivers National Forest and the Smith River National Recreation Area and provides access to Redwood National and State Parks. The Smith River is the only undammed river in California, with the longest stretch of designated “wild and scenic” river in the lower 48. A 1989 Caltrans report acknowledged the physical constraints of the narrow, steep and rocky Smith River Canyon and concluded that environmental concerns make Highway 199 “a poor candidate for extensive upgrading.”

Highway 197 is a seven-mile, two-lane country road that runs north to south along the lower Smith River just northeast of Crescent City. It is a rural-residential route with 72 driveways directly entering onto the road. In order to avoid Jedediah Smith State Park at the western edge of the project, oversized trucks would divert off Highway 199 and travel along Highway 197 to the north of Crescent City to reach Highway 101.

Court challenges to the related Caltrans road-widening project through Richardson Grove on Highway 101 in Humboldt County have resulted in rulings determining that Caltrans failed to adequately analyze the potential impacts of highway development on the ancient redwoods protected in Richardson Grove State Park.

A recently released independent review of Caltrans called for sweeping reforms of the agency and cited a “culture of fear” within Caltrans when it comes to deviating from standard policies. The statewide Caltrans Watch coalition has highlighted the agency’s pervasive refusal to consider reasonable alternatives to massive highway projects, shoddy environmental review, lack of transparency, reliance on flawed data and disregard for public input.

Click here to view the Order of Stipulation

Click here to view the Official Press Release


Federal Court Halts Caltrans Highway-widening Project Along Smith River

Monday, May 5th, 2014
By

SmithCites Potential Impacts to Smith River, Coho Salmon in Granting Injunction

Northern District Court judge James Donato issued a preliminary injunction late Friday enjoining Caltrans from any further work on a controversial highway-widening project along the wild and scenic Smith River Canyon, until a court hearing scheduled for November 19. The judge cited substantial procedural violations of the Endangered Species Act and the potential for irreparable harm to endangered coho salmon and their critical habitat in the Smith River if the project goes forward.

“Caltrans should let this expensive and unneeded project die. Major excavation shouldn’t occur on such steep slopes along narrow, rural roads and within critical salmon habitat,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The court agreed that halting the project is in the public interest to protect endangered salmon.”

Caltrans is attempting to widen narrow sections of highways 197 and 199 along the Smith River in California’s remote Del Norte County, to provide access for oversized trucks. Construction would increase erosion and delivery of sediment into the Middle Fork Smith River, harming habitat for endangered coho salmon runs that already face a high risk of extinction. The project would undermine public safety by increasing heavy and oversized truck use on narrow roadways along the Smith River Canyon. It would negatively impact tourism and local residents.

“This project with its huge cuts in our narrow Smith River Canyon, was ill-conceived from the start, as is confirmed by Judge Donato’s decision,” said Don Gillespie with Friends of Del Norte. “The Coho Salmon Recovery Plan, when implemented, will have a much greater positive economic impact on our local economy than allowing oversized trucks to have unsafe access to our local highways.”

Friends of Del Norte, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) filed lawsuits in state and federal court in 2013 challenging Caltrans’ approval of the $26 million “197/199 Safe STAA Access Project” due to inadequate review of the environmental impacts. Caltrans began cutting trees and removing vegetation close to the Smith River in January 2014 and was scheduled to begin major earth-moving and construction work this month.

“This decision by the federal court should be a wake up call to our elected officials regarding public concerns about Caltrans playing fast and loose with environmental laws,” said Gary Graham Hughes, executive director of EPIC. “A thorough and adequate review process is needed to resolve the environmental and public safety concerns that our communities have about this project.”

The judge ruled that there is a risk of irreparable harm to the Smith River if the project were to proceed before the case is heard on its merits. The court also ruled that there a valid argument has been raised by plaintiffs that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the federal Endangered Species Act by failing to properly analyze whether the project will jeopardize protected coho salmon or their critical habitat. The court characterized both agencies’ biological assessment documents for the project as “contradictory and unclear,” citing “serious questions about the adequacy of the ESA review and consultation process” raised by the plaintiffs. The court noted that it “cannot rubber-stamp a haphazard consultation process.”

Caltrans tried to downplay the threat project construction poses to salmon habitat and water quality along the Smith River and failed to look at safety hazards from increased truck traffic. Caltrans has thus far refused to consider alternatives besides widening the highway and ignored the cumulative impacts of numerous other associated Caltrans highway-widening projects in Northern California for oversized truck access. Despite NMFS own data concerning the imperiled status of coho salmon in the Smith River, the agency rubber-stamped the project without giving it anything close to a sufficient review.

Background

Highway 199 is a scenic byway along the Smith River Canyon that passes through the Six Rivers National Forest and the Smith River National Recreation Area and provides access to Redwood national and state parks. The Smith River is the only undammed river in California, with the longest stretch of designated “wild and scenic” river in the lower 48. A 1989 Caltrans report acknowledged the physical constraints of the narrow, steep and rocky Smith River Canyon and concluded that environmental concerns make Highway 199 “a poor candidate for extensive upgrading.”

Highway 197 is a 7-mile, two-lane country road that runs north to south along the lower Smith River, just northeast of Crescent City. It is a rural-residential route with 72 driveways directly entering onto the road. In order to avoid Jedediah Smith State Park at the western edge of the project, oversized trucks would divert off Highway 199 and travel along Highway 197 to the north of Crescent City to reach Highway 101.

Court challenges to the related Caltrans project through Richardson Grove on Highway 101 in Humboldt County have resulted in rulings determining that Caltrans failed to adequately analyze the potential impacts of highway development on the ancient redwoods protected in Richardson Grove State Park.

A recently released independent review of Caltrans called for sweeping reforms of the agency and cited a “culture of fear” within Caltrans when it comes to deviating from standard policies. The statewide Caltrans Watch coalition has highlighted the agency’s pervasive refusal to consider reasonable alternatives to massive highway projects, shoddy environmental review, lack of transparency, reliance on flawed data and disregard for public input.

Order Granting Preliminary Injunction

EPIC Press Release: Federal Court Halts Caltrans Smith River Project


Injunction Sought to Halt Unnecessary Caltrans Highway-widening Project in Remote Northwest California

Thursday, March 20th, 2014
By

Photo by Scott HardingCaltrans Ignores Impacts to Smith River Canyon, Coho Salmon

EPIC along with several other conservation groups filed for a preliminary injunction in federal court today to halt construction of a Caltrans highway-widening project that would harm threatened coho salmon runs and undermine public safety along the wild and scenic Smith River Canyon in California’s remote Del Norte County. The project is aimed at widening narrow sections of highways 197 and 199 to provide access for oversized trucks. The conservation groups had challenged Caltrans’ approval of the project in federal and state court last year, for its inadequate review of the environmental impacts.

“Caltrans would have us believe allowing oversize trucks to drive faster through the tight Smith River canyon will make this scenic highway safer, yet it will do the opposite,” said Don Gillespie with Friends of Del Norte. “We are challenging this project to protect motorist safety and defend our treasured Smith River.”

Friends of Del Norte, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) seek to halt construction on the $26 million “197/199 Safe STAA Access Project.” It would increase unsafe heavy and oversized truck use on narrow roadways along the designated “wild and scenic” Smith River Canyon, negatively impacting tourism and local residents. Construction would harm habitat for coho salmon runs that the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) has identified as facing a high risk of extinction and core to the recovery of the species as a whole.

“The Smith River is one of California’s natural wonders as the last major undammed river in the state,” said Gary Graham Hughes, executive director of EPIC. “Our rivers are under incredible stress due to drought – this destructive highway widening project would unnecessarily put the Smith River and its salmon habitat at risk.”

“We will not let Caltrans degrade the pristine and ecologically important Smith River for its ill-advised network of routes for oversized trucks through coastal northwestern California,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This type of major roadwork shouldn’t occur along these narrow, rural roads and critical salmon habitat.”

Caltrans’ approval of the project did not follow the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a full evaluation of the potential environmental impacts of a project and consideration of viable alternatives. Caltrans’ project approval also violated the Wild and Scenic River Act and the Department of Transportation Act. NMFS is named on the lawsuit for violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to properly analyze whether the project will jeopardize protected coho salmon or their habitat.

Caltrans did not properly evaluate the threat project construction poses to salmon habitat and water quality along the Smith River or safety hazards from increased truck traffic. Caltrans refused to consider alternatives besides widening the highway, adopted unsubstantiated findings about impacts and mitigation measures, and avoided looking at the cumulative impacts of numerous associated Caltrans highway-widening projects in Northern California for oversized truck access. NMFS ignored its own data, including dire warnings concerning the status of coho in the Smith River, and rubber-stamped the project without giving it anything close to a sufficient review.

Background
Highway 199 is a scenic byway along the Smith River Canyon that passes through the Six Rivers National Forest and the Smith River National Recreation Area. It provides access to Redwood national and state parks, one of only two UNESCO World Heritage sites in California. The Smith River is the only undammed river in California, with the longest stretch of designated “wild and scenic” river in the lower 48. A 1989 Caltrans report acknowledged the physical constraints of the narrow, steep and rocky Smith River Canyon and concluded that environmental concerns make Highway 199 “a poor candidate for extensive upgrading.”

Highway 197 is a 7-mile, two-lane country road that runs north to south along the lower Smith River, just northeast of Crescent City. It is a rural-residential route with 72 driveways directly entering onto the road. In order to avoid Jedediah Smith State Park at the western edge of the project, oversized trucks would divert off Highway 199 and travel along Highway 197 to the north of Crescent City to reach Highway 101.

Court challenges to the related Caltrans project through Richardson Grove on Highway 101 in Humboldt County have resulted in rulings determining that Caltrans failed to adequately analyze the potential impacts of highway development on the ancient redwoods protected in Richardson Grove State Park.

A recently released independent review of Caltrans called for sweeping reforms of the agency and cited a “culture of fear” within Caltrans when it comes to deviating from standard policies. The statewide Caltrans Watch coalition has highlighted the agency’s pervasive refusal to consider reasonable alternatives to massive highway projects, shoddy environmental review, lack of transparency, reliance on flawed data and disregard for public input.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Stuart Gross and Sharon Duggan, and the nationally recognized firm of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy.

Motion for Prelimiary Injunction

Click here to view EPIC Press Release

Click here to learn more about EPIC’s work on the Smith River project.