Rein in Caltrans

Recent EPIC Advocacy Success Adds Spice to Annual Fall Celebration

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013
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Coup Poster no textThis coming Friday, November 1, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) is throwing it’s 36th birthday party with the annual EPIC Fall Celebration at the Mateel Community Center, in Redway, California. This is going to be a lively North Coast and harvest spiced community gathering that no one will want to miss. The EPIC Fall Celebration is one of the cornerstone fundraising and community outreach events for EPIC, and it is always a fun and engaging way to see friends and get to know the EPIC staff and board. The doors of the Mateel Hall will open at 6 PM for cocktails and snacks. A scrumptious Día de los Muertos style dinner will be served starting at 6:30 PM, followed by the evening program featuring the Sempervirens lifetime achievement award starting at 7:30 PM. At 9 PM a fantastic contemporary music line up will take the stage, starting with dub and reggae acts New Kingston and Indubious, followed by the acclaimed conscious hip-hop group The Coup.

This upbeat gathering to celebrate and support EPIC public interest conservation advocacy has become an annual tradition of festive proportions, and this year there is a particular excitement surrounding the celebration due to the massive public support for EPIC work to protect Richardson Grove State Park from the insatiable highway development agenda of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). In late September 2013, more than 16 months since the federal court in San Francisco had found Caltrans to be “arbitrary and capricious” in their use of “faulty data,” Caltrans came forth with the release of new documentation for the Richardson Grove project in the form of a “Supplement to the Final Environmental Assessment.” The release of this documentation required an agile and speedy response from the broad community of North Coast residents and California conservation advocates that have questioned the purpose, need, and design of the highway widening project that Caltrans is proposing for Richardson Grove. Within weeks EPIC and partners, including our invaluable ally the Center for Biological Diversity, were able to decipher and break down the new project documentation, and prepare a succinct action alert that was circulated broadly by email and social media and that facilitated the submission of comments by nearly 10,000 people from around the state, the country, and the world. The message from this incredible movement of active citizens is that Caltrans either drop the Richardson Grove project altogether, or do a proper analysis of the impacts of the project, including a robust examination of potential alternatives, in the form of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

The completion of an EIS for the project was implicitly suggested by the judge in the April 2012 court order that sent Caltrans back to the drawing board for the Richardson Grove project. Unfortunately the agency chose to ignore the court order and provided legally questionable and technically deficient documentation that will only lengthen the stalemate around the project and postpone the identification and design of comprehensive and community supported solutions for transportation planning, goods movement, and State Park protections. One of the triggers for an agency needing to complete an EIS is that a project generate a significant level of controversy. Clearly, the response of many thousands of people voicing opposition to the project, as well as a clear federal court order remanding the project to the agency for review “under a corrected lens of analysis” is an undeniable indication that this is a controversial project. It is obvious at this level that Caltrans must do a full EIS.

“The tremendous response of online activists, local community members, and statewide residents to our call to action to ‘Rein in Caltrans’ has been very exciting and inspirational,” said EPIC executive director Gary Graham Hughes. “Getting everyone together at our Fall Celebration this Friday will be a wonderful opportunity for like minded folks to relish this phenomenal level of citizen participation in efforts to promote a healthy human relationship with our landscapes here on the North Coast,” continued Hughes.

Whether it be working to eliminate the toxic damage from egregious cannabis agriculture operations, challenging the ongoing logging of the remaining old wild forest in our bioregion, or reforming the outdated and archaic Caltrans vision of perpetual development in an age of rapidly evident global climate change, EPIC is there as the guardian of your wild backyard. Joining the fun at the EPIC Fall Celebration is great way to support grassroots public interest advocacy in Northwest California, and a wonderful way to party with your friends and the team at EPIC. Come on out on Friday, November 1, to the Mateel Community Center and be part of the EPIC 2013 Fall Celebration.


Aerial Tour of Summer 2013 Fires

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013
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Aerial Tour of Summer 2013 Fires

In September, as Public Land Advocate for EPIC, I was provided the opportunity to do an aerial tour of this summer’s wildfires.  As with most fires in Northern California, a majority of the fire areas burned at low and moderate severity.  Over 50 miles of bulldozer lines were constructed and estimated costs for suppression efforts reached up to one million dollars per day.  EPIC advocates for appropriate land management in order to restore fire on the landscape and to protect communities rather than continuing the expensive chaotic military style of fire suppression.

There are always lessons to learn after an active fire season.  This year, local river communities and tribes worked closely with fire and Forest Service personnel, unlike years past.  These small changes over time may one day find us well-prepared and ready to welcome fire.  (All photos courtesy of Kimberly Baker, unless otherwise noted.)

Salmon River Complex

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Salmon River Panoramic: Butler Fire on left, Forks Fire on right – photo courtesy of Thomas Dunklin

Butler

The human caused Butler Fire on the main stem Salmon River reached over 22,000 acres and burned for nearly two months.  The estimated cost for suppression was $36,000,000.  Approximately 27 miles of bulldozer lines and approximately 10 miles of hand fire lines were constructed.

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Surrounding Butler Flat – Photo courtesy of Thomas Dunklin

 

Overview of mosaic burn patterns

Overview of mosaic burn patterns

 

Fire line near Orleans Mt. summit - Photo courtesy of Kimberly Baker

Fire line near Orleans Mt. summit

 

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Fire line Somes Mt. summit

 

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Extensive 5 mile bulldozer line on Hotelling Ridge

 

Forks (North Fork)

The human caused North Fork Salmon River Fire reached nearly 15,000 acres.  It burned for the month of August with suppression costs of $23,000,000.  Over 8 miles of hand fire lines were constructed as well as over 5 miles of bulldozer lines. Overall, a vast majority, 10,658 acres of the fire burned at low severity, 3,250 at moderate and 802 acres burned at high severity.

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Complete overview North Fork Fire – Photo courtesy of Thomas Dunklin

 

Downstream Forks Fire - Photo courtesy of Kimberly Baker

Downstream Forks Fire

 

Fire line burnout - Photo Courtesy of Kimberly Baker

Fire line burnout

 

 Dance Fire

The Dance Fire in the town of Orleans reached 650 acres and burned for nearly a week.  Tragically a home belonging to a Karuk elder was completely lost.

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Dance Fire

 

Corral

The naturally ignited Corral Fire outside the Hoopa Valley and Willow Creek burned entirely within the Trinity Alps Wilderness.  The fire reached over 12,000 acres and burned for nearly two months. Approximately 21 miles of bulldozer line was constructed and approximately 18 miles of hand fire line was constructed.

Trinity Alps Wilderness

Corral Fire in Trinity Alps Wilderness

 

Corral fire with Megram Fire of 1999 in background

Corral Fire with Megram Fire of 1999 in background

 

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Mosaic burn patterns

 

Mosaic burn patterns

Mosaic burn patterns

 

Corral Fire lines

Corral Fire lines

 

Bulldozed fire line

Bulldozed fire line

The Dance, Butler and Salmon Fires were all intentionally set. There is a $20 000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for starting the Salmon River Complex and Butler Fires. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Arson Tip Line at 1-800-842-4408.


Take Action to Protect the Irreplaceable Treasure of Richardson Grove

Thursday, October 10th, 2013
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Save Richardson Grove DonateClick Here to Take Action Now!

The fate of Richardson Grove State Park is in your hands. Caltrans is now accepting comments on the newly released Supplement to the Environmental Assessment for the Richardson Grove highway-widening project during a 30-day public comment period that will end on October 21, 2013. After a very serious remand from the federal court in April 2012, in which Caltrans was determined to have been “arbitrary and capricious” in their use of “false data,” Caltrans has defied the federal court order and has come back with inadequate documentation for the Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project. Caltrans is now communicating to the public that they will begin construction on the Richardson Grove project in mid-2014. This current public comment period is a critical juncture in the ongoing community supported campaign to stop Caltrans from conducting destructive activities amongst the ancient redwoods of Richardson Grove, which were to be protected in perpetuity under the California State Park System. Caltrans continues to downplay and ignore how road construction activities, tree thinning, old-growth root cutting, and long-term impacts of highway expansion will impact the irreplaceable old-growth ecosystem protected in the park.

Now is your chance to speak up for the trees. There is less than 3% of the original ancient redwood temperate rainforest left after more than a century of intense human economic development in the redwood region. Most all of the ancient redwoods that remain are held in isolated pockets of park-protected forests.  We can’t risk losing any of these last redwood giants. Don’t let Caltrans degrade this public trust resource when other viable alternatives are possible. Please take action now to ensure that this sacred and magical place is protected for future generations.

Why it is Important to Stop Caltrans from Destroying the Irreplaceable Public Trust Resource that is Richardson Grove

Richardson Grove is an irreplaceable ecosystem consisting of one of the world’s last remaining stands of old-growth redwoods. The Grove was designated as a heritage park and protected in the California State Park system, and is one of the state’s oldest and most popular state parks. Richardson Grove sits alongside the wild and scenic Eel River, and is a place that is of incredible value to a multitude of people from around the region, the state, the country, and the world. Richardson Grove has irreplaceable spiritual and cultural qualities and is known to contain important Native American archaeological sites. If Caltrans moves forward with the proposed project it will result in significant impacts to the state and federally designated wild and scenic Eel River, to known Native American cultural sites, to an irreplaceable old-growth redwood ecosystem, to habitat that is suitable for old-growth dependent species, and to the experience of visitors to the protected Richardson Grove State Park.

Caltrans should withdraw the Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project as it currently stands, and look to identify viable solutions that can effectively meet the needs and interests of the broad variety of stakeholders on the North Coast of California. If Caltrans does not drop the project, the agency must complete a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project. The new Supplement to the Environmental Assessment is inadequate, and it does not fulfill the Court’s order to prepare a revised Environmental Assessment or conduct an Environmental Impact Statement. The Tree Decisions Final Report fails to provide adequate analysis for individual trees, and completely fails to assess cumulative effects on the entire old-growth redwood grove that will be affected by the proposed project, as well as the region wide impacts of increased STAA truck traffic. Richardson Grove deserves better, take action now to express your concerns to Caltrans.

Over the past year, community concerns that Caltrans will have no regard for cultural and environmental resources at Richardson Grove have been confirmed by the manner by which the unnecessary and overbuilt Willits Bypass Project has been implemented. The destructive implementation of the Willits Bypass Project is relevant to the discussion, as there is ample evidence that Caltrans does not follow state or federal regulations that are in place to protect cultural or environmental resources. Caltrans installed wick drains and 3 feet of fill in an area that contained an archaeological site sacred to the Sherwood Valley Rancheria of Pomo Indians.  Caltrans was aware of the location of the site, and still destroyed it. Additionally, Caltrans has violated conditions of the wetland fill permit that was issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, and also had a nearly 900,000 cubic yard quarry and fill permit revoked by Mendocino County when irregularities for the fill permit came to light due to legal action by concerned citizens. With these clear and ongoing violations of the law, Caltrans has lost legitimacy in the eyes of thousands of North Coast residents. Caltrans insistence on pushing forward with the Richardson Grove project without doing the analysis required by the April 2012 court order reaffirms the concerns of conservation advocates regarding Caltrans ability and competence to implement projects appropriately in sensitive and rare environments.

Another ongoing concern is that Caltrans has failed to analyze and provide information about how the cumulative effects of the Richardson Grove project, along with the proposed widening of Highway 197/199 along the wild and scenic Smith River and the massive STAA highway-widening project on Hwy 299 at Buckhorn Summit, will impact our communities. An adequate analysis of the STAA access projects proposed and being currently implemented by Caltrans would take the necessary hard look at how highway development will affect not only the irreplaceable old-growth redwood ecosystem within Richardson Grove State Park, but how it could jeopardize the health of the entire redwood region: our safety, our environment, our roads, and our economy will all be impacted by this region wide STAA truck transportation project. Our community deserves an honest, transparent, and open discussion about the impacts of highway development, the costs and the benefits of such infrastructure development, and what viable alternatives are possible that will meet needs for goods movement and transportation, as well as protect the rare and sensitive environments that make Northwest California such a special place. Unfortunately, Caltrans continues to disregard state and federal law regarding transparency and access to information. We demand that the agency be forthcoming with an analysis of these region wide impacts resulting from the implementation of a variety of related STAA projects.

Unless an EIS is completed to analyze the full scope and effects of the proposed project, including an assessment of less environmentally damaging alternatives, this project should not go forward. Richardson Grove State Park is part of an irreplaceable, unique, and fragile ecosystem that is protected under state and federal laws. A federal court has already ruled once against Caltrans for their failure to provide adequate documentation for this project. A project of this nature and magnitude must be carefully analyzed to minimize impacts to this public trust resource. Caltrans needs to be prepared to work with a diverse group of stakeholders on the North Coast who want to work towards cost effective and environmentally sound solutions to our transportation and state park protection challenges.

Take Action Today! Rein in Caltrans! Protect the Irreplaceable Treasure of Richardson Grove!


Caltrans Fails to Follow Court Order, Provides Inadequate Richardson Grove Documentation

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013
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Photo by Jeff MusgraveOn Friday Sept 20, 2013, Caltrans published on their Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project webpage new documentation for the project. On Monday Sept 23, 2013, the agency distributed a press release announcing the new documentation and the already opened public comment period. This new documentation is ostensibly in response to the April 2012 federal court order in which Caltrans was found to have been “arbitrary and capricious” in their use of “faulty data” in the environmental review documentation for the project. Caltrans has framed this new documentation as a “supplement” to the Final Environmental Assessment. Public comment on the new documentation will be received until October 21, 2013.

“Though we are still fully examining this new documentation to literally get to the root issues of how Caltrans is ignoring the substance of what the court told the agency to do in the April 2012 decision, we can immediately recognize on several fronts how Caltrans is still failing to abide by the law and provide adequate environmental review for this project that they are proposing in an extremely rare and sensitive environment,” said Gary Graham Hughes, executive director with the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC). “This irresponsibility on the part of Caltrans is a clear example of government waste,” continued Hughes, “as the inadequate project review and the failure to consider alternatives will ultimately only extend this stalemate, keeping community supported transportation and state park protection solutions out of reach.”

Amongst the deficiencies in the new documentation is the failure of the agency to act upon the order of the court stating that “(I)n its revised EA (or EIS), Caltrans should give serious consideration to the other significant arguments made by plaintiffs in their motion.” The new supplement to the environmental documentation completely fails to look at the cumulative impacts of facilitating STAA oversize truck access to North Coast communities, as well as other serious issues described in previous litigation. As EPIC has just this week filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the Caltrans Hwy 197/199 STAA oversize truck project on the Smith River in Del Norte County, it is clear that Caltrans is developing large truck highway infrastructure to provide for an alternate route for Interstate 5 truck traffic down the North Coast of California on Highway 101. The cumulative impacts of increased oversize truck traffic merit analysis, yet Caltrans has refused to be forthright with North Coast residents about the direct impacts of their highway development projects on specific sensitive environments, much less been willing to engage the public on considering and understanding the cumulative impacts of increased oversize truck traffic on our regions highways and on the streets of our communities.

EPIC will continue to examine the new documentation for the Caltrans Richardson Grove project closely, and the organization will follow up in early October 2013 with an online action and technical analysis related to this documentation. It is part of the mission of the organization to provide opportunities for public comment on natural resource management issues of importance to our local communities, and to people all across the state, the nation, and the planet. The public comment deadline is October 21. The documents for the project are available at the Eureka and Garberville Branches of the Humboldt County Library, as well as online. However, to secure a paper copy of the supplement from Caltrans one has to be prepared to pay $40 to purchase the materials. Some stakeholders are already submitting comments to [email protected] to request an extension in the comment period in order that the public have sufficient opportunity to review and assess these documents and thereafter provide meaningful input.

Caltrans-public_notice_richardson_grove_supplement_ea_09-2013


Lawsuit Filed to Protect Wild and Scenic Smith River From Destructive Caltrans Highway-widening Project

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013
By
Smith River NRA

Smith River NRA
Photo Credit: Amber Shelton

CRESCENT CITY, Calif.— Conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit yesterday challenging a California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) highway-widening project that threatens endangered salmon runs, ancient redwoods and public safety along the wild and scenic Smith River Canyon in California’s remote Del Norte County. Caltrans approved a project to widen narrow sections of Highways 197 and 199 to provide access for oversized trucks without adequate review of the impacts. The groups had filed suit in state court in May for inadequate environmental review under state laws.

“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) are challenging 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, increasing the likelihood of deadly accidents and toxic spills, especially during dangerous winter conditions. The project would harm old-growth trees and habitat for protected salmon runs, as well as harm tourism and local residents.

“The Smith River is one of California’s natural wonders and the last major undammed river in California,” said Gary Graham Hughes, executive director of EPIC. “At a time when our river systems are under incredible stress, the Smith River is an oasis for humans and fish alike. The river corridor and coho spawning grounds deserve full protection from unnecessary and destructive highway development.”

“Caltrans is trying to sacrifice 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 is inappropriate along these narrow, rural roads and critical salmon habitat.”

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires public evaluation and disclosure of environmental impacts, consideration of reasonable alternatives with less damaging impacts, and development of mitigation measures to minimize environmental harm. Caltrans’ approval of the project violates several federal laws, including NEPA, the Magnuson-Stevens Act protecting “essential fish habitat,” the Wild and Scenic River Act and the Department of Transportation Act. The lawsuit also charges the National Marine Fisheries Service with failing to determine whether the project will jeopardize protected coho salmon and green sturgeon, in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Caltrans failed to properly evaluate threats to salmon habitat and water quality along the Smith River and safety hazards from increased truck traffic. Caltrans refused to consider alternatives besides highway widening and adopted unsubstantiated findings about impacts and mitigation measures. The agency avoided looking at the cumulative impacts of numerous associated Caltrans highway-widening projects in Northern California for oversized truck access.

Background

Highway 199 is a scenic byway along the Smith River canyon, 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, and the Smith River — 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 5-mile long, two-lane country road that runs north to south along the lower Smith River, and just east 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.

This project would facilitate a growth in truck traffic that will degrade the safety and quality of life of residents. Routing oversized trucks to these roadways during winter, when Interstate 5 can be closed by snow and ice, will pose significant threats to motorist and bicyclist safety. Caltrans is ignoring its own safety guidelines for the project and did not adequately assess these impacts in the environmental documentation.

A statewide coalition of conservation organizations is challenging irresponsible and damaging highway-widening projects around the state by Caltrans, and calling attention to 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. On the North Coast of California EPIC works to Rein in Caltrans, and supports the statewide Caltrans Watch coalition, which aims to put the brakes on Caltrans’ wasteful spending, institutionalized disregard of environmental regulations designed to protect natural resources, and pattern of refusal to address local concerns.

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

2013-09-23-FRIENDS OF DEL NORTE COMPLAINT – ECF1

EPIC Caltrans Smith River PR FINAL


EPIC Supports Economic Connectivity

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013
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20130315_143849Connectivity is one of the most important concepts related to the development of both effective conservation and viable long-term economic strategies. Over the course of our evolution as a public interest conservation advocacy organization, EPIC has worked hard to protect core natural areas, and to secure biological connectivity across the Northwest California landscape. With more than 35 years of experience in North Coast land management decision-making processes, EPIC has learned many lessons about how to successfully steer state and federal agencies, as well as large private landowners and rural residential communities, toward a landscape-scale vision for the stewardship of our forests and watersheds. What EPIC has also done over the years, and what receives less attention, is identify important opportunities to support economic development while still respecting the sensitive environments that make our region unique and a desirable place to live, work, and raise our children.

Over the course of the last several years the Northwest California region has been host to a contentious series of large-scale highway expansion projects promoted by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). At the same time, a parallel controversy has evolved around the persistence of certain economic interests in promoting what would prove to be very expensive and natural resource-damaging train transportation infrastructure to Humboldt Bay. As this debate goes forward, the current discourse concerning regional transportation needs fails to root itself in reality by ignoring critical infrastructure construction already underway. EPIC, based on the North Coast, and working through the five counties of Del Norte, Siskiyou, Trinity, Humboldt and Mendocino counties, has taken a very public role in questioning and challenging the purpose and need, as well as the design and quality of environmental review, of several Caltrans highway expansion projects, most notably the Richardson Grove Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) project, the Willits Bypass project, and the Highway 197/199 STAA access project in the Smith River Canyon of Del Norte County. Though these Caltrans projects have resulted in high-profile lawsuits and textbook instances of environmental conflict, one of the largest and most important transportation infrastructure projects for our region is currently under construction, and is facing no opposition from our organization — and it is still largely ignored in the current debate about economic connectivity and future rail or highway development in our region.

The Buckhorn Summit project on Highway 299 is a highway-widening project intended to facilitate access between Interstate 5 and the North Coast of the largest trucks on the road today — the STAA supersized cab trucks that are so common on the national interstate highway system. EPIC has monitored and tracked the $60 million Buckhorn grade projects, just as our organization has monitored and tracked the other STAA access projects at Richardson Grove and on the Smith River. Though we have insisted in numerous comment letters and legal briefings that all the evidence proves that Caltrans must analyze the cumulative impact of their STAA highway widening projects on Highway 101, Highway 199, and Highway 299, the agency has refused to fulfill their obligation. Regardless of that failure on the part of the largest road building agency in the world to accurately and honestly disclose to the North Coast public the cumulative impacts of this region wide highway expansion project, EPIC has stood completely out of the way on the Buckhorn Summit projects.

The Buckhorn Summit projects are not without their environmental impacts — over the course of project implementation more than 2,000,000 cubic yards of earth will be moved to straighten and widen the well-known stretch of curves on Highway 299 right at the western border of Shasta County. This is no small project — but EPIC has strategically stayed out of the way of that project as a demonstration of our understanding of the importance of supporting connectivity for economic interests in Humboldt County that desire big STAA truck service for the North Coast. There is no question that the fastest most direct route for goods from the North Coast to national markets is the direct line out Highway 299 to Interstate 5 and all points north, east, and south.

The bottom line about these transportation issues is that EPIC is aware of and supporting economic connectivity, while standing true to our mission and defending the unique natural qualities of our bioregion from unnecessary, damaging, and wasteful infrastructure development projects in some of the most special places remaining to us on the North Coast, and indeed, our planet.

This article was originally published as a My Word opinion piece in the Eureka Times-Standard.


Connectivity and Compromise

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013
By

North Coast Caltrans ProjectsOver the last several years the Northwest California region has been host to a series of increasingly contentious conflicts related to large-scale transportation infrastructure projects promoted by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). One of the principal arguments that EPIC has put forth to explain our engagement on these infrastructure development issues at unique places like Richardson Grove State Park and the Smith River Canyon is that the site specific and cumulative impacts of these projects have not been adequately disclosed and analyzed. EPIC’s challenge to Caltrans is often painted as obstructionist, and though our organization is intent on stopping poorly designed Caltrans projects and ultimately reforming the agency, our organization does have a sophisticated view of these projects as an integrated whole that is far from obstructionist.

Unbeknownst to many North Coast residents, the largest of the Caltrans big truck highway expansion projects is currently under construction—and the project has purposefully received no challenge from our organization. When completed in 2017, the $60 million Buckhorn grade infrastructure construction projects on Highway 299 will facilitate unfettered access along Hwy 299 between Interstate 5 and the North Coast for the largest trucks on the road today–the STAA supersized cab trucks that are so common on the nation’s interstate highway system.

The Buckhorn Summit projects are not without their environmental impacts–over the course of project implementation more than 2,000,000 cubic yards of earth will be moved to straighten and widen the famous stretch of steep curves on Highway 299 right at the western border of Shasta County. This is no small project–but EPIC has strategically remained distant from that project as a demonstration of our respect for the economic interests that desire big STAA truck access to the North Coast. There is no question that the fastest, most direct route for goods from Humboldt County to national markets is the direct line out Hwy 299 to Interstate 5 and all points north, east, and south.

The Buckhorn Summit STAA access projects make up an important infrastructure development that should be taken into consideration to understand the integrated vision of EPIC efforts to challenge Caltrans—and to understand the clearly inadequate analysis of cumulative impacts by the agency. While Caltrans has been pushing forward with their unnecessary STAA project in the Smith River Canyon, disregarding the input of local citizens and regional conservation groups, EPIC has stood aside on the Hwy 299 Buckhorn Summit projects in respect of the desires of local producers for improved large-scale transportation infrastructure development and STAA truck access.

What is happening here is that EPIC is willing to compromise in support of improved economic connectivity, while still standing true to our mission and defending the unique natural qualities of our bioregion from a road building agency that refuses to fully disclose the impacts of their highway development agenda. In this instance it can be rightly concluded that it is not EPIC that is refusing to compromise with Caltrans around the conflictive issues of highway development on the North Coast of California. It is instead Caltrans that refuses to compromise, and who leaves our community members little recourse other than resorting to legal means to ensure that our region is protected from unnecessary, damaging, and wasteful highway development projects in some of the most special places remaining to us on the North Coast, and indeed, our planet.

Read also the My Word article from the Times-Standard — EPIC Supports Economic Connectivity


Suit Filed Against Destructive Caltrans Highway-widening Project in Remote Del Norte County

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013
By
Smith River NRA

Smith River National Recreation Area
Photo Credit: Amber Shelton

Caltrans Oblivious to Public-safety Concerns, Rare Ecological Values Along Scenic Smith River Canyon

Conservation groups filed a lawsuit today challenging a California Department of Transportation highway-widening project that threatens ancient redwoods, endangered salmon runs and public safety along the wild and scenic Smith River Canyon in remote Del Norte County. Caltrans approved a project to widen existing narrow sections of highways 197 and 199 to provide access for oversized trucks, without adequate environmental review of the impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act.

“For more than five years our organization has been identifying water quality and safety issues with this ill conceived project,” said Don Gillespie of the local conservation organization Friends of Del Norte, “but our comments have fallen on deaf ears. It is really a sign of Caltrans intransigence that public interest organizations have to resort to the courts to protect motorist safety and our treasured Smith River.”

Friends of Del Norte, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) filed suit in state court challenging the $26 million “197/199 Safe STAA Access Project.” The project would increase unsafe heavy and oversized truck use on narrow roadways along the designated “wild and scenic” Smith River Canyon, increasing the likelihood of deadly accidents and toxic spills, especially in dangerous winter conditions. The project would harm old-growth trees and habitat for protected salmon runs and hurt tourism and local residents.

“The North Coast has been under assault by massive Caltrans projects that the agency refuses to examine for their cumulative impacts on local communities and sensitive environments,” said Gary Graham Hughes, executive director of EPIC. “For Caltrans to barge ahead with this huge project on the precious Smith River after the explosion of controversy around the Willits Bypass project in Mendocino County shows that the agency is completely oblivious to concerns of North Coast residents.”

“Another bad idea by Caltrans, trying to jam an unnecessarily wide highway into a narrow canyon despite the impacts,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Public distrust of Caltrans is at an all-time high with revelations of Caltrans quality-control issues on the new Bay Bridge, conflict over the massive Willits Bypass project, the need for court and federal intervention to resolve Caltrans problems with the Niles Canyon project, and the agency’s proposal to needlessly vandalize the ancient redwoods of Richardson Grove State Park.”

Caltrans seeks to widen highways 197 and 199 at seven different locations, including major realignment and reconstruction of a bridge at one of the most sensitive sites along the pristine Smith River. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, all the environmental impacts of a project must be publicly disclosed and evaluated, reasonable alternatives with less damaging impacts must be considered, and mitigation measures must be developed to minimize environmental harm.

Caltrans has failed to take into account threats to salmon habitat and water quality along the Smith River, as well as increased safety hazards, and avoided looking at the cumulative impacts of numerous associated Caltrans highway-widening projects in Northern California for oversized truck access. Caltrans refused to consider alternatives besides highway widening, adopted unsubstantiated findings about impacts and mitigation measures, and failed to develop a monitoring program to ensure mitigation measures are actually followed.

Background

Route 199 is a scenic byway along the Smith River canyon, 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. Route 197 is a country road that parallels the lower Smith River, the only undammed river in California, with the longest stretch of designated “wild and scenic” river in the lower 48.

The project was first announced to the public in 2008. Conservation groups have been fighting misguided Caltrans attempts to widen Highway 101 through ancient redwoods in Richardson Grove State Park for oversized trucks. A lawsuit challenging that project resulted in a federal court sending Caltrans back to the drawing board for basing its project design on “faulty data.” Despite efforts by Caltrans to keep the Smith River project out of public scrutiny, hundreds of letters outlining concerns about impacts of the project on rare ecological resources and highway safety have been submitted.

A Caltrans internal report prepared in 1989 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.” There will be significant threats to motorist and bicyclist safety if oversized trucks are routed to these roadways during winter, when Interstate 5 can be closed by snow and ice. These roadways already have a history of truck accidents. Caltrans is not even proposing operational modifications at the sites of two major recent truck accidents on Highway 199, revealing the inadequacy of the project for addressing motorist safety concerns.

The conservation groups are represented in this legal action by private attorneys Stuart Gross and Sharon Duggan, and the nationally recognized firm of Cotchett, Pitre, and McCarthy.

For more information contact:  Gary Graham Hughes, EPIC, (707) 822-7711

Click Here for Official Press Release: Suit Filed Against Destructive Caltrans Highway-widening Project in Remote Del Norte County

Click here to view the Petition for Writ of Mandate and Injunctive Relief

To learn more visit our webpage:  Wild and Scenic Smith River, the 197/199 Project

 

 

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Highway 199 Along the Smith River
Photo Credit: Amber Shelton


Statewide Coalition Opposes Caltrans’ Environmentally Damaging Highway-Widening Projects

Thursday, March 21st, 2013
By

Northern Calif. Groups Call on Caltrans to Halt Construction on Willits Bypass

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— Two-dozen conservation and community organizations are joining together to take on irresponsible and damaging highway-widening projects around the state by the California Department of Transportation. The Caltrans Watch coalition cites wasteful spending, institutionalized disregard of environmental regulations designed to protect natural resources, and a pattern of refusal to address local community concerns. A dozen of the groups are calling on Caltrans to halt construction on the controversial Willits Bypass project in Mendocino County.

“With devastating budget cuts to education, health and social services and the state park system, how can Caltrans squander $350 million on five unnecessary highway widening projects in Northern California, with severe environmental impacts?” asked Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Someone needs to give ’em a brake. Where’s the oversight and accountability to rein in the pervasive problems at Caltrans, like refusal to consider reasonable alternatives to massive highway projects, shoddy environmental review, no transparency, faulty data and disregard for public input?”

“The Willits community is coming to realize what a disaster the Willits Bypass will be for our environment and our town,” said Ellen Drell of the Willits Environmental Center. “The project should be stopped until Caltrans adequately evaluates less damaging alternatives. We want our transportation dollars and construction jobs directed toward locally appropriate infrastructure that doesn’t bankrupt the state, further trash our natural resources or ignore the $300 billion highway maintenance backlog.”

“From the wild canyons of the Smith River, through the redwood parks of Humboldt, to the wetlands headwaters of the Eel River at Willits, Caltrans is running roughshod over the North Coast,” said Natalynne Delapp of the Environmental Protection Information Center. “Local communities are trying to engage the agency to develop appropriate transportation solutions, but Caltrans continues to bulldoze us with archaic projects straight out of the 1950s, that benefit only a limited group of economic interests.”

Despite a pending lawsuit filed by conservation groups challenging the Willits Bypass — a proposed four-lane freeway to be built through sensitive wetlands around the community of Willits — Caltrans has stated its intention to cut down mature oak forests, remove brush and destroy riparian vegetation along critical salmon streams before the case can be heard in federal court this summer. State Sen. Noreen Evans earlier this month sent a letter to Caltrans echoing community concerns over whether there is a need for a four-lane project, why other alternatives or routes were not seriously examined, and if less environmentally destructive solutions to address local traffic congestion were feasible. For now, protestors and a tree-sitter in the path of Caltrans’ proposed superhighway have prevented tree and vegetation removal.

Background
The Caltrans Watch coalition includes: Alameda Creek Alliance, Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters, Campaign for Sensible Transportation, Center for Biological Diversity, Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, Environmental Protection Information Center, Friends of Coyote Hills Committee, Friends of Del Norte, Friends of the Eel River, Local Ecology and Agriculture Fremont, Mendocino Group of the Sierra Club, Northcoast Environmental Center, Pacificans for Highway One Alternatives, Piercy Watersheds Association, Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club, Safe Alternatives for our Forest Environment, Save Little Lake Valley, Save Niles Canyon, Save Our Sunol, Save Richardson Grove Coalition, Tri-City Ecology Center and Willits Environmental Center.

Caltrans has consistently refused to consider less expensive and ecologically damaging alternatives to highway widening projects that could accomplish safety and transportation objectives, and has ignored public concerns, input and opposition. The coalition points to half a dozen highway-widening projects being pursued by Caltrans that are not needed to achieve the stated safety or transportation access purposes:

* The $10 million Richardson Grove project to widen and realign Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park in Humboldt County, damaging prized old-growth redwoods to supposedly increase access for large commercial trucks;
* The $210 million Highway 101 superhighway the size of Interstate 5 around Willits, not needed for local traffic volumes, requiring the largest wetlands fill permit in Northern California in the past 50 years and running through headwaters of salmon-bearing streams and habitat for endangered plants;
* The $19 million Highway 197/199 widening projects in Del Norte County along the “wild and scenic” Smith River to accommodate oversized commercial trucks, with impacts to old-growth redwood trees;
* The $76 million Niles Canyon highway-widening project in Alameda County, a “safety” project stopped by a citizen lawsuit. Caltrans now admits the widening is not needed and the Federal Highway Administration recently concluded it is not warranted by the state’s safety data. It would have cut 600 riparian trees and added four miles of cement retaining walls and rip-rap along a regionally significant stream for steelhead trout;
* The $50 million Calera Parkway project to double the width of Highway 1 in Pacifica, in San Mateo County, with impacts to endangered frogs and garter snakes.

The coalition supports safe roadways and sensible transportation planning. For each of these projects the organizations have expended considerable effort through the available public review processes to encourage Caltrans to pursue reasonable and effective safety or access upgrades that would avoid needless environmental destruction. These efforts have largely been frustrated by Caltrans’ refusal to even evaluate viable alternatives proposed by the affected communities.

The pattern of flawed decision-making and inadequate environmental review by Caltrans has forced community organizations to resort to litigation as the only remaining avenue to seek redress. The coalition cites systemic problems within Caltrans, beginning with the manner in which transportation infrastructure needs are identified, the proposed solutions to address those needs, incomplete and inadequate review of environmental impacts, and disregard for concerns of local communities.

For more information on the Willits Bypass project (Mendocino County):
Environmental Protection Information Center web page
Save Little Lake Valley
For more information on the Richardson Grove project (Humboldt County):
Save Richardson Grove
Center for Biological Diversity web page
Environmental Protection Information Center web page
For more information on the Smith River project (Del Norte County):
Environmental Protection Information Center web page
For more information on the Niles Canyon project (Alameda County):
Alameda Creek Alliance web page
Save Niles Canyon
For more information on the Calera Parkway project (San Mateo County):
Pacificans for Highway 1 Alternatives


Court Will Not Stop Caltrans from Cutting Trees, Harming Salmon Streams Before Lawsuit over Controversial Willits Bypass Project Can Be Heard

Thursday, November 1st, 2012
By

SAN FRANCISCO— A federal judge today refused to halt imminent environmental destruction by the California Department of Transportation in preparation for construction of the Willits Bypass, a proposed four-lane freeway to be built around the community of Willits in Mendocino County. Caltrans has awarded a construction contract that could result in cutting of mature oak forests and clearing of riparian vegetation along critical salmon streams as early as this month.

“We’re disappointed Caltrans may be able to start cutting trees and destroying streamside habitat in the headwaters of the Eel River right as salmon are beginning to migrate into spawning rivers,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It will be a shame if irreparable harm is done to salmon habitat before we get our day in court, since we have a strong case that environmental review for the project is weak.”

“A $200 million project to bulldoze a six-mile freeway through major wetlands and endangered species habitats while we are facing unprecedented climate disruption is 1950s-style planning — is this the best we can do?” said Gary Hughes with the Environmental Protection Information Center. “We intend to redouble our efforts in this lawsuit to force Caltrans to consider alternatives which will not harm wetlands, salmon streams, endangered plants, and productive farmland and rangeland.”

“We will press forward with our lawsuit against this ill-conceived highway project,” said Ellen Drell with the Willits Environmental Center. “We cannot allow Caltrans and the Army Corps of Engineers to use taxpayer money for such extensive damage to our environment just because one intersection in Willits backs up for a few hours a day.”

The court denied a motion for a preliminary injunction requested by the Center for Biological Diversity, Willits Environmental Center, Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), despite a pending lawsuit, which will not be heard until December at the earliest. Although the court agreed there is a risk of irreparable environmental harm in allowing the cutting of legacy oaks and riparian vegetation to go forward before the trial, its ruling could allow Caltrans to initiate tree-cutting and degrade salmon-bearing streams.

The court’s ruling is limited, and Caltrans has indicated it will only proceed with “topping” trees and clearing vegetation in the near future. As far as filling wetlands and excavating the roadway, Caltrans claims these activities will not occur until 2013. In the meantime, the court will hear the merits of the entire case.

Background

Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration are pursuing a bypass on Highway 101 around Willits, supposedly to ease traffic congestion. The agencies insist on a four-lane freeway and have refused to consider or analyze equally effective two-lane alternatives or in-town solutions. The project would construct a six-mile, four-lane bypass including several bridges over creeks and roads, a mile-long viaduct spanning the floodplain, and two interchanges. This would hurt wildlife habitat and biological resources in Little Lake Valley, including nearly 100 acres of wetlands, and require the largest wetlands fill permit in Northern California in the past 50 years. It would damage stream and riparian habitat for chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout in three streams converging into Outlet Creek, harm the rare plant Baker’s meadowfoam, and destroy increasingly scarce oak woodlands.

Conservation groups sued Caltrans and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 2012 for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and Clean Water Act. The California Farm Bureau Federation has since intervened on behalf of the plaintiffs due to its concerns about threats to productive agricultural lands. The plaintiffs contend that Caltrans refused to consider two-lane alternatives and failed to prepare a supplemental “environmental impact statement” for substantial design changes and new information about lower traffic volumes and more severe environmental impacts. The Army Corps improperly issued a wetlands fill permit in February 2012.

Although Caltrans documents show that traffic projected to use the bypass is not enough to warrant a four-lane freeway, the agency unilaterally discarded all nonfreeway or two-lane alternatives. New information shows that traffic volumes are below what Caltrans projected when it determined a four-lane freeway was needed.

For Immediate Release, November 1, 2012

Contacts: Gary Hughes, Environmental Protection Information Center, (707) 223-5434
Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185
Ellen Drell, Willits Environmental Center, (707) 459-4110


Take Action to Protect the Pristine Smith River

Thursday, October 25th, 2012
By

Click Here to Take Action Now! The Wild and Scenic Smith River, old-growth trees and imperiled salmon need your help!  Caltrans has another environmentally destructive and regionally  inappropriate highway-widening project slated for the most remote and wild corner of Northwest California.

Caltrans’ “197/199 Safe STAA Access Project” intends to realign and widen the roadway  along U.S. Highway 199 and State Route 197,  a winding country highway that connects Crescent City on  the California redwood coast to Grants Pass in Oregon, in seven different locations  in order to allow increased and unrestricted access for the largest and  heaviest commercial trucks on the road, referred to as STAA trucks.

Touting safety and improved goods movement, this project would harm the  Smith River, the “Crown Jewel” of the National Wild and Scenic River  System, putting endangered salmon and steelhead at risk. This project  also directly and indirectly threatens the old-growth redwood forests.

Take Action!


Public Comment Re-Opened on Controversial Caltrans Project that Would Harm the Wild and Scenic Smith River

Thursday, September 27th, 2012
By

North fork of the Smith River
photo courtesy of Forrest English

EPIC needs your help. Caltrans has another environmentally destructive and regionally inappropriate highway-widening project slated for the North Coast of California.

Up in the most remote and wild corner of Northwest California lies U.S. Highway 199, a winding country highway that connects Crescent City on the California redwood coast to Grants Pass in Oregon. This highway route is part of the “Mystic Corridor” that links the California redwoods to Crater Lake National Park. The road is designated part of the U.S. Scenic Byway Network, one of only ten in the country, and follows the course of the narrow canyons and ancient redwoods of the Wild and Scenic Smith River, the only major river system in California that remains undammed.

Caltrans’ 197/199 Project is intended to realign and widen the roadway along U.S. Highway 199 and State Route 197 in seven different locations in order to allow increased and unrestricted access for the largest and heaviest commercial trucks on the road, STAA trucks.

Touting safety and improved goods movement, this project would harm the Smith River, the “Crown Jewel” of the National Wild and Scenic River System, putting endangered salmon and steelhead at risk. This project also directly and indirectly threatens the old-growth redwood forests protected in the Redwood State and National Parks, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and Ruby Van Deventer County Park.

First announced to the public in June 2010, at the same time that EPIC and our allies were filing a federal lawsuit seeking to protect the old-growth redwood trees from the now infamous Caltrans’ highway-widening project in Richardson Grove State Park, the Hwy 197/199 project has largely been kept under the radar screen. Nevertheless, dozens of letters from concerned citizens filled the Caltrans mailbox by the end of the first public comment period on the project in August 2010.

The proposed project will result in an increase in heavy truck use on a roadway whose main value is in providing access to environmental and recreation resources along the scenic Smith River Canyon.

The Final Environmental Impact Report for the 197/199 Project was to have been released this summer; however a federal ruling on April 4, 2012 against Caltrans’ STAA project slated for Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park sent Caltrans back to the drawing board for more than just that project.

The court ordered Caltrans to correct its factual errors and analysis and prepare new documentation that considered potential harm to each individual redwood tree in the project’s path. Caltrans’ deficient analysis of the STAA project through Richardson Grove is directly applicable to the Highway 197/199 project because old-growth redwoods trees would be impacted.

On April 9, 2012, EPIC sent a letter to Caltrans asserting that they must undertake supplemental environmental analysis for the Highway 197/199 Project. Last week Caltrans announced the “partial” recirculation of draft documents, including supplemental analysis, and the opening of a new public comment period.

Caltrans states that they are only accepting comments on the portions of the Draft Environmental Impact Report that are being re-circulated. However, EPIC contends that the agency must accept comments on the entire DEIR including: cumulative impacts, transportation, safety, and economic analyses.

Comments will be accepted on the Draft Environmental Impact Report through November 5, 2012.

Please stay tuned! EPIC is pleased to be partnering with the Friends of Del Norte, to produce an online action alert for this project, fact sheets, and updates to better inform our members to the threats that this project presents to a nationally important environmental resource, the pristine Wild and Scenic Smith River.

Click here to download the:
* Draft Environmental Impact Report
* Partial Recirculation of the Draft Environmental Report
* Biological Memo
* Forester/Arborist Report

Written Comments may be submitted to:

Caltrans Attention Jason Meyer, Environmental Coordinator P.O. Box 3700 Eureka, CA 95502 through November 5, 2012.

Please help us protect the Wild and Scenic Smith River. Share this notice with your friends and family.


Injunction Sought to Stop Construction of Controversial Willits Bypass Project

Monday, September 10th, 2012
By

The Center for Biological Diversity, Willits Environmental Center, Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) filed a motion in federal court on Friday seeking a preliminary injunction to halt imminent construction of the Willits Bypass, a proposed four-lane freeway to be built around the community of Willits in Mendocino County. Despite a pending lawsuit challenging the permits and approvals for the controversial project, which would destroy significant wetlands and habitat for endangered plants, as well as degrade salmon-bearing streams, the California Department of Transportation has awarded a construction contract that could result in the cutting down of mature oak forests and riparian vegetation as early as October.

“The Willits Bypass would be a disaster for local wetlands, oak forests and the wildlife that depend on them,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Caltrans has made significant changes to this project without fully evaluating the impacts of bulldozing a freeway through precious wetlands and endangered species’ habitats.”

“The Willits Bypass project is an egregious example of how Caltrans is totally out of touch with the needs of local communities and ecosystems on the North Coast,” said Gary Graham Hughes of EPIC. “We are asking the federal court to halt this project before irreparable damage is done to oak forests and critical aquatic habitats in the headwaters of the Eel River.”

Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration say they are pursuing the bypass on Highway 101 around Willits to ease traffic congestion. The agencies insist on a four-lane freeway and have refused to consider or analyze equally effective two-lane alternatives or in-town solutions. The currently planned project would be a 6-mile, four-lane bypass including several bridges over creeks and roads, a mile-long viaduct spanning the floodplain, and two interchanges.

Construction would damage wildlife habitat and biological resources in Little Lake Valley, including nearly 100 acres of wetlands, and it would require the largest wetlands fill permit in Northern California in the past 50 years. It would also affect stream and riparian habitat for Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout in three streams converging into Outlet Creek, harm the rare plant Baker’s meadowfoam and destroy increasingly scarce oak woodlands.

Background

A lawsuit was filed against Caltrans, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 2012 for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and Clean Water Act. The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the agencies to prepare a supplemental “environmental impact statement” that considers two-lane alternatives and addresses substantial design changes and new information about traffic volumes and environmental impacts. In August, the California Farm Bureau Federation filed a motion to intervene on behalf of the environmental plaintiffs, providing supporting arguments that Caltrans and the Army Corps of Engineers have violated environmental law in approving permits for this project. Since a 2006 environmental review, Caltrans has made significant changes and ongoing revisions to the project that will cause new environmental impacts, yet it has failed to supplement the environmental review. Project changes will destroy additional wetlands, oak woodlands and riparian habitat; increase habitat loss for the rare Baker’s meadowfoam; further degrade salmon habitat; and add significant new impacts to agricultural lands.

For more than half a century, Caltrans has promoted turning Highway 101 into a four-lane freeway from San Diego to the Oregon border, with a four-lane freeway bypass around Willits. Caltrans first discussed potential bypass designs and routes through Willits in 1988, but by 1995 had unilaterally discarded all non-freeway or two-lane alternatives.

The California Transportation Commission, the state funding authority, has repeatedly refused to fund a four-lane freeway, so Caltrans proposes to proceed in “phases,” grading for four lanes and constructing two lanes with available funds, then allegedly constructing two additional lanes when additional funding becomes available, a dubious prospect. Yet Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration did notdraft a supplemental “environmental impact statement” to examine impacts of this changed design or consider two-lane alternatives.

A 1998 Caltrans study found that 70 percent to 80 percent of traffic causing congestion in downtown Willits was local, and Caltrans internally conceded that the volume of traffic projected to use the bypass was not enough to warrant a four-lane freeway. Agency data showed the volume of traffic that would use the bypass did not increase from 1992 to 2005. New information shows that actual traffic volumes are below what the agencies projected when they determined that only a four-lane freeway will provide the desired level of service, and that a two-lane bypass will provide a better level of service than projected.

Phase I of the project would fill more than 86 acres of wetlands and federal-jurisdiction waters. Caltrans purchased approximately 2,000 acres of ranchland in Little Lake Valley to supposedly mitigate for loss of wetlands, but this approach makes little sense because functional wetlands already existed on the properties and Caltrans has no ability to “create” new wetlands there. To obtain the required wetlands fill permit under the Clean Water Act, the state and federal agencies submitted a significantly deficient “mitigation and monitoring plan” to the Army Corps to “enhance” wetlands. This plan itself alters existing wetlands and causes significant new impacts to wetlands, endangered species and grazing lands, as well as making design changes that were not analyzed or disclosed in the 2006 environmental review. The Corps improperly issued the permit in February 2012.

Press Release

Plantiffs Motion for Preliminary Injunction and Memorandum in Support


EPIC Continues to Hold Caltrans Accountable to the Law

Thursday, July 12th, 2012
By

Photograph copyrighted 2010 Jack Gescheidt, TreeSpiritProject.com

The legal proceedings for Richardson Grove continue, this time with a State Court decision, which appears to agree with Caltrans.  However, there has yet to be a final decision on the merits of the case.

Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholtsen handed down a 30-page order that found that Caltrans made “no violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) at this time.” The judge said that there is substantial evidence to show that the project will have no significant effect on ancient redwoods in the park, and ruled against all, but possibly one count brought by EPIC and fellow petitioners.  A violation may be found if Caltrans has not adopted a “reporting or monitoring program” that is “designed to ensure compliance during project implementation.”

“It is disappointing that the State Court did not find the legal errors that we believe are well documented, said Natalynne DeLapp, EPIC spokesperson. “However, we are thankful that the federal judge found that Caltrans was in the wrong when they based their findings of no significant impact on ‘false data’ and ordered them to go back and redo critical aspects of their analysis, including surveying and describing the environmental issues to each and everyone of more than 70 old growth redwood trees in the project area. This firm ruling on the part of the federal court still stands, and there is nothing in the state court ruling that can or will change that fact.”

At this time, the federal injunction remains in effect, which prevents Caltrans from beginning work on the project, pending the resubmission of the new maps and analysis to the judge in order that the federal case can proceed.

Since 2007, EPIC and our allies have held Caltrans accountable to the law. Initially Caltrans was only going to do the bare minimum of environmental analysis for the Richardson Grove ‘Improvement’ Project—a Categorical Exemption, which is reserved for projects that do not have a significant impact on the environment.  Had EPIC not intervened on behalf of the Grove, it is likely the project would likely have already been built, with very little environmental analysis, and zero public input.

“Win or lose, EPIC has done its job,” said DeLapp. “We have held Caltrans accountable to the law and the people. With regards to the State Case, now there is a court ordered mandate that will make Caltrans fully comply with environmental law—if the project is actually implemented. ”


Strategic Partnerships Key to EPIC Regional Initiative to Rein in Caltrans

Thursday, May 24th, 2012
By

Photo by Jeff MusgraveIt has been more than four years that EPIC has been working in coalition with a large and diverse group of allies to challenge the Caltrans proposal to widen Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park. The effectiveness of this teamwork was proven in the broad grassroots campaign that provided a solid foundation of public support for litigation that has thus far resulted in a resounding judicial scolding of Caltrans with the remand order  provided by the Northern District Federal Court in early April 2012.

Amongst the important partnerships that EPIC developed in the Richardson Grove case were those with the group of citizens and the organizations that joined as co-plaintiffs. EPIC is pleased to still be working with Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATs) and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) as we await the decision that will be forthcoming in the state case before the end of June. Despite uncertainty, we have confidence in the strength of the case that has been presented.

As EPIC is working closely with CBD on a variety of issues, such as endangered species activism for the seriously at risk Humboldt Marten and reforming private lands forest policy, it has been exciting to step up and participate in a new coalition effort challenging Caltrans. EPIC is a part of the legal challenge to the unnecessary and out of touch Willits By Pass Project, an enormous and expensive 4-lane highway infrastructure project slated to cross sensitive wetlands in the Willits area. In this case there are four plaintiffs: Mendocino Lake Sierra Club, EPIC, CBD, and the Willits Environmental Center (WEC).

Though the necessity of having to take action on this issue is unfortunate, and forced by a Caltrans culture that refuses to let go of an expensive boondoggle, the honor of supporting Ellen and David Drell is immense. As a means of sharing with the citizens of the region their knowledge about the issue, EPIC’s Gary Graham Hughes spoke with David and Ellen about the Willits By Pass Project on the EPIC Edition of the KMUD Environment Show. (listen HERE) The show is an in-depth look at the history of the project design, the environmental considerations in terms of the wetlands loss, and why such venerated activists such as the Drell’s of the WEC would stand up to challenge the Willits By Pass project. Our colleagues at WEC are exemplary amongst exemplary partners.

On the north end of the region EPIC is in constant contact with Friends of Del Norte as we monitor the STAA access highway development proposal that Caltrans has been preparing to unleash along Highway 197/199 through the narrow canyons and ancient redwoods of the pristine Smith River. The growing realization of the environmental impact of the behemoth road building agency became acute throughout the planning process for the Richardson Grove highway development project, and has organically transformed into a regional initiative to Rein in Caltrans. This initiative seeks to to force Caltrans to alter or abandon their most environmentally egregious highway widening projects; and to publicize and reform the flawed decision-making and environmental review process that allow these wasteful and destructive projects to move forward.

EPIC is dedicating energy to building an active constituency and membership that supports our policy stances and legal actions on these issues. We know, especially when we converse with visionaries like David and Ellen at WEC, and Friends of Del Norte that this is a line of work that is important for protecting the natural qualities of our bioregion, and for directly addressing the obstacles that our communities face in the pursuit of a truly sustainable economic development that is appropriate for our region as well as a coherent response to the times in which we live.

This regional initiative to Rein in Caltrans will continue to grow. Stay tuned for updates, and for our efforts to contribute to a building movement. Listen to the interview with the Drells and get informed about the Willits By Pass Project.

Join us as we Rein in Caltrans!


EPIC Joins Lawsuit Challenging Caltrans Willits By-Pass Project

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
By

Lawsuit Challenges Four-lane Willits Bypass Freeway That Would Destroy Wetlands, Salmon, Rare Plants

EPIC joined with Willits Environmental Center, Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, to file a lawsuit in federal court today challenging the approvals and environmental review for the Willits Bypass, a proposed four-lane freeway around the community of Willits, in Mendocino County, that would hurt wetlands, salmon-bearing streams and endangered plants.

“Bulldozing a freeway the size of Interstate 5 through precious wetlands would be wasteful and destructive — a four-lane road is just not needed for the traffic volumes through Willits on Highway 101,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“This is a wake-up call for Caltrans, which should be building efficient public transit and maintaining existing roads, rather than wasting our money and resources clinging to outdated visions of new freeways,” said Ellen Drell, board member of the Willits Environmental Center. “Global climate change, threatened ecosystems and the end of cheap oil are warning signs that we need to change course. The change needs to happen in every community, including here in Willits.”

For decades, Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration have pursued a bypass on Highway 101 around Willits to ease traffic congestion. The agencies insist on a four-lane freeway and refuse to consider or analyze equally effective two-lane alternatives or in-town solutions. The current project is a six-mile, four-lane freeway bypass, including several bridges over creeks and local roads, a viaduct spanning the regulatory floodway and two interchanges. Construction would damage wildlife habitat and biological resources in Little Lake Valley, including nearly 100 acres of wetlands, and would require the largest wetlands fill permit in Northern California in the past 50 years. It would also affect stream and riparian habitat for chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout in three streams converging into Outlet Creek, harm state-protected endangered plants (Baker’s meadowfoam) and destroy oak woodlands.

“In a time of devastating budget cuts to health, education, social services and the state park system, Caltrans proposes to spend nearly $200 million on an unnecessary project that will seriously degrade the headwaters of the Eel River,” said Gary Graham Hughes, executive director at EPIC. “This project is completely out of touch with the needs of the natural and human communities on the North Coast.”

“For three decades the Sierra Cub has promoted responsible transportation planning in Mendocino County, but requests to consider a two-lane alternative have been ignored by Caltrans,” said Mary Walsh with the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We’re proud to challenge this wasteful and destructive highway project.”

The lawsuit is against Caltrans, the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and Clean Water Act. It seeks a court order requiring the agencies to prepare a supplemental “environmental impact statement” that considers two-lane alternatives and addresses substantial design changes and new information about traffic volumes and environmental impacts.

Background

For more than half a century, Caltrans has promoted turning Highway 101 into a four-lane freeway from San Diego to the Oregon border, with a four-lane freeway bypass around Willits. Caltrans first discussed potential bypass designs and routes through Willits in 1988, but by 1995 had unilaterally discarded all non-freeway or two-lane alternatives. An environmental review for a four-lane freeway was finalized in 2006.

The California Transportation Commission, the state funding authority, has repeatedly refused to fund a four-lane freeway, so Caltrans proposes to proceed in “phases,” grading for four lanes and constructing two lanes with available funds, then allegedly constructing two additional lanes when additional funding becomes available, a dubious prospect. Yet Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration did not draft a supplemental “environmental impact statement” to look at impacts of this changed design or consider two-lane alternatives.

A 1998 Caltrans study found that 70 percent to 80 percent of traffic causing congestion in downtown Willits was local, and Caltrans internally conceded that the volume of traffic projected to use the bypass was not enough to warrant a four-lane freeway. Agency data showed the volume of traffic that would use the bypass did not increase from 1992 to 2005. New information shows actual traffic volumes are below what the agencies projected when they determined only a four-lane freeway will provide the desired level of service, and that a two-lane bypass will provide a better level of service than projected.

Phase I of the project will discharge fill into more than 86 acres of wetlands and federal jurisdiction waters. Caltrans purchased approximately 2,000 acres of ranchland in Little Lake Valley to “mitigate” for loss of wetlands, but the properties already had established existing wetlands, with no ability for Caltrans to “create” new wetlands. To obtain the required wetlands fill permit under the Clean Water Act, the state and federal agencies submitted a significantly deficient “mitigation and monitoring plan” to the Army Corps to “enhance” wetlands. This plan itself alters existing wetlands and causes significant new impacts to wetlands, endangered species and grazing lands, and makes design changes that were not analyzed or disclosed in the 2006 environmental review. The Corps improperly issued the permit in February 2012.

The Willits Bypass is the latest in a series of controversial, environmentally damaging, expensive and unnecessary highway projects Caltrans is pursuing while refusing to consider alternatives and ignoring public opposition. Last month, a federal court ordered Caltrans to redo critical aspects of its environmental analysis for a project to widen and realign Highway 101 to promote large-truck travel through the ancient redwoods of Richardson Grove State Park. Caltrans is also proposing a project on Highway 197/199 in Del Norte County that would fell protected ancient redwoods and threaten the pristine Smith River. In January, Caltrans was forced by a lawsuit to rescind project approval and cancel construction of the first phase of an $80 million highway widening “safety” project in Niles Canyon, Alameda County, that Caltrans now admits is not needed.

Click here to view the Complaint


EPIC Win for Richardson Grove

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012
By

A federal judge today ordered Caltrans to redo critical aspects of its environmental analysis for a controversial project that would widen and realign Highway 101 through the ancient redwoods of Richardson Grove State Park in Humboldt County. Citing numerous errors in Caltrans’ mapping and measurement of affected old-growth redwoods, U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco ordered Caltrans to correct its errors and prepare a detailed new analysis that considers potential harm to the roots of each individual redwood tree in the project’s path. A coalition of conservation groups and local community members filed a lawsuit in 2010 to halt the project.

“Despite the importance of Richardson Grove and the incredible public outcry against this project, Caltrans didn’t even accurately measure and map the ancient redwood trees that its misguided highway expansion proposal puts at risk,” said Gary Hughes of the Environmental Protection Information Center, a plaintiff group based in Humboldt County. “This unnecessary project would cause irreparable damage to one of our most prized state parks, the venerable old-growth grove and its wildlife, and also harm tourism and the coastal communities of Humboldt County. It’s time to scrap this project for good.”

The proposal to realign a section of Highway 101 that winds through old-growth redwoods in Richardson Grove State Park to accommodate large-truck travel would require extensive cutting into the roots of towering redwoods along the highway. Root loss would likely kill at least some of the majestic trees, and highway work would also harm endangered species like the marbled murrelet and Northern spotted owl. Caltrans’ proposed assault on Richardson Grove, the fabled “redwood curtain” at the entrance to rural Humboldt County, has been met with widespread opposition from local residents, business owners, conservation groups, American Indians and economists. Conservation groups secured a federal court injunction in July 2011 stopping the project from moving forward until the case could be heard.

“Less than 3 percent of our ancient redwood trees remain, yet Caltrans wants to cut through, injure and pave over the roots of giant redwoods in a state park for the sake of a few more oversized trucks speeding through the grove, and expects us to believe there won’t be any damage,” said Peter Galvin, conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ll keep fighting until Caltrans drops this misguided project.”

“Caltrans must give us a clear and accurate description of how building a modern roadbed in Richardson Grove can harm precious and rare environmental resources that belong to us all,” said Patty Clary, Director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics. “That would be democracy in action. That’s what the court preserved in this ruling, the right of Americans to have these important decisions made in the light of day, not behind closed doors.”

Plaintiffs in the case are the Environmental Protection Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Trisha Lee Lotus, Bess Bair, Bruce Edwards, Jeffrey Hedin and Loreen Eliason. Trisha Lotus is the great granddaughter of Henry Devoy, who transferred the redwood forest that became Richardson Grove State Park to California in 1922. The plaintiffs are represented by San Francisco attorney Stuart Gross, Oakland attorney Sharon Duggan, a team from San Francisco law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy that includes Philip Gregory and former congressman “Pete” McCloskey, and Kevin Bundy of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Click here for the Judge’s Order.

Background

Established in 1922, Richardson Grove State Park was recently rated as one of the top 100 state parks in the United States. The park attracts thousands of visitors from around the world every year to explore one of the last protected stands of accessible old-growth redwoods. It is here that drivers first encounter significant old-growth forest when heading north on Highway 101, and this popular tourist destination has provided many people with a transformative experience walking through some of the oldest living beings on the planet. The park also provides essential habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl, and its creeks still support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead. Currently, the California State Parks system is facing a multitude of threats beyond inappropriate highway development. Two parks near Richardson Grove on the South Fork of the Eel River are slated for closure.

The lawsuit was brought for violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and Administrative Procedures Act. The environmental assessment prepared by Caltrans failed to acknowledge the full extent of the project’s impacts, as required by federal and state laws, including the effects of cutting through and paving over the widespread but shallow network of roots holding Richardson Grove together, the consequences of stockpiling lead-contaminated soil in an area draining to the designated “wild and scenic” South Fork Eel River, and the far-reaching impacts of opening the road to larger trucks. Caltrans also failed to adopt legally required measures to reduce these impacts and failed to consider less-damaging alternatives.

Caltrans first proposed the highway widening project in 2007 with minimal environmental and public review. Faced with immediate and widespread community opposition, the agency prepared a full “environmental impact report” but has still has not shown that its experimental, unproven construction methods will not irreparably harm Richardson Grove. Opposition to the project has continued to grow, led by the Save Richardson Grove Coalition, a diverse group of community members including economists, business owners, scientists, and a consortium of 10 federally recognized Northern California tribes with longstanding ties to the grove.

The proposed highway widening does not serve the region’s best interests. Caltrans claims it is needed to legally accommodate large-truck travel on this section of highway. However, it appears from Caltrans’ own statements and signage that this portion of road is already designated for larger trucks and that Caltrans has exaggerated potential safety problems. Caltrans has not established that this project is necessary either for safety or for goods movement and the economy. Since smaller-sized commercial trucks already travel through the grove to deliver goods to Humboldt County, the best alternative would be to leave the highway as it is and retain the integrity of the grove.


Richardson Grove Legal Proceedings Continue Apace

Thursday, March 15th, 2012
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The legal challenge to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) approval of their highway development project in Richardson Grove State Park will continue to evolve over the next several weeks.

The state case hearings originally scheduled for March 14 in Humboldt County Superior Court in Eureka were canceled and then reset. The hearing in the state case will now be heard on Thursday, March 22, at 8:30 AM in Courtroom 8 of the Humboldt Country Superior Court.

After the oral arguments in the Federal Case were heard on February 23 in San Francisco, the presiding judge ordered a site visit to the Richardson Grove in order to fact check details important to the case. This site visit took place on March 5, and the resulting report was filed on March 13. Both plaintiffs and defendants will have until March 26 to prepare and file a briefing in concern of the report arising from the site visit. This means that it is unlikely that the Federal Court will issue a decision on this case before the end of March 2012.

Our team at EPIC will continue to work to keep people interested in this crucial state parks defense initiative in as timely a manner as possible. Please visit the saverichardsongrove.org for updates, subscribe to our electronic newsletter at EPIC’s main wildcalifornia.org website, and “like” our Facebook page to receive nearly daily updates about our work for state parks, endangered species, and the wild forests of Northwest California.


Richardson Grove Decision on the Horizon

Thursday, December 8th, 2011
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Eel River Fog Blankets Forest (Murray Cooper Photo)

It has been several years that EPIC has been standing up to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) proposal to further develop Highway 101 through the ancient redwood gateway in Richardson Grove State Park. Despite receiving heavy public opposition, Caltrans pushed obstinately forward with their plan. This stubbornness resulted in a pair of legal challenges to the Caltrans project, in both of which EPIC has played an integral role. The cases are now steadily heading towards a full hearing on their merits, and the court’s decision can be anticipated on the horizon just beyond the New Year in early 2012.

On December 6, 2011, attorneys for EPIC and plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment in federal court.  This filing is an important step in the process that will lead to the summary judgment hearing in the federal court in San Francisco on February 23, 2012.

The motion and supporting memorandum explain the precise legal claims against Caltrans, and illuminates the failure of the agency to follow this nation’s bedrock environmental laws.  EPIC and the plaintiffs request that the court declare Caltrans in violation of laws, and direct the agency to re-examine the Highway 101 widening project through Richardson Grove State Park.  Caltrans’ project threatens irreplaceable and rare majestic old-growth redwoods at risk of significant and, in fact, mortal impacts, while also potentially causing several other significant environmental impacts within the state protected area. The law requires, and the people of California and the nation as a whole deserve, that Caltrans undertake a complete analysis of the Project’s impacts.

Redwood Temperate Rainforest (Murray Cooper Photo)

There is a parallel legal challenge to the Caltrans proposal for Richardson Grove in State Court; the hearing in that case will take place in Eureka, in Humboldt County Superior Court, on March 14, 2012.

EPIC and plaintiffs have stood their ground against Caltrans and project proponents through a long and contentious process.  All of this hard work has produced results by securing a preliminary injunction against the project, raising grassroots support in opposition to Caltrans’ plans that threaten some of the last old-growth redwoods in the world, and putting the incoherence of the State of California’s management of our globally important redwood parks in the spotlight. We are working towards a favorable decision, and aspire to have this be a landmark case in which the Government of the State of California will reexamine it’s priorities and improve it’s policies in terms of directing state agencies and protecting biodiversity. Kudos are due to our citizen coplaintiffs, and to the Center for Biological Diversity and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, for everything they have done on this journey. We extend gratitude to our attorneys for prosecuting this case pro bono and doing an outstanding job, and we thank all of the community members who have been, and will be, supporting us in this important advocacy work.

Document 102- Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment

PetitionersOpeningMemo


Huge Caltrans Project Threatens Smith River and Old Growth Redwoods

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010
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Similar to the Richardson Grove highway widening project, Caltrans has submitted a proposal for an STAA expansion along Highways 199 and 197 through the old growth redwoods adjacent to the middle fork of the Smith River.  The project is more severe than Richardson Grove in that it includes seven locations along the Smith River, which has a national designation as a wild and scenic river.  Some of the proposed alternatives include: the removal of several large old growth trees; replacement of several culverts, removal of a bridge that was built in the 1920’s, and installation of  a 400 foot long retaining wall along the scenic highway.

Comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report/ Environmental Assessment are due on Monday August 23, 2010.

Click here to take an action to stop this unnecessary project!