SAN FRANCISCO – A judge’s stark warning that natural wonders have no right to exist under federal law unsettled a group of conservationists fighting a proposed highway project through a majestic grove of ancient redwood trees in Northern California.
“It might be hard to swallow, but they could actually cut down an old growth tree that’s been here for 2,000 years for a highway as long as they consider the consequences of that action,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup told a dismayed group of environmentalists on Wednesday.
Alsup was addressing more than a dozen opponents of a proposal to widen a 1.1-mile stretch of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park in Humboldt County. Assuming the role of law professor, Alsup lectured the crowd on how U.S. environmental laws grant no rights to ecosystems; they merely require government agencies fully consider the impact of proposed projects on the environment.
“It was chilling to hear that from a judge,” said Paul Encimer, a Humboldt County resident who traveled more than four hours south to attend the court hearing in San Francisco.
Alsup spent two hours weighing arguments on whether the state Department of Transportation, Caltrans, provided a sufficient opportunity for public comment and adequately studied the $21 million project’s impact on trees up to 3,000 years old.
The state maintains the project is necessary to make transporting goods more efficient for large trucks, which until recently had to take a 446-mile detour from San Francisco to reach Eureka near the northern tip of the state. Large trucks can also pay state police to escort them through the narrow highway.
Last year, Route 299 between Redding and Eureka opened to larger trucks for the first time, shortening the detour. But Caltrans District 1 spokesman Phil Frisbie says large trucks must still drive an extra 227 miles in each direction without an escort. That can add about five hours of travel time in each direction, he said.
Frisbie also argued that this is “not a highway widening project” because certain curves will be widened on one side while asphalt gets reduced on the other side, allowing trucks to “swing out wider on the turn.”
According to the state, not a single redwood tree will be removed or harmed by the project. But a group of environmentalists who sued the state say those findings are based on a flawed analysis that does not fully consider the impact of new pavement and excavation on the root zones of ancient trees.
In court, plaintiffs’ attorney Stuart Gross argued the state’s analysis relies on two contradictory sets of data describing how many trees will be affected by mechanized work, excavation and filling in extra soil and materials around root zones.
“We need a single document that comprehensively looks at what is going to happen to these trees,” said Gross, of the firm Gross & Klein in San Francisco.
Caltrans attorney Stacy Lau replied that a 2010 data set Gross was referring to is “no longer relevant,” and that the failure to make that clear in the report was a “trivial error” that should not invalidate the entire analysis.
“They point to some inconsistencies that maybe should have been clarified with a one-line sentence,” Lau said. “That doesn’t show prejudice.”
The lawyers also argued over whether the public was given an adequate chance to weigh in on the revised environmental analysis.
Prior to 2013 when the state supplemented a 2010 environmental report, the state held four public meetings and two public comment periods. Lau argued that because only “minor revisions” were made to the state’s updated environmental review in 2017, a new round of public comment is not required.
Predictably, Gross disagreed, noting that federal regulations require the public be given a chance to weigh in before a completely new environmental impact decision is finalized.
“Big trucks coming through on a tighter road than what was described in a 2010 environmental assessment, that has never been put to public comment,” Gross argued.
This is the third time the nearly decade-old legal dispute has landed in Alsup’s court. In April 2012, Alsup ordered the state to draw new maps that calculate the root zones of each ancient-growth redwood affected by the project. That followed a prior ruling that found the state relied on inaccurate data when it issued a “no significant impact” finding in 2010, allowing it to bypass a full environmental review.
In May 2017, Caltrans re-approved the project based on a revised environmental review that found it would impact the root zones of 109 old-growth redwoods rather than 66 estimated in the state’s original 2010 study.
Established in 1922, Richardson Grove State Park is home to redwood trees thousands of years old soaring up to 300 feet high with diameters as large as 18 feet.
Lead plaintiff Bess Bair fired off her third lawsuit in seven years against the project in November 2017.
Bair’s co-plaintiffs include Trisha Lee Lotus, Jeffery Hedin, and David Spreen, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Protection Information Center, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics and Friends of Del Norte.
After the hearing, an opponent of the $21 million highway project responded to Alsup’s comments about the lack of legal safeguards for ancient trees under federal law.
“The law doesn’t protect large trucks either,” said Wendy Bertrand, a San Francisco resident who has spent many summers up north admiring the majestic redwoods. “Why can’t they go a little more slowly in smaller trucks?”