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Environmentalists ask judge to stop highway project in ancient redwood grove

Despite more than a decade of litigation and supplemental reviews, conservationists say the state still hasn’t fully considered the impacts of roadwork on ancient redwood trees.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Quarreling over what could be the final dispute in an 11-year legal saga, conservationists on Thursday urged a federal judge to block a proposed highway project through a majestic grove of ancient redwood trees in Northern California.

The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, has been trying since 2006 to alter a 1.1-mile strip of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park in Humboldt County, about a 3 ½-hour drive north from San Francisco. Established in 1922, the park is home to redwood trees up to 3,000 years old, soaring up to 300 feet high and with diameters as wide as 18 feet.

The goal of the project is to let larger trucks traverse the narrow strip of highway, which threads perilously close to old-growth trees, without a police escort. This would allow those trucks to avoid a 93-mile detour via Route 299 from Redding to Eureka, a curvy mountainous road periodically subject to closures for inclement winter weather and wildfires.

The latest version of the project would remove 38 trees, none of which are old-growth. Construction is expected to affect the root zones of 78 old-growth redwoods.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup has halted the project three times over the last decade, most recently in 2019 when he found Caltrans failed to fully consider the impact of paving and construction on tree root zones, potential tree damage from truck accidents and the effect of traffic noise on park enjoyment.

This past December, a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel overturned that decision, finding Alsup’s rationale for requiring further studies was based on “erroneous conclusions about the project’s effects on redwood tree health and possible increases in truck traffic and noise.”

The panel remanded the case to Alsup to resolve the remaining legal disputes, including claims that Caltrans didn’t fully consider alternative proposals, that it denied the public an opportunity to comment on an updated environmental review in 2017 and that it failed to obtain an official concurring approval from the California Department of Parks and Recreation, or state parks department, as required by law.

In a telephonic hearing Thursday, plaintiffs’ attorney Stuart Gross argued that Caltrans’ 2010 finding that the project adequately minimizes harm to the park should be invalidated because substantial changes have since been made to the proposal.

Caltrans initially proposed requiring the use of hand tools to dig in the root zones of old growth redwood trees, but in 2013 the agency widened the circumstances under which mechanized digging can take place. The agency found it would be infeasible to require handheld tools for cutting back roadside slopes, installing barrier walls and driving steel piles into the ground.

“That mitigation measure was substantially modified by expanding the exception to a broad range of activities,” Gross said.

The state also eliminated another restriction on doing construction work within three hours of sunrise and sunset. Gross said those changes require the agency to restart the process of obtaining a concurring opinion on mitigation measures from the state parks department.

Representing Caltrans, attorney Holly Bainbridge said those “minor changes” do not meet the legal standard for requiring the agency to seek a renewed concurring opinion from the parks department.

Victor Bjelajac, superintendent for California State Parks North Coast Redwood District, testified in a written statement that the department’s 2009 concurrence with the project remains valid and that he and his staff support moving forward with the project as currently proposed.

“We believe that the potential for project impacts to old growth redwood trees has been reduced due to Project modifications since 2009, including reduction in the depth of excavation within Richardson Grove State Park,” Bjelajac wrote.

Gross dismissed that declaration as an inappropriate “post-hoc” justification for the state's failure to fully comply with a legally required process.

The plaintiffs further argue that Caltrans was required to give the public a chance to comment on an updated environmental review for the project issued in 2017.

Prior to 2013 when the state supplemented a 2010 environmental report, Caltrans held three public meetings, one public hearing and two public comment periods. Caltrans attorney Stacy Lau said the department considered all of that feedback and incorporated it into its 2017 updated analysis. She said the law does not require “an endless cycle of comments and more comments on the revisions and more revisions based on the comments.”

Gross insisted that a “substantial amount of new information” has come out since public feedback was solicited, and that citizens should have an opportunity to weigh in on a project for which there is a “huge amount of public interest.”

The plaintiffs also argue that Caltrans violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to consider the effects of climate change in its environmental reviews. Caltrans says the plaintiffs cannot raise that issue because it was not expressly included as a claim in their lawsuit.

After about an hour of debate, Judge Alsup took the arguments under submission and said he would issue a ruling “in due course.”

Individual plaintiffs who sued Caltrans over the revised highway project include Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Jeffery Hedin, and David Spreen. Nonprofit plaintiffs include the Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Protection Information Center, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, and Friends of Del Norte.

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