Fight Over Redwood Highway Rehab Cruises Into Ninth Circuit

Highway 101 winds through groves of majestic redwood trees in Northern California. (Courthouse News photo / William Dotinga)

(CN) — California officials appeared in front of a three-judge panel at the Ninth Circuit on Tuesday to argue a highway construction project running through an old-growth grove of magnificent redwood trees would not harm the forest. 

“Caltrans has taken a lot of care in the protection of old-growth redwood trees in the design of this project,” said Stacy Lau, arguing on behalf of California’s transportation agency at the hearing. 

The dispute centers on a project to realign and widen Highway 101 as it threads through Richardson State Park, located in Humboldt County in the northern part of the state where some of the largest specimens of redwoods loom over the horizon. 

The highway slips through and past some trees that grow as tall as 300 feet and up to 18 feet in diameter, some of the largest trees on Earth. 

A consortium of environmental groups sued Caltrans saying their internal approval of the project after several rounds of environmental analysis was incomplete and failed to fully account for the impacts to the old-growth trees. 

“The proposed road project is in the middle of ancient trees, many of which are thousands of years old,” said Stuart Gross, attorney for the environmental groups. “Caltrans never adequately assessed the potential impact on these trees.”

Caltrans argues it did analyze the potential impact of the widening project and concluded that it would not unduly harm any of the trees flanking the highway as it transverses through the park. 

The agency further accused U.S. District Judge William Alsup — who halted the project in 2019 — of overstepping his authority by interjecting issues not in the record. 

“The district court went well beyond its role when it looked at the issue of the visitor experience,” Lau said, saying Alsup should not have looked at whether traffic noise from the project would harm visitors since that was not a part of the initial administrative record. 

But Gross argued the fact that traffic noise was omitted from the first administrative record is proof that Caltrans was deficient in its analysis. 

“The only noise study was one about construction noise,” he said. “That is the opposite of a hard look.”

Caltrans says it needs to widen the road to accommodate some semi trucks that are too long to transverse the segment of road that winds through the forest without going out of the lane at points. 

The construction will entail some tree removal, but not any old-growth redwoods. The project calls for cut-slope excavation, placement of fill material, the removal of lead-contaminated soils and stream diversion. 

Gross said the level of intensive construction work is not appropriate for a place with such valuable ecological items, but Lau said the agency already has plans for how to execute the project while maintaining the health of the trees. 

“The agency is in some cases going to use handheld pneumatic excavators that are going to blow dirt as they operate,” Lau said. 

She contrasted that with the first time the highway was built at the beginning of the 20th century when the transportation agency used heavy machinery. Despite the more ecologically clumsy approach, the redwood trees on either side of the highway, many of which had their structural root system severed, continue to flourish. 

“This project will not cause a significant environmental impact,” Lau said. 

The three-judge panel presided over the hearing via Zoom. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Kim Wardlaw, a Barack Obama appointee, did most of the questioning during the hearing but did not tip her hand about which way she is leaning. U.S. Circuit Judges Daniel Collins, a Donald Trump appointee and Ferdinand Fernandez, appointed by George H.W. Bush, rounded out the panel. 

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