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Research Needed on Threat Highway Poses to Redwoods

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The California Department of Transportation must reassess how expansion of Highway 101 will affect a surrounding state park filled with ancient redwoods, a federal judge ruled.

Three nonprofit environmental groups and five individuals had filed suit to stop the department, more commonly known as Caltrans, from widening the historic highway mile-long tract that threads through Richardson Grove State Park. The park is home to thousands-year-old redwood trees, some over 300 feet tall.

Built through the park in 1915, Highway 101 is a two-lane road flanked by the trees that come right up to the gravel. The roadway has narrowed to a mere 22 feet in places, prohibiting use by most semi-trucks.

To reach Eureka at the northern tip of California from San Francisco, big rigs must take a 446-mile detour around this highway.

Caltrans initiated a widening project to facilitate their passage, but the expansion involves excavation would affect old-growth redwoods.

Nevertheless, Caltrans bypassed an environmental impact statement by making a finding of "no significant impact." The agency's less stringent final assessment identifies 54 trees that will be cut down for the project, and another 68 redwoods that will have excavation, cutting and road base put down in their root zones.

After the Environmental Protection Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, and the individuals plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction in July 2011, the parties lodged a 10,000-page administrative record.

Attempts at mediation proved unsuccessful, with the environmental groups objecting to Caltrans' use of maps they say are inaccurate. A magistrate judge visited the site with both parties and concluded that Caltrans had indeed relied on inaccurate maps and tree dimensions for the project.

Both parties objected to the magistrate's recommendation, but U.S. District Judge William Alsup overruled them last week

"Here, there are a number of discrepancies and omissions that raise serious questions about whether Caltrans truly took a 'hard look' at the effects of the project and made an informed decision," Alsup wrote, taking on the agency's decision to use the environmental assessment.

"Caltrans' algorithm for determining the location of a redwood's structural root zone is three times its diameter," he added. "And, Caltrans' algorithm for determining the location of a redwood's health root zone is five times its diameter. So, in order to fully understand the potential damage to the structural and health root zones of a redwood and the whole grove, all the trees in the construction area must be identified and their diameters must be measured correctly. This was not done."

"Although perhaps the failure of data or analysis on a single tree might not demonstrate findings that are 'highly uncertain,' the accumulation of data errors certainly raises 'substantial questions' about the possible significance of the project's impact on the environment," the April 4 deciison states.

Caltrans must prepare accurate maps that identify, number and calculate the root zones of each ancient redwood, and set forth environmental issues for each one. In a revised environmental assessment finds a significant environmental impact, the agency may have to commission an environmental impact statement.

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