TABLE OF CONTENTS
|Richardson Grove State Park:
Shall a Larger Highway Run Through It?
By Jan Bramlett
Richardson Grove State Park means many things to many people. This ancient grove of giant redwood trees is home to a variety of species including the endangered marbled murrelet; it was recently voted a favorite summer camping spot in a national survey; it is an inspiring place to powerwalk for health-conscious locals; it is a refuge and respite, and a reminder that life is bigger than the sum of our daily irritations. To many this grove by the river is sacred. Unfortunately, it is also an obstacle to efficient interstate transportation, according to trucking company executives and quite a few state and county politicos.
There have been earlier attempts to move big trucks through the Grove, all with unreasonable price tags in terms of environmental degradation and taxpayer expense. This recent big idea seems different, though. Caltrans isn’t planning to down any ancient trees, or cut another path across the river, or dig a tunnel into the surrounding hillside. This proposal is technologically sophisticated and ecologically respectable. And we still don’t like it.
Caltrans engineer Eric Lund has designed a beautiful project, there’s no doubt. He and his colleagues have worked very hard to ensure that the welfare of the ancient trees would be safeguarded in the process of widening the road. Pervious (highly porous) concrete will be used in construction to minimize damage to root systems. Where the road will infringe on the forest floor, the top layer of soil will be removed by hand, rather than with heavy earthmoving equipment, and roots larger than 3 inches in diameter (theoretically) will not be cut as they prepare for the new road. The design is elegant, in fact. But a design is not a final, on-the-ground project execution, and there is always a degree of play between the two. Just how much is one of our concerns.
Many people in and beyond Humboldt County have called for a full Environmental Impact Report/Study prior to the project’s approval, and after much badgering, Caltrans has agreed to take this route. This process allows the public 45 days to review and respond to whatever environmental documents Caltrans prepares, and requires Caltrans to respond to all comments submitted during the “scoping” period. It ensures that a particular, extensive protocol is followed in examining the potential impacts of the project on local air quality, on the health of the forest and the critters it shelters, on the Wild and Scenic Eel River that flows through it, and on “growth” here behind the Redwood Curtain. Why are we so insistent on meticulous evaluation?
Perhaps it’s better to ask why so many people are eager to push the project, from Governor Schwarzenegger to Congressman Mike Thompson to members of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, without such a detailed study. They seem to think that since this design doesn’t cut down any ancient trees, it’s good to go. As long as we’re leaving all the old-growth redwood trees, there’s no harm done, right?
As Professor Steve Sillet of Humboldt State University points out, there are no “old-growth” trees, only old-growth forests. Richardson Grove is not just a collection of giant, majestic trees, but a matrix of interdependent species of trees, insect and fungal life, animals (including humans), and mountain watershed, that, in concert, produce a particular space on the planet that is energetically distinct from any other kind of place. So many travelers have been struck dumb by the Grove’s spectacular presence. Perhaps some of us have become inured to their influence, living as we do among the splendor of these trees from one end of Humboldt to another. But when I picture the hand-held rakes ripping up the intricate root systems that have thrived next to this highway for close to 90 years, and when I try to imagine the sections of tall maples and cascaras, the 30-year-old Douglas firs and redwood saplings within and outside the Grove’s boundaries that will be torn out of the earth in order to make way for bigger trucks that reportedly can’t safely negotiate the existing path between the trees, I want to scream.
Given the spiraling prices and dwindling supply of petroleum, our current methods of transportation are about to be radically revised. Is it wise to destroy the contours of something as precious as Richardson Grove because the industry that’s about to go dinosaur says it’s too costly to deliver goods to remote places like Humboldt? Do we really want the trucking industry to dictate changes in our landscape—in this case, one that is an invaluable and irreplaceable public symbol of all that has been lost in the timber wars of Humboldt County? There are businesses in northern Humboldt that pay a premium for shipping in and out of the County. Some businesses suffer time delays when they can’t make their connections with the right cargo-to-container ratios. This is a fact of life in Humboldt County, just like the frequent power outages, scarcity of affordable, high-speed Internet, and other inconveniences that urban life has managed to minimize. But let’s ask ourselves bigger questions about changing the road alignment in Richardson Grove: will it result in living wages for teachers and better health care for Humboldt County residents? Will it bring in the kind of jobs that will keep our youth from heading out into a more cosmopolitan world (what would such jobs be, in fact)? Will it help us to restore the damage done by years of irresponsible, illegal, and immoral logging practices by industrial lumber companies? If not, what is the real contribution?
A number of business people claim they will take their business elsewhere if they cannot find relief from high transportation costs. Where will they go? Higher transportation costs are not unique to Humboldt, and they’re not going to stop rising. What will these businesses return to the people of Humboldt County that is worth the loss of the integrity of Richardson Grove State Park? Will we all get a five-dollar refund at the end of the year from the savings they incur once the bigger trucks have access?
We think the Grove is worth protecting. And we want your help in writing comment letters to Caltrans by June 10 (see below). We think the businesses that need logistical and financial relief are important to Humboldt County, even if we don’t think they should mess with our State park. So our proposal, which also happens to serve the State’s fiscal emergency, is to reduce the speed limit through the Grove to 25 mph, install some speed-monitoring systems, and save the good people of the State of California the $5 million that is currently budgeted for this project. In fact, give it to us as a bonus for coming up with a better idea. We have some plans for putting it to good use, like putting in a flashing-light system to warn motorists of the presence of bicyclists on the road in that trickier part of the highway. But that’s just the start.
Jan Bramlett represents The Grove Group, a local consortium of North Coast activists who have been monitoring the Caltrans proposal. For more information on the project and guidelines for comment letters, see