EUREKA, Calif.— Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Kelly Neel ruled in favor of environmental organizations Tuesday in the latest legal battle in the nearly decade-long effort to prevent the widening of Highway 101 through old-growth redwoods at Richardson Grove State Park.
The court decision means Caltrans is not allowed to physically alter the proposed project area and that the agency would need to get court approval before moving forward.
Plaintiffs in the case include the Environmental Protection Information Center, Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Friends of Del Norte and four private citizens, Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen. Plaintiffs Bair and Lotus both have generational family ties to the park’s creation.
In her decision Judge Neel found that Caltrans avoided public scrutiny by failing to solicit public comment on a significant piece of new information, a report from an arborist hired by Caltrans. In doing so she highlighted that the public and other agencies were deprived of their right to provide comment and feedback, something essential to the law.
“Caltrans has continued to view public opinion and opposition to the Richardson Grove Project as something that they can bulldoze through,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center. “Four times, courts have returned the project to the agency, finding that their slapdash work violates the law.”
“We urge Caltrans to finally abandon its deeply misguided and destructive plan to widen Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park,” said Peter Galvin, cofounder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our ancient redwood trees are too important to pave over.”
In 2010 Caltrans issued its “final environmental impact report” for the Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project. In 2014 the First District Court of Appeals found that the agency had violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to take a hard look at the project’s impacts on old-growth redwoods.
After that decision Caltrans attempted to cure its deficiency by hiring an arborist to examine project impacts. The arborist’s report, which presented new scientific data, including an untested rating system to predict impacts to tree health from project activities, was shielded from public comment through its release as part of an “addendum” to the original CEQA documents. This added significant new information to the environmental impact report without providing public notice and consultation with agencies.
The court stated that “the rating system devised by the arborist may or may not rest on sound scientific footing. Without review and critique by others with expertise in the relevant fields, this footing remains untested. Peer review is essential to sound science.”
The plaintiffs are represented by Sharon Duggan, Stuart Gross of Gross & Klein LLP, Philip Gregory of Gregory Law Group, and Camilo Artiga-Purcell of Artiga-Purcell Law Office.
Richardson Grove State Park, considered the gateway to the Redwoods, is where tourists often first encounter large redwoods when heading north on Highway 101. It is home to one of the last protected stands of accessible old-growth redwood trees in the world. The park has essential habitat for protected species, and its creeks support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead trout.
Litigation against the Richardson Grove project has been successful in both state and federal court. Most recently, in 2019, Judge Alsup of the Northern District District Court of California ruled in favor of the conservation groups, finding that Caltrans failed to take a hard look at the impacts on old-growth redwoods under federal law.