Ever since Caltrans decided to realign the narrow, 1.1-mile squiggle of redwood-lined Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park, there's been trouble -- the kind of trouble familiar to split-heart Humboldt County, where people have been battling over big trees and economic prowess for decades. Some folks say the realignment will kill big old redwoods by injuring their roots. And that would be terrible. They also say that improving the highway will effectively shred our Redwood Curtain by letting standard-sized trucks laden with Big-Box homogenese zip through with ease. Others, including Caltrans, counter that straightening out the bit of highway in question would actually help local businesses. Unlike their big-box brethren, the reasoning goes, local small fry can't afford the costly unloading of cargo from standard long trucks, most of which are banned north of Legget, and reloading it onto smaller trucks to get the stuff up here.
The debate reached rage point on Feb. 7, when more than 100 opponents to the Richardson Grove Improvement Project, flaunting imagery of war tanks and Wal-Mart, held an explosive rally at the Caltrans office in Eureka. Just like in the old timber-war days, some folks locked arms together in metal tubes. Cops came, sawed through the pipes, arrested 12 people. Police alleged someone threw a cup of coffee at them; protesters alleged the cops tazed someone. There was window banging, kicking and nunchucks.
And all of that was super exciting. However, the real turning point in the controversy came months later, on July 6, when U.S. District Judge William Alsup granted a preliminary injunction to stop Caltrans' improvement project. Several individuals and environmental groups had filed companion lawsuits against Caltrans in federal and state court. They alleged that Caltrans violated several federal and state acts -- including the National Environmental Protection Act -- by doing only an environmental assessment (released in draft in 2008 and approved in 2010) and not a full-on environmental impact study.
"Plaintiffs have demonstrated that irreparable harm is likely," wrote Judge Alsup, noting professional opinions by scientists other than those hired by Caltrans. And, he noted, "The public interest is best served by letting the ancients thrive a little longer while the merits of their future are evaluated in court."
So the project, originally set to begin in January 2012, is on hold until the case is over. Both parties have since filed more court documents and endured settlement negotiations, to no avail. A trial in the federal case is set for Feb. 23, 2012, in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The trial in the state case is set for the week of March 12 in Humboldt County Superior Court.
-- Heidi Walters