Fifth Lawsuit Challenges Destructive Highway-widening Through Ancient California Redwoods

SAN FRANCISCO Nov. 2, 2017 — Environmental groups and local residents, represented by Stuart Gross of Gross & Klein LLP, again sued the California Department of Transportation for approving a highway-widening project that would needlessly damage or destroy thousand-year-old redwood trees in California’s iconic Richardson Grove State Park along Highway 101 in Humboldt County.

This is the fifth legal challenge to Caltrans’ approval of the controversial “Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project.” The project would damage the roots of more than 100 of Richardson Grove’s ancient redwoods, including trees up to 3,000 years old, 18 feet in diameter and 300 feet tall. Caltrans has pursued this project solely to incrementally improve passage for oversized commercial trucks, and continues to rely on inadequate environmental review.

“This ancient grove is special and I cannot let those trees die,” said plaintiff Bess Bair, whose grandparents owned the adjacent Hartsook Inn and worked to preserve Richardson Grove. “Caltrans can’t show any science that cutting into their roots won’t kill these redwoods. The local community does not want this project.”

“My great grandfather Henry Devoy entrusted 120 acres of old-growth redwoods here in 1922 at the inception of Richardson Grove,” said plaintiff Trisha Lotus, who is intent on maintaining her family’s legacy to protect Richardson Grove State Park. “That’s why we’re fighting Caltrans’ plan to cut into their roots, which could compromise their health and could kill these trees.”

“People made tremendous sacrifices to protect our state parks and we can’t let Caltrans’ ill-conceived project and hasty decision threaten the wonders of Richardson Grove,” said plaintiff Jeff Hedin of Piercy, Calif. “Caltrans owes the public a robust and thorough discussion of our environmental and safety concerns. They haven’t done that.”

“We need transportation policies and projects that prioritize both environmental and economic sustainability, and truly represent the most cost-effective safety measures,” said plaintiff and Humboldt County business owner David Spreen. “Caltrans’s Highway 101 Richardson Grove project fails on all counts.”

“Caltrans hasn’t changed or improved anything about this project. It’s the same terrible proposal to damage ancient redwoods in our state park with no benefits to the community,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity. “There’s no compelling traffic or safety reason to destroy these beautiful trees. The project is a non-starter.”

“Caltrans’ priorities are all mixed up,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center. “Instead of keeping our storm-damaged roads open or fixing the disaster-in-waiting at Last Chance Grade, Caltrans continues to waste taxpayer money to push the disastrous Richardson Grove Project.”

“If Caltrans digs up the roadbed through Richardson Grove, toxic lead left by previous generations will be released into the park and surrounding environment, something Caltrans hasn't yet owned up to,” said Patty Clary of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics. “We can't sit by when so much is at stake with this gem of a park.”


The latest lawsuit challenges Caltrans’ violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, due to inadequate evaluation of the environmental impacts of cutting into tree roots, and the Transportation Act, which requires highway projects with federal funding to minimize harm to natural resources in state parks.

The lawsuit was filed yesterday filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by the Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Protection Information Center, Friends of Del Norte, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, and longtime local residents Bess Bair, Trisha Lee Lotus, Jeffrey Hedin and David Spreen.

Previous legal challenges had blocked construction and forced Caltrans to rescind all project approvals in 2014. The agency quietly reapproved the project in May 2017. Caltrans claims it has made significant changes but still intends to cut into tree roots, a procedure that would threaten the stability and viability of old-growth redwoods. The conservation groups also filed suit challenging the new approval in state court in June.

Richardson Grove State Park, where tourists often first encounter large redwoods when heading north on Highway 101, is home to one of the last protected stands of accessible old-growth redwood trees in the world. The park has essential habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the northern spotted owl, and its creeks support runs of imperiled salmon and steelhead trout.

Caltrans first proposed the project in 2007, claiming the widening is needed to accommodate large-truck travel. However, Highway 101 through Richardson Grove is already designated for larger trucks and does not have significant safety problems. The agency cannot demonstrate that the project is necessary for safety or would benefit the local economy.

A copy of the complaint is included here.