Should a Few Big Old Trees Continue to Stand?

Last week, federal district judge William Alsup told California’s transportation department (CalTrans) that it had given short-shrift to the fate of several old-growth redwood trees that have the misfortune of living beside a coastal highway. CalTrans wants to widen Highway 101 as it passes through a redwood state park, thus allowing passage by extra-long trucks that currently must take long detours on their way to serve Humboldt County businesses.

The trees at issue “are thousands of years old, and can measure 300 feet tall with a diameter sixteen feet wide.” They are, as a practical matter, irreplaceable. Judge Alsup gets that and, if the final decision were his to make, he would choose trees over convenience for bigger trucks. But, as he is the first to admit, it is not his decision to make. With only NEPA processes on which to hang his judicial robe, Alsup makes the most of them!

And why not? Alsup comes from a long tradition of lawyers and judges who believe that environmental protection laws are intended to protect the environment. As a young lawyer, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas during the 1971-1972 term in which Douglas wrote his famous dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, which kicks off with a citation to “Should Trees Have Standing,” a law review treatise now enjoying a political renaissance.

[In his 1972 dissent, Douglas noted “the Forest Service — one of the federal agencies behind the scheme to despoil Mineral King — has been notorious for its alignment with lumber companies, although its mandate from Congress directs it to consider the various aspects of multiple use in its supervision of the national forests.” Prescient and accurate, as future events proved.]

In Justice Douglas, Alsup had a good mentor who would be proud of his protege’s sound instinct for putting the public interest ahead of a CalTrans bureaucracy beholden to the trucking lobby.

7 thoughts on “Should a Few Big Old Trees Continue to Stand?”

  1. “Old-growth redwoods are “trees with a diameter of 30 inches or larger, measured at breast height….”

    A coast redwood can achieve that DBH in 50 years.

    “NEPA’s purpose is twofold: first, to require agencies “to consider every significant aspect
    of the environmental impact of a proposed action….”

    Does it require agencies to consider the environmental impact of no action? In this case, the continued longer detour for trucks.

  2. The agency has argued that road widening is, in fact, the environmentally superior thing to do for that reason, Steve. Although missing is that since the project was first proposed, there is a new STAA-approved route into the county from I-5, largely removing the project “need.”

  3. When I read about this case in the news originally, I thought that they were not actually impacting the trees but possibly their root systems. But then I couldn’t find the original news story.

    I’m glad there is another alternative because it would be a tough call to compare some root system damage to known impacts of extra diesel on climate change. I wonder if the judge made the State calculate that?

    As the judge pointed out, NEPA is a procedural statute. He can safely say, I don’t like this project, but they followed the law.

    • The judge “safely” said that CalTrans broke the law by failing to follow proper NEPA procedures. And as I remember from my tree physiology class, the roots are an integral part of a tree.

  4. Quotes from the Opinion: A controversy arose … because excavation activities might have impacted old-growth redwoods in and out of the park as a result of mechanical and cut and fill work in the old-growth redwoods’ “structural root zones” and “root health zones.

    The 2017 EA/FONSI increased the number of old-growth redwood trees that would be
    subject to work within the structural root zone of the trees (increased by four trees) and within the root health zone (increased by three trees). In addition, the 2017 EA/FONSI reduced the area of disturbed soil, reduced the volume of excavated material, reduced the estimated volume of fill,
    and reduced the total number of non-old-growth trees to be removed (from 54 to 38). Again, no old-growth redwoods would be removed under the revised project.

    The 2017 administrative record, lodged in February 2018, included slightly less than seven thousand pages. A supplemental 2017 administrative record, lodged in June 2018, added hundreds of more pages plus a video of Highway 101 winding through Richardson Grove State Park. The 2010 administrative record, re-lodged in September 2018, contained over ten
    thousand pages.

    Mastering the administrative record has been awful.

    …both sides bear responsibilities for the confusion and inaccuracies larded into this record. … This order identifies four significant issues given short-shrift or no shrift by the 2017

    • I read part of this decision and was amazed by the technical details of root zones and roots that the judge tried to parse through. I don’t think the answer is as cut and dried as the judge seemed to think. I felt lots of compassion for the CalTrans folks who are probably not as used to bulletproofing environmental documents as FS folks are.

  5. Paved highways in redwood country along the coast can be pretty narrow in places. I remember when the bypass was built to avoid having 100% of the Highway 101 traffic (including all kinds of heavy trucks) go through Prairie Redwoods State Park (and part of the National Park). Even though the bypass is slightly longer and has some steep grades, it made things much safer on the original road by reducing all of the traffic, and tourists no longer have to deal with heavy truck traffic going in and out of the side roads when visiting the redwoods there. I also remember when highway 199 was widened near Patrick’s Creek – that involved lots of rock blasting and other inconveniences (but no redwood cutting), but it greatly improved the safety of driving through the area because you were much less likely to encounter large RVs or heavy trucks coming around a blind corner partly in your lane.
    So these situations can be tough – especially where recreational/tourist traffic and everyday commerce have to share the road, especially along US 101 where it is narrow and winding. If there is a better alternative now, then it sounds like this particular road widening project may be a moot point. But these sorts of roadway conflicts aren’t going away, and sometimes that may mean that a redwood is cut…..


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