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.