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Related Categories: California | North Coast | Environment & Forest Defense | Health, Housing, and Public Services
Trucks Vs. Trees in Northern California
by Christina Aanestad
Thursday Sep 23rd, 2010 5:28 PM
 A stand of prized California Redwoods in Humboldt County is at the center of a fierce tug-of-war between competing local interests. On the one side are environmental activists and some native Americans who say the trees must not be touched. On the other are some local businesses and development interests who argue the roadside trees are threatening regional progress. 
Richardson Grove about an hour south of Eureka, is a dense forest with three hundred foot tall redwood trees, some, more than a thousand years old.   Highway 101 goes right through this state park which is a gateway to California’s redwood region.

"That tree is upwards about 800 years old, maybe a thousand years old."
 
That’s Kerul Dyer. She’s a campaign organizer with the environmental protection information center or EPIC, a local nonprofit group known for suing lumber companies and other business interests that might threaten the North Coast’s old growth redwoods. They are among the groups suing the state to block a highway widening project.

"Some of the oldest, tallest living things on earth are here.  People come here to experience the old growth redwoods and there's so little of it left, we have to protect every last tree."

But some of these redwoods are in the way of a proposal to widen the highway so larger trucks can pass through Richardson Grove. Fifty-four trees, not all of them redwoods, would be cut down and the roots of about 70 old growth redwood trees would be cut back.

An hour north of Richardson Grove  Mary Kheane, the co-founder of Cypress Grove Chevre in Arcata, finds herself in a difficult position over the widening project.

"I moved to Humboldt County because i wanted a back to the land life .  I’ve lived on 80 acres, we built a cabin scrapped the bark off the trees, we had a garden and a few goats…."

Cypress Grove Chevre started out a small company with a few goats. But now it’s a multi-million dollar business and Khene says it’s getting harder to rely on the smaller, more costly trucks she has to use now in order to export her gourmet cheese along Highway 101. 

"These trucks are older, they pollute, the use more gas because they're older, and they don't make them anymore because there's only 2 places in the whole united states that have this small truck need, and we're one of them."

Proponents like Khene say the Richardson Grove highway widening project won't cause any old growth trees to be cut down.  And, biologists for Caltrans, the lead agency say the impact will be minor. But scientists aren't all on the same page. Dyer of EPIC say the impacts of cutting the root systems are unknown.

"Caltrans cannot offer any guarantee that this will not harm the old growth.  If they could EPIC would not be suing them."
 
EPIC is joined in its fight by a consortium of native American tribes and some local business owners to stop the plan. Loreen Eialson owns the Riverwood Inn in Phillipsville.

"With the state of the state of California right now, budgets not being met, schools closing and this, why does they want to spend 5 million dollars or more to make this alignment so that 15 businesses can export their cheese and beer? It doesn't make sense."

Eliason says the money to widen the road should go towards more important services in the state, and she says, large sat trucks already move through richardson grove for cattle and moving trucks. Opponents in the suit, like elision argue Caltrans did not adequately consider the projects environmental impacts or alternatives to a wider highway, like turning into a one way lane or using the hymboldt harbor.

"The other alternative we have here is humboldt bay, which is a very big bay and can handle what you call short haul shipping. And, goods can be shipped by barge. This is the way of the future, not trucks, not more fossil fuels…"
 
Caltrans declined to comment on the pending litigation.  Currently the agency is widening another access point into humboldt county on highway 299.
The widening project is part of governor Schwarzenegger’s Goods Movement Action Plan, says commissioner  Kirk Girard.

"The Trucking industry is designed to work on modern large scale roads so rural areas are increasingly marginalized from goods movement and that’s how we find ourselves here."

But not all residents in Humboldt County want an increase in large scale trucking. For residents like Eliason, the quality of life is worth limiting the size of trucks in her area.

"I was born here, i'm third generation and I've made my niche. I know I will not make a lot of money. But its my choice to live here. Eureka and Humboldt county will always have the same quality of life; its always gonna be hard to find a job its always going to be a beautiful place to live and thats the trade off in my opinion."

As part of the Governors Goods Movement Action Plan, Richardson Grove will be widened next to allow for larger scale shipping, but that depends on the outcome of the suit. It could be a long time in the making until any decisions are made. But, it's unlikely an agreement will be reached any time soon; environmental law suits can take decades. EPIC just won a legal battle over logging redwood trees that was in litigation for 12 years. Til then activists vow to keep the heat on protecting richardson grove, which is also sacred to several local native american tribes.