State Parks Funding

Judge halts Caltrans project over threat to redwoods

A federal judge Wednesday ordered Caltrans to immediately halt a controversial plan to widen Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park, citing potential harm to ancient redwood trees.

Caltrans planned to start construction early next year on the project, which aims to widen existing lanes so long trucks can fit through a curvy section of highway. Currently, such trucks must take a lengthy detour.

The plan prompted a demonstration at Caltrans headquarters in Sacramento last month, and was also the subject of a Bee article on threats to state parks last year.

Three environmental groups and five local residents sued to stop the project, alleging Caltrans violated state and federal law by failing to fully analyze the project's harm to redwoods and the wildlife that depend on them.

In a preliminary injunction issued Wednesday, Judge William Alsup of the Northern District federal court agreed. He cited an analysis by UC Berkeley forestry professor Joe McBride. The professor found that while the project will remove only six redwoods, none of which are old growth, the associated grading, compaction and drainage works could kill 37 trees, eight of them old-growth redwoods.

The judge noted the project could also harm endangered spotted owl and marbeled murrelet that live in the state park. He agreed with the plaintiffs that Caltrans failed to fully analyze these concerns, and also did not consider alternatives such as a new highway detour.

"We believe this ruling highlights the ecological importance of the state parks in redwood country," said Gary Hughes, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, one of the plaintiffs.

The ruling requires Caltrans to halt all work on the project, except for investigating alternatives and ways to minimize environmental harm. A hearing on the merits of the case was set for Dec. 1.