Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Highway 101 improvements should bypass unique redwood grove

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Over the last six decades – mile by expensive mile – California’s transportation department has upgraded Highway 101 on the scenic North Coast from a narrow, twisting, two-lane road into a modern four-lane expressway.

Well, not quite. There are still a couple of bottlenecks in Highway 101’s 265 miles of pavement between San Francisco and Eureka – not to mention a big one in Eureka itself, where logging trucks still rumble through its business district.

One choke point is in Willits, halfway between San Francisco and Eureka, and another is farther north in Richardson Grove State Park, home to one of the state’s most magnificent stands of old-growth redwood trees.

Willits’ residents have tolerated the often dense, noisy and noxious auto, truck and recreational vehicle traffic on its main drag for decades while the state Department of Transportation studied alternatives for a 6-mile-long bypass.

It finally settled on a route, only to face years of litigation from environmental groups, which raised specious arguments against the project – favoring, one supposes, continuing to choke Willits streets over some minor, even theoretical, damage to small patches of wetlands.

Finally, after much reworking of the project, it cleared all of the environmental and legal hurdles and construction is now underway.

The environmental objections to the Willits bypass never made much sense. But the groups that opposed it are on much firmer ground in opposing Caltrans’ plans for Richardson Grove’s bottleneck.

The coalition has filed its third lawsuit against Caltrans’ project to widen the narrow, 1915-vintage stretch of Highway 101 that snakes through the immense trees, and make it suitable for large trucks meeting a new federal standard.

Caltrans says its 1.1-mile project would carefully avoid damage to old-growth trees, but environmental groups say it could undermine their shallow roots.

The Richardson Grove bottleneck needs to go, but widening the existing road is a poor solution at best because traffic would still disrupt what should be quietude in such a unique corner of California.

A better solution would be to bypass the park altogether, or at least the portion containing old-growth trees.

Caltrans had planned for decades to do exactly that, shifting the highway across the Eel River to the east, and leaving the old road as a quiet driveway for visitors.

In 2000, after 45 years of inaction on that plan, it was re-evaluated, and highway officials ultimately decided that the path of least resistance would be to widen the existing highway to make it safe for the federally approved freightliners.

Moving the highway eastward is still the better plan, albeit costlier than a widening that, if anything, would allow even more noisy and dangerous traffic in the redwood grove.