Parting the Redwood Curtain

A one-mile highway project could change an entire region

  • A smaller semi truck weaves through the redwoods in Richardson Grove State Park.

  • Three stretches of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove and Caltrans’ simulations of how they would be altered.


U.S. 101, the longest highway in California, starts in Los Angeles and meanders northward through Santa Barbara, San Francisco and into redwood country. For California's sparsely populated north coast -- the stretch of forests and farms and the smattering of towns that make up Humboldt and Del Norte counties -- 101 is a lifeline. It's the main artery for a region that was in economic trouble even before the Great Recession.

Just across the Humboldt County line, the highway bisects tiny Richardson Grove State Park, where it drops from four lanes to two and weaves through ancient redwood trees. The top speed is 35 miles per hour, along curves too tortuous for full-size commercial semis to navigate. The park is the one place along Highway 101 through which these trucks -- the kind that serve businesses across the United States, from mom-and-pop shops to big-box behemoths -- cannot legally travel, with a few exceptions.

Now, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) wants to improve and widen the highway. But locals are divided. Some see the restricted highway as a bottleneck obstructing economic development in a recession-racked community. To others, it's the finger in the dike forestalling a flood of development in a deliberately bucolic landscape. Both sides agree on one thing: Management of the highway through this state park has implications for development in the entire region the highway serves.

Verdant Humboldt County lies near the southern end of a temperate rainforest that once stretched from just north of San Francisco Bay to southern Alaska. The county's population density is among the lowest in California, and is concentrated around two hubs, Eureka and nearby Arcata. The woods form a largely pristine corridor from the inland hills to the rocky coast, creating a physical barrier from the more metropolitan south, and preserving the pastoral atmosphere that distinguishes the region. Locals call it the "Redwood Curtain."

To get through the two-lane section of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove, loads have to be transferred onto smaller trucks or detour into Oregon before heading back south, increasing the trip between Oakland and Eureka, for example, by 446 miles. A 2008 state-commissioned study found that the restriction increases trucking costs by 16.9 percent for affected industries, including timber, manufacturing, floral and brewing, resulting in an annual income loss of $8 million for businesses and residents in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

The restriction stems from the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA) of 1982, a Reagan-supported law that, among other things, standardized the length of semi-trailers at a maximum of 53 feet. STAA semis aren't allowed through Richardson Grove because the route is so curvy, and they're so long, they can't turn without "off-tracking" -- making use of the opposing lane or the highway's shoulder. Off-tracking on the narrow, two-lane highway endangers both motorists and the trees that line the road. Before 1982, smaller, 40-foot trailers were more common, and though STAA-sized semis may have traversed the park at times, it would have been infrequent.

Humboldt County's 2008 Regional Transportation Plan blamed STAA limits for "preventing (the county's) businesses from being profitable and competitive with other similar business along the west coast." Caltrans' $5.5 million improvement project will, theoretically, level the playing field by creating an uninterrupted freight corridor from L.A. to Oregon. Construction would widen some shoulders and adjust lane alignment to allow semis through. Thirty trees in the park would be cut down -- only two redwoods, neither of them old-growth. Excavation will take place around the root systems of 86 more trees, including old-growth redwoods. The project is set to break ground this September.

When Eureka resident Trisha Lotus heard about the plan, she, like many locals, took it personally. Born in 1949, Lotus spent much of her youth behind the Redwood Curtain, summering in cabins among the big trees, and swimming in creeks and rivers.

Around the turn of the last century, Lotus' great-grandfather, Henry M. Devoy, owned a tract of old-growth redwoods in Humboldt. In 1922, 120 acres were turned over to the state, then under the leadership of Gov. Friend W. Richardson. This land became Richardson Grove State Park.

When Devoy owned the property, a horse path cut through it, crossing creeks, washes and the South Fork of the Eel River. In 1915, the trail was converted into an all-weather road, and in the 1930s, Depression-era stimulus programs put people to work constructing bridges. The one-time horse path is part of today's Highway 101. The park, meanwhile, has grown to more than 2,000 acres, with hiking, camping, salmon fishing, some of the last ancient redwoods, and that uniquely 21st-century amenity: wireless Internet.

Divergent Interests
Mitchell London
Mitchell London
Aug 27, 2010 11:52 AM
Often, the opinion mill in the USA poses the environmental interests v. economic interests debate in a sort of good v. evil false dichotomy. I think that this piece exposes some shades of grey in that debate.
Nothing erodes moral values like a sagging economy (it sort of calls Maslow's hierarchy of needs to mind). The piece got me thinking - good work.
US Highway 101 proposed realignment
Mark Wisniewski
Mark Wisniewski
Aug 27, 2010 03:49 PM
Has anyone studied how additional freight trips and longer trucks would affect traffic passing through downtown Eureka which already gets backed up?

Will they need to remove buildings to relieve the bottleneck and add another lane or two?

Also the terminus of 101 maybe be LA, but Historic 101 is alive and well in Northern San Diego County passing through my home town of Encinitas and other coastal communities.

According to Wikipedia:
"In 1964, California truncated its southern terminus in Los Angeles, as Interstate 5 replaced it. The old road is known as county road S-21 or Historic Route 101 in northern San Diego County."
Another perspective
Misty in Eureka
Misty in Eureka
Aug 30, 2010 07:27 PM
Another opinion:

Thanks for this story Denver. I see you have some various aspects to the story which is great, but it is much more complicated, and some information you were given is not totally accurate, in my opinion.

Caltrans, Kirk Girard, and Loughmiller do not tell the whole story, and many of these statements stated here are not clear. The truth is, StAA trucks pass freely and without problems though Richardson Grove all the time. Many have exceptions (like cattle and dairy and others?), and others just get away with it, but STAA are always passing through Richardson Grove State Park at a very high rate of speed. A neighbor who lives there sees them all the time, and we observed many passing when we were examining the proposed project ourselves. We did not observe one truck off tracking while we were carefully observing. We did see many trucks speeding through, and some of estimated them to be going 50 mph in the 35 mph zone.

Secondly, that was rude of Loughmiller of Arcata Recycle to act like a child, and say give it back to the Indians and tear up the road if he can't get his way.. The correct term would be Native Americans. .
Actually, the previous owners of Richardson Grove (from 1860 to 1903), before Henry Devoy, was Ruben Reed. Reuben Reed was legally married to a Native American lady, and they had two children together. They sold the property fare and square, Nobody took Richardson Grove from Native American peoples. Mrs. Reed opened her door to all people needing help or food. Please refer to Diane Hawk's books, Touring the Old Redwood Highway and A Glance Back, for more interesting history.

Some who live next door to Richardson Grove State Park, guess that the STAA and CA Legal trucks are going through Richardson Grove State Park at 50 mph and this is in a 35 mph zone. If they would lower the speed to 20 mph, with flashing lights, the trucks would then go 35 mph, and with big fines, that could help local volunteer rescue, fire, and police.

We also sat and watched many STAA trucks pass by, and although they speed, which could cause them to off track. This is not a safety issue, as Caltrans now states in the Final Environmental Impact Report. Everyone is hurting financially, and it is not because of Richardson Grove, I can assure you that.

I am assuming that Caltrans did not bother to tell the author that they cancelled studies of the Marbled Murrelet and Northern Spotted Owl, and in fact, no scientific studies have been done to protect these and other endangered species. Not so funny, is that the studies were planned for after the proposed Caltrans project, rather than before. Even Fish and Game scientists said this project is a big mistake, but their own supervisors don't listen to their own scientists.

Another fact is that Highway 299 (east) is being opened to STAA to connect with the main Interstate 5 and the train there. Nobody is contesting that Caltrans project. We are not against business, but we are for businesses who care about protecting historical treasures.

Also, there are other curvy spots that are only two lanes along Highway 101, and there are places where the road is caving in not far from this proposed project, so that is another mistake by Caltrans to tell you that Richardson Grove is the only thing in the way. Caltrans and the proponents do not seem to care about all those local truckers who will loose their jobs to the bigger STAA trucking industry?

As this story states, the economy is not good, but we all know it is due to the housing market bubble bursting in 2006. Talking to the Labor Market Analysis Dennis Mullens, he said we have lost 4,000 jobs in Humboldt County from 2006 to 2009, and add the last year and it is not good, but we only have an unemployment rate of 11.4%., which is average for this difficult time. I say to proponents, "don't move up here and get the good rents and then try and bring Santa Rosa to us. Move there. We don't care.

All these companies have survived just fine for the last 100 years, or they move to Redding or some other congested city. We pay the extra costs at the cash register, and there will be no trickle down of any savings to the consumer.

Now, these big business pushers want to bring in Home Depot and Wal-Mart, and for what? The reason Trader Joes does not come here, is we are remote and we don't have the population to support big businesses. There are lovely things about being remote, and when I moved here it was because I wanted to get away from the rat race, and I accepted a low paying job in exchange for a more peaceful lifestyle and less traffic.

The old growth trees that will be effected by cutting their roots and other pavement removing and toxic new asphalt application damage, number approximately 72. Of these 72 slated for root cutting , 47 old growth redwoods are over 6 feet in diameter, and 7 old growth are over 12 feet in diameter. Pulling asphalt off, cutting huge root systems, and putting toxic landfill off to the side and filling with toxic asphalt will have devastating effects on Old Growth roots. It will be messing around with a canopy and trees that are 1,000 to 3,000 years or older. This is a historical site, and State Parks are supposed to be protected.

If I could use the radar gun and clock the speeds of these CA Legal and STAA trucks passing regularly through the one mile stretch of Richardson Grove, our estimates could be proven that they are speeding way over the speed limit.

Use the Alternatives as Caltrans states in the Draft Environmental Impact Report. Just slow the speed to 25 mph, but start the slower speed back from the entrance so the local businesses there will also not have so much speeding traffic past their homes and businesses. Flashing lights can alert, and fines enacted. We are talking millions of dollars for a one mile stretch of highway, in this struggling economy that will not help us improve up here at all, in my opinion.

Thanks again for your story, and I just had to add my 2 cents worth.
Re: Parting the Redwood Curtain
Marie Rodriguez
Marie Rodriguez
Aug 31, 2010 02:14 PM
Misty, you end your perspective by stating that you had to add your two cents worth - in my opinion your words were worth a million bucks! Thanks for sharing-
Misty - one minor point on tree ages
Aug 31, 2010 06:16 PM
The generally accepted maximum age of old-growth redwoods is about 2000 years and very, very few above-ground stems actually reach this age. Admittedly the trees are difficult to age for a variety of technical reasons but it's hard to tell the difference from a robust 700 year old tree from a 1500 year old tree that grew under severe competition.

It's much safer in general to just say they are likely in excess of 500 yrs. Anyone who tells you a redwood is 2000 years old (or any specific age) is either wrong or prevaricating.

The point to this is that I think it's a mistake to base an argument on preservation on trees being a specific age class because there's a high likelihood of being proven wrong if someone wants to press the issue. It's the size after all, that wows us, not the exact age. The ages we just infer (incorrectly) from size.
Save Richardson Grove State Park
Aug 31, 2010 09:00 PM
Doc Said:
 The generally accepted maximum age of old-growth redwoods is about 2000 years and very, very few above-ground stems actually reach this age. Admittedly the trees are difficult to age for a variety of technical reasons but it's hard to tell the difference from a robust 700 year old tree from a 1500 year old tree that grew under severe competition.

Hi Doc,
Thank you for this information, as you obviously have the education to know old growth redwoods and how to tell their ages. Others have brought up this point as well, saying that redwoods rarely live to be 3000, and you are saying 2000, is about as old as a redwood can live. I will not question that fact, but that is why I said

"It will be messing around with a canopy and trees that are 1,000 to 3,000 years or older. This is a historical site, and State Parks are supposed to be protected."

That is why I added the word canopy, and instead of trees, I should have said, "you will be messing around with a canopy and redwood roots that are 1,000 to 3,500 years or older.

The reason I know the canopy to be 3,500 years old or older, is because of what it says on page 54, in the "Richardson Grove Operational Improvement Project, Caltrans Draft Environmental Impact Report, prepared by the State of California Department of Transportation. In other terms: Caltrans DEIR for Richardson Grove. This was an actual study by an Archaeological Scientist did a survey and Extended Phase I Survey-4 was performed to determine whether either site CA-Hum-240 or any other sites may extend into the project study area.

From Page 54, Paragraph 2 DEIR Richardson Grove
The excavation revealed one new archaeological site, P-12 001824, within the APE.
"This site proved to be a shallow, dispersed lithic scatter that appears to date to 3,500 - 1,500 Before Present. This site was found to extend beyond the APE and the Extended Phase I investigation only looked at the portion of the site that had the potential to be directly impacted by the proposed project.."

Then comes the same double talk all through the DEIR: The portion of P-12001824, that is located within the area to be disturbed by the proposed project was determined ineligible for the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historical Resources. The California Office of Historic Preservation has concurred with this determination. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This type of double talk is on ever page of the Draft (price $10) &Final Environmental Impact Report (price $150)

So that is why this canopy can't be disturbed, but cutting into the root systems of this historical site and canopy that was here before Christ. These roots are to be protected, is what being a State Park means. It means it belongs to the people and not special interests.

Good point though.
Peace to you,
Misty's comments
Sep 02, 2010 07:09 PM
Thank you Misty for your amazing letter and pointing out so many important facts about this destructive project. I do not want to live in the rat race either and am willing to pay more at the cash register to keep Humboldt County the special and beautiful place that it is.

You cannot tell me that there are not places all over this country where STAA trucks are not allowed. There has to be a few places in this notorously capitalistic and greedy country where we we can go to get away from big noisy, polluting trucks, freeway congestion and the attendant unpleasant development that follows from opening up our roads and communities to more commercial truck traffic.

I pray that the courts see through this disastrous plan that threatens our ancient trees, wildlife, Richardson Grove State Park and our peaceful, unique way of life on the North Coast.

Thank again, Misty.
Protecting Richardson Grove
Sep 02, 2010 03:14 PM
My husband and I just returned from a 3-week trip in Austria and Germany--part of the trip was spent riding bikes. We saw so many small villages where the size of the vehicles are adapted to the narrow streets that are lined with century's old buildings. Unlike the USA, where we are willing to cut down century's old trees to allow for ever-bigger trucks, Europeans use mass transit to move a large percentage of their population and smaller, more fuel-efficient trucks to move their goods. They are not tearing down their old buildings so bigger, more polluting trucks can barrel through their villages and towns. And the funny thing is that when we were in these smaller villages or in big cities like Vienna and Munich, we did not see any shortage of goods on the store shelves. To the contrary, they seemed to be quite well supplied and people seemed to be doing well.

The moral of the story is that in countries like England and mainland Europe, we noticed that vehicles are adapted to the constraints of narrow roads and historic villages instead of the other way around. Maybe we should take heed to that healthy mindset that some things are worthy of protection no matter what. To me, if we cannot protect Richardson Grove and ancient redwoods from destruction, what can we protect?

We must stop the madness before it stops us!

Give it back to the Indians???
Sep 03, 2010 12:09 AM
Mark Loughmiller's recycling center is a business at risk due to many factors other than the limited truck access--namely his own poor judgment (see "Redemption Value" at[…]/).

His remarks here are beyond the pale. We might as well "give it back to the Indians" if we aren't going to build a bigger highway through a state park? What kind of racist bullshit is that, Mark? It's not even on topic. But if my choices are give it back to the Indians (who are alive and well here on the North Coast and ready to take it back) or be held hostage to the "Community" Recycling Center's poor business decisions, make it pretty tough for us to defend your position, buddy. The McKinleyville Recycling Center seems to be doing just fine, thank you.
Thanks Jen
Michael Kauffmann
Michael Kauffmann
Sep 03, 2010 08:46 AM
Agree with you. That is an awkward, worthless statement made purely for shock value.
Same old story
Sep 15, 2010 11:08 PM
This is a recurrent theme. People live in a rural environment because they enjoy the lifestyle. Then they complain that they want to make more money so they advocate for more "development" to bring in more money and jobs. Thus the rural environment becomes a city. If you want money move to the city. If you want a rural lifestyle that includes a lower economic standard of living. Make your choice, live with it, and stop complaining. Leave the rural environment as it is for those of us who can live with the compromise.
from Redwood Country
Nov 05, 2010 08:44 PM
First, I want to dispute a statement that is often made, and actually is the official excuse for CalTrans' plan through Richardson Grove: CalTrans and supporters of the ghastly "road widening" plan through Richardson Grove say that STAA trucks are not permitted, as the road is now, to travel Highway 101 through Richardson Grove. Real quickly, that is just not true. Indeed, STAA-sized trucks travel that highway every day, often at undesirable speeds.

Next, I share with you a recent writing (published by Redwood Curtain CopWatch) which was first distributed during the 2010 National Days of Action Against Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation (Oct 22nd and 23rd). It is entitled:


You may ask, "What does saving the grove have to do with the police state?"....well....lets start from
the beginning... The Interstate Highways were initially implemented by Eisenhower. How did he come up with the idea of these interstate highways? He got his grandiose plan from an army convoy he participated in, and from inspirations he got from Germany's autobahn, which he got to see because he was in the military during WWII. The history of the highways are rooted in militarization. Eisenhower's plan for the highways was even named "The National Defense Highway." This system was designed to move military equipment and personnel with greater
efficiency and create a broader reach for the military.

Why would CalTrans, with a plan funded by the Federal government in millions (billions?), change a road that leads to no real commercial businesses, while claiming it is to aide in heavy commercial
transportation? Why would CalTrans destroy ancient redwoods, of which there are so few left already (less than 3%of the original redwood old growth remains!!!) ? Why would CalTrans not care about the legislation of preservation for State Parks, and not care about the fragile ecology of this rich
biodiverse life?

The feds want in to our Redwood Curtain! The Pacific Northwest culture of coastal northern, redwooded California has consistently been a hotbed of grassroots collective organization, spurring change that is both reflective and inspiring to movements across our State and Nationwide. We have continuously thwarted attempts at the militarization of our communities and have had the forested roads as a blockage to massive industrial militarization, and as a bottleneck for access to the rest of the coast. The feds are consistently trying to access our roads, gain entryway into our hills and stop whatever communities spurrin' up that do not fit with their accordance. They disguise their plan under the veil of helping commercial interests, which is problematic, to say the least, for communities that have intentionally and geographically isolated themselves from corporate exploitation. This in itself is
catering to the big money, big corporations. Looking through history, we have seen the use of
sanctioned state violence to protect corporate holdings, such as with the barons of the industrial age. Big Corporations have no vested interest in a region locally or geographically. Their concern is for
their ever increasing profit, and making sure their gains are consistently on the up. Redwood trees
stand in their way, so they propose to cut them down, pave the ancient ones' roots, so that trucks can
constantly drive over them (when even our own fragile FOOTsteps have been known to be damaging to their root systems). The trees that stand in the way of big corporate gains are symbolic, the State would rather destroy these ancient legends, irregardless of their natural worth, their beauty, or their genocide. What happens when people get in their way???? The project, even its disguise, is a disgusting attempt at destroying what we naturally have.

Cal Trans is already “straightening” out the two main highways to our east, Highways. 199 and 299, making them Redwood Curtain more easily to invade from that direction. Obama is increasing collaboration between Homeland Security and local police. Be it the greed of corporate exploiters, the controlling forces of Federal police (ICE, DEA, FBI), or the tanks of the Military trying to come into this region or have easier passage through, Richardson Grove, as it is and has been for thousands of years, is a primary blockade that we must protect.
Thank you, High Country, for publishing this article, "Parting the Redwood Curtain." It mustn't happen, and all of us can make our opposition known.
Doc Baker
Doc Baker
Nov 06, 2010 09:41 AM
I hardly know where to comment on this copied piece (from CopWatch), though it does demonstrate the sociological fringe that occupies this particular area behind the redwood curtain.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of new (or widened) roads or the Richardson Grove plan in particular but this comment by Verbena deserves a reply.

First, the proposed widening does NOT remove any old growth redwoods. None. The largest tree to be removed is 24 inches in diameter, a size that can be reached in as little as 20-40 years in our climate.

Second, to think that the tiny population of Humboldt has any real impact on the larger society is either ego or paranoia run amuck. Certainly not to the extent that anyone outside of here actually cares enough to rebuild a road just to invade.

Third, the main impetus for the road work is the demise of the rail line that slid into the Eel river in the late 1980's. If we could rebuild that, the need for the road widening would be reduced, if not removed. However that's something beyond the state's current fiscal capacity and would have it's own rather large environmental baggage to carry.

Lastly, most of the comments I've read against the project are coming from the standpoint of: "we don't want anyone else coming in here to mess with our cannabis-based, eco-friendly idyll". While that may be admirable from a certain standpoint, I'm guessing the Yuroks, Hupas,Tewas, and other tribes wish we'd thought of it sooner. We all want to enter paradise and then firmly shut the door behind us.

Not that there's anything wrong with that other than it's being incredibly selfish. We just need to be up front about our motivations and make decisions based rationally on competing ideals for the society as a whole rather than guising our arguments as old-growth protection or, as CopWatch posits, a route to invasion by the evil overlords.
"wow" hasn't examined the plan
Nov 06, 2010 02:25 PM
I am not a commenter usually, and I do no intend, after this, on continuing being part of a comment 'thread'. That being said, I want to make one correction: If you look at where the markers for the Caltrans plan are set in Richardson Grove, they butt right up against (literally, right up against) huge, old growth redwoods. So, the plan (which we will not let happen!) is to cut the smaller trees next to the road intertwined with and right up ON the roots of the ancients ones- then paving over their roots! In addition, picture the detour, the equipment staging area, everything required to alter a highway... Where will those be? There are 'mysterious' markings (unannounced or documented by Caltrans)on HUGE, ANCIENT trees that probably are marking areas for those things- equipment area, highway detour. "Wow"- you must know that widening a winding HIGHWAY through a forest inevitable affects more land, destroys trees, and takes more space than just the road itself. And as for the rest of your comments, you have offered no factual or historical bases- only loaded opinions. Unfortunately, regardless of where you live, your OPINION of what will happen (rooted merely in the rhetoric of the State and the weak defense of the destroyers) will not protect you from increased militarization or corporate invasion.
a final comment from me
Doc Baker
Doc Baker
Nov 06, 2010 07:19 PM
About all I can say is that pretty much everything you wrote was as much, if not more, based solely on personal opinion (e.g. you've seen the markers but have no real idea of what they mean, perhaps they're marking protected areas) and not on any historical facts. I actually have seen the plan and, if you'll notice, the road currently goes 'right next to old trees'. And for the record, the Eel river rail line is a well documented issue, not particularly a personal opinion.

I also never stated I that I supported the widening of the road. I simply pointed out fallacies in your argument against widening the road and my goal is simply to get people to engage in honest debate, not hiding ulterior motives (in this case keeping the rest of America out of Humboldt) behind the guise of protecting old growth (which this doesn't).

I think we'd get a lot further in advancing society if we were all upfront with our motivations for or against any particular project. After all, if protecting old trees was our sole motivation, we should just mark the areas and keep everyone out, including you and me,from even visiting since human foot traffic can cause significant compaction and erosion and disrupts wildlife.