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.

    Caltrans
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • RANCH HAND & HOUSING OPPORTUNITY IN DURANGO, CO
    Remodeled home with the opportunity to work off part of rent. Renter(s) must be available to help with lifting, irrigation & outdoor chores, 15-40 hrs...
  • INDIGENOUS LANDSCAPES AND COMMUNITIES DIRECTOR
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Indigenous Landscapes & Communities Program is part of the North America Region's Conservation Collaboration team. The Conservation Collaboration team works...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...