Road projects have brought sprawling development to many once-out-of-the-way communities. The expansion of I-70 through the Colorado Rockies, for instance, contributed to the development of the subdivisions and strip malls that now line the corridor, making parts of the route feel like a far-flung Denver suburb. Highway 101 could also become an avenue for unwelcome change.

A 2007 Del Norte County study on a comparable project specifically identified Home Depot and Wal-Mart as businesses obstructed by STAA restrictions. But Richardson Grove is not Humboldt's only bulwark against suburban sprawl and corporate giants. In a 1999 ballot initiative, a proposed zoning change to allow Wal-Mart into Eureka was voted down by a 20 percent margin. And Humboldt County is still out of the way and sparsely populated. The big-box barbarians may not be clamoring at the gates as loudly as some fear.

Whatever the highway's impact, some wonder if Richardson Grove is the right place to take a stand against future development. "It seems a crude tool to keep us isolated, to limit the proliferation of big boxes," says Girard. But manipulating land management to influence a community's trajectory isn't new, nor is it incompatible with the purpose of public lands. Management decisions inevitably affect surrounding areas, so "it would certainly seem legitimate to use public lands to try to shape the appearance of your community," says Dan McCool, director of environmental studies at the University of Utah.

How a new highway through Richardson Grove will shape northwestern California has more than just tree-huggers and locavores on edge. "We all look at Richardson Grove as our gateway," Girard says. "It's like walking through the entryway into St. Peter's -- the canopy, the redwoods, the circuitous route, that's all a sign that we've arrived home.

"Anything affecting that ambience and that gateway has got everyone nervous."