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Know the West

Parting the Redwood Curtain

A one-mile highway project could change an entire region


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.

But life behind the Redwood Curtain isn't all nature walks and small-town charm. Only recently has California's unemployment rate caught up with Humboldt's, which has been a full point or more higher for the last 20 years. The timber industry declined sharply in the 1970s, and over the last 10 years, manufacturing tied to the lumber industry declined by 70 percent. As in much of the U.S., high-paying manufacturing jobs were supplanted by lower-paying service jobs. Humboldt's economy has been kept afloat by government jobs, moderate tourism and, not insignificantly, a hefty trade in marijuana.

Caltrans' highway improvement plan, part of a statewide push to increase the efficiency of freight transportation, aims to jumpstart the area's sputtering economy. But for many Humboldt residents, who are more interested in preserving the region's rural character than improving its freight corridor, the plan is beyond misguided. "It kind of felt like knives cutting through me. I've just been devastated," says Lotus. "It feels like they're just trying to slice and dice up everything, just to make a little more money for businesses."

In June, Lotus and other opponents of the project filed a lawsuit to stop it. Led by the Environmental Protection Information Center, a local group, with the Center for Biological Diversity, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics and three other individuals, the suit alleges that Caltrans violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved the project. Plaintiffs say excavating and paving near the trees will endanger the redwoods' shallow root systems and risk contaminating the South Fork of the Eel River.

Compounding these concerns is a vague anxiety about the far-reaching impacts of the project. There is a pervasive fear that allowing STAA semis through Richardson Grove would turn northwestern California into an industrial corridor, resulting in more pollution, heavier traffic and proliferation of the big-box stores that so many Humboldt residents abhor.

But others in the community see the project as a small price to pay to help beleaguered businesses. "I feel like throwing up my hands and saying, ‘If you all feel this way, then we ought to just give it back to the Indians and tear up the road and get out of here,' " says Mark Loughmiller, executive director of the Arcata Community Recycling Center, which serves about two-thirds of Humboldt County's population and says it's the oldest continuously running nonprofit recycling plant in the U.S.

Trucking materials through the park adds an extra cost that's hard for the center to bear in a recession. Recycled aluminum, for instance, must be loaded onto trucks small enough to pass through the Richardson Grove gantlet, then hauled to San Francisco, where it's packed onto an STAA regulation trailer and shipped to a mill in Tennessee. The added cost of the transfer is about $1,600 per load. Once a mere nuisance, the expense has become a serious threat to business.

When the economy tanked in 2008, the average per-ton value of recycled material went from about $160 per ton to $18 per ton, says Loughmiller. The center started charging a fee to help make up the difference. But the extra cost now has the county government, the center's primary customer, considering trucking recyclables elsewhere for processing -- possibly as far south as San Francisco. That could endanger the Arcata Recycling Center's four-decade run and its 30 jobs. It would also increase the number of trips and trucking miles, with their attendant pollution and road wear, as loosely packed, unprocessed trash replaces high-density, processed recyclables.

Kirk Girard, Humboldt County's community development director, puts it bluntly: As long as the county can't be part of a continuous STAA route, trucks will have to make special trips to accommodate local business, increasing costs, suppressing wages, and inflating prices. "The dead-end haul is an expensive haul," he says.


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."