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.


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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.

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