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Redwoods At Center Of Debate In Humboldt County

Redwood trees can live as long as 2,000 years. Here, a redwood in the Sequoia National Park in 2009.
Jessica Plautz
Redwood trees can live as long as 2,000 years. Here, a redwood in the Sequoia National Park in 2009.

A stand of prized California Redwoods in Humboldt County is at the center of a fierce tug-of-war between competing local interests. On one side, environmental activists say the trees must not be touched. On the other, local businesses and development interests argue the roadside trees are threatening regional economic progress.

Richardson Grove, about an hour south of Eureka, is a dense forest with 300-foot-tall redwood trees; some are more than a thousand years old.

Highway 101 goes right through this state park, which is a gateway to California’s redwood region.


"That tree is upwards about 800 years old, maybe a thousand years old," says Kerul Dyer. She’s a campaign organizer with the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), a local nonprofit group known for suing lumber companies and other business interests that might threaten the North Coast’s old-growth redwoods. They are among the groups suing the state to block a highway widening project.

"Some of the oldest, tallest living things on earth are here. People come here to experience the old growth redwoods and there's so little of it left, we have to protect every last tree," says Dyer.

But some of these redwood trees are in the way of a proposal to widen the highway so larger trucks can pass through Richardson Grove. Fifty-four trees, not all of them redwoods, would be cut down and the roots of about 70 old growth redwood trees would be cut back.

An hour north of Richardson Grove, the co-founder of Cypress Grove Chevre in Arcata Mary Keehn finds herself in a difficult position over the widening project.

"I moved to Humboldt County because I wanted a back-to-the-land life. I’ve lived on 80 acres, we built a cabin, scrapped the bark off the trees, we had a garden and a few goats," says Keehn.


Cypress Grove Chevre started as a small company with a few goats -- now it’s a multi-million-dollar business and Keehn says it’s getting harder to rely on the smaller, more costly trucks she has to use now in order to export her gourmet cheese along Highway 101.

"These trucks are older, they pollute, they use more gas because they're older, and they don't make them anymore because there's only two places in the whole United States that have this small truck need, and we're one of them," says Keehn.

Proponents like Keehn say the Richardson Grove highway widening project won't cause any old growth trees to be cut down.

Biologists for CalTrans, the lead agency in the project, say the impact will be minor.

But opponents like Dyer of EPIC say the impact of cutting the root systems are unknown.

"CalTrans cannot offer any guarantee that this will not harm the old growth. If they could, EPIC would not be suing them," says Dyer.

EPIC is joined in its fight by a consortium of Native American tribes and some local business owners, who argue CalTrans did not adequately consider the projects environmental impacts or alternatives to a wider highway.

CalTrans declined to comment on the pending litigation. The widening project is part of Governor Schwarzenegger’s Goods Movement Action Plan, says commissioner Kirk Girard.

"The trucking industry is designed to work on modern, large-scale roads so rural areas are increasingly marginalized from goods movement and that’s how we find ourselves here," says Girard.

Plaintiffs in the suit are in mandatory settlement meetings.

This weekend some Native American grandmothers are holding a storytelling event at the grove, which is sacred to several tribes in the area. They're hoping to raise awareness of the issue.