The uproar over Caltrans’ Richardson Grove Improvement Project, which broke out in demonstrations at the highwaymen’s Eureka HQ again last week, continues to mystify. And if it mystifies me – a veteran of Redwood Summer and associated timber war actions of the period, as well as an even-tempered soul with a broad appreciation for political theatrics and folly – then it is probably mystifying almost everyone.
On its face, Caltrans’ proposed minor rerouting of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove is a simple effort to allow industry-standard-sized trucks – called “STAA” trucks, after the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 – to pass into Humboldt County, and therefore help local manufacturers get their goods to market. Generally, the anti-project activists – the Grovies – put forward two main reasons to oppose this.
Point #1: The “true” motive for the Richardson Grove Improvement Project is to allow big box stores and related tentacles of corporate Amerikkka to pierce the Redwood Curtain, and so Santa Rosify our economy.
Point #2. What’s more, the project would irreparably damage several fragile old growth redwood trees that line the highway through the pristine park.
Within the Grovie appeal, there is a curious interplay between these two elements, which can be illustrated with a simple thought experiment. Let’s imagine that Caltrans, tomorrow, scrapped its existing plan and put forth the following alternative: There would be no physical alteration to the road whatsoever, but stoplights would be erected at either end of the highway’s particularly bendy section. Only one-way traffic would be permitted through the gauntlet at a time. The width of the highway would be effectively doubled, and any known vehicle could cruise through it safely.
Does today’s Grove Defender give this scheme the thumbs-up? Then why does he now prate about the deep existential threat posed by STAA trucks? Does he give it the thumbs-down? Then why does he pretend that his concern is for the effect of road construction on the trees?
In fact, neither plank has much basis in reality. There are already big box stores in Humboldt County. STAA trucks already make it through the Grove. Sometimes they get through on a legal exemption, as in the case of cattlemen. More often – since trailer size of an STAA rig is exactly equal to a California-legal one – drivers simply detach their plus-size cabs from their load for a few miles, leaving a local towing service to taxi their goods through. The Wal-Marts of the world can absorb this cost without blinking. Small manufacturers in Arcata find it a bit more prohibitive, which is why the county has lost home-grown companies like Amulet Manufacturing and Premier Meat.
As to point two: It’s difficult to fathom the supposed concern for either the health of the specific old growth in question or the Grove ecosystem in general. Redwood trees, it turns out, are not dandelions. They are surprisingly difficult to murder. Need evidence? Look no further than the dozens of specimens that currently thrive right next to Highway 101 through Richardson Grove. Those trees survived much less tender treatment at the hands of highway workers in the last century. Why is it supposed that Caltrans’ low-impact air spades will topple them today?
Much worse, to paint the Grove itself as “sacred” or “pristine” is to debase the very idea of wilderness. News flash: There’s already a highway running through it. Its value to wildlife and the ecology of the region is already, um, somewhat impaired. Yes, it’s a cool place for tourists to gawk, and yes, it’s probably the first patch of majestic old growth that today’s forest defenders ever saw, riding up the Greyhound from Oakland, but Caltrans’ proposed efforts won’t alter those facts much.
I’ve heard more than one serious, full-time environmental advocate bemoan the manic effort and energy being directed at the Grovie chimera. Where are the shock troops for the general plan update, a much more important policy debate, one that will have actual consequences for the ecology of the county for many, many years to come? Such troops are present, all right, even at unsexy meetings of the planning commission and such. But they’re all on the right. The lefties are meanwhile all diddling around at action camp, preparing for their brave showdown.
For completeness sake, we will mention that the Grovies will occasionally toss out a couple of other reasons to fear the project, just to see if they might stick. Sometimes they’ll say that the whole thing is a secret military scheme, designed to get tanks and other munitions into the county so’s to put down a future freak rebellion. Sometimes they’ll advance the idea that the whole idea is to accommodate massive convoys of the nation’s nuclear waste, which would be put on ships in Humboldt Bay and from there (somehow) shipped to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
Mercifully, these ideas are too ridiculous to bother with.