2011 naked protest of the Willits bypass project (photo: Jack Gescheidt, Tree Spirit Project)
Nine months ago, even an outpouring of support for nature by the naked members of the TreeSpirit Project was unable to derail the state’s push to bulldoze trees, muck around with endangered species in sensitive wetlands and build a four-lane freeway bypass around the Northern California city of Willits.
Now U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White has ruled (pdf) that an environmental review by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) was adequate and that permits were valid to continue work that has drawn heated protests all year from residents in the area. In so doing, the judge tossed out a lawsuit last week that was filed in May 2012 by Willits Environmental Center, the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Protection Information Center.
The lawsuit was filed over a plan to build a 4.5-mile bypass for the 101 Freeway that would direct traffic around the city rather than through its heart. Both critics and supporters agree that diverting the stream of traffic away from the city’s core will improve the air and the aesthetics. Willits residents have been talking about it since the 1950s and have watched nearby Ukiah and Cloverdale get their bypasses.
But many objected to the decision by Caltrans to build a four-lane freeway, arguing that traffic conditions don’t support that much concrete and the extra toll on the environment would be devastating and unnecessary. That wanted a two-lane bypass that wouldn’t force it to drain wetlands and complained when the official environmental review didn’t consider that as an option.
The judge refused to grant a temporary injunction in November 2012, and construction on the $210-million project began in January.
So did the protests. Demonstrators chained themselves to heavy machinery, climbed trees and shed their clothes. None of it worked. One tree-hugger, 70-feet up, was shot with a CHP rubber bullet. The project is already 30% complete, according to Caltrans.
Judge White admitted that Caltrans had made mistakes and that several changes made by the department would have a negative effect on the environment. But he ruled that neither the state agency nor the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner.
Using this standard, a court “will reverse a decision as arbitrary and capricious only if the agency relied on factors Congress did not intend it to consider, entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, or offered an explanation that runs counter to the evidence before the agency or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise,” Judge White wrote.
The judge acknowledged that the project will affect threatened species like California Coastal Chinook salmon, coho salmon and steelhead trout. It will also negatively impact the wetlands, threaten already-threatened North Coast semaphore grass and reduce farmland. But he said it wasn’t clear how bad the situation would be and all these issues were adequately addressed by the government.
Aruna Prabhala, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, didn’t see it that way. “We disagree with the determination that the environmental impacts of the Willits Bypass project are not significant—Little Lake Valley is being devastated by the construction,” he told The Willits News.
Ellen Drell of the Willits Environmental Center sounded just as disappointed. “This is a painful lesson in how Caltrans operates with impunity to justify building unnecessary and oversized projects,” she said. “Caltrans made false claims to permitting agencies and the courts saying that only a four-lane freeway bypass, with two enormous interchanges, would solve the traffic congestion in Willits, when smaller alternatives would have done the job.”