As with so many places in the American West that have been struck by the flash-flood of capitalist development since the mid-19th century, that which is most absent from the contemporary landscape of Little Lake Valley — aka the Willits Valley — is encapsulated by its name. It is a valley that once teemed with wetlands, marshy areas that formed when the area's once-lively streams overflowed their banks and scoured the surrounding meadows with moisture and nutrients. The Central Pomo people knew the area by the evocatively intimate name Mto'm-kai, which closely translates to “Valley of Water Splashing the Toes.”
As Willits' settlers set about gridding the land and marketing it to cattle ranchers and timber merchants, they rapidly removed the wetlands. They did the same to the Pomo villagers and wildlife — waterfowl, pelicans, vast herds of tule elk and antelope, etc. — that had dwelled among the marshes and springs for so long. The early Euroamerican pioneers incised streambeds, redirected creeks, constructed artificial drainage ditches, and ripped apart the hardpan layers of topsoil that contained the water, allowing it to seep slowly into the ground.
Some of the moisture that time had stored on the land remains, though, most notably within the marshy area on the north end of the valley, extending across Route 101 on the west and Reynolds Highway on the east. The area acts as a collection point for three creeks that flow through the valley. It is then drained by Outlet Creek, a mighty 130-mile tributary of the Eel River. Among its other contributions to what might be called the “real world” of inland Mendocino County, Outlet Creek provides the longest remaining run for the endangered Coho salmon of any river tributary in California.
Given present political alignments here on the North Coast and in California, perhaps the only feasible way that a developer might deal a death blow to this last, crucial wetland area would be to construct a freeway through it. That's exactly what the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans), with instrumental backing from regional political officials and developers, is gearing up to do.
In case you haven't yet tuned in until now, Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration have been pursuing a freeway bypass on Highway 101 around Willits for several decades, supposedly to ease traffic congestion along Main St. Though the agencies formulated this $210 million project years ago, its funding is courtesy of California Proposition 1B, which passed in 2006. This funding was on the verge of drying up following the 2008 economic meltdown, until regional political officials, including Rep. Mike Thompson, cashed in various among their political chips to get it back on track.
Notably, the Building Trade Unions — major backers of the Willits Bypass — are collectively Thompson's fourth largest career donor. Only the alcohol industry, the health care industry, and the finance/insurance/real estate (FIRE) sector have been more generous in bestowing largesse on the veritably self-identified Congressman Wine Guy, according to the way the Center for Public Integrity classifies such things.
Construction of the Interstate 5-sized superhighway, beginning with its southern interchange near Walker Rd., might commence almost any day. Nearby industrial yards have begun busting with CalTrans surveying and construction vehicles. White and yellow stakes have sprung up intermittently through the Willits Valley, placed there by CalTrans personnel; the white stakes mark where the center of the highway would be, while yellow ones demarcate the edges of where the huge road would be.
Word is that CalTrans may attempt to begin construction prior to February 1st, after which the provisions of the federal Migratory Bird Act would make it even more illegal than it already is for the agency to move forward before October 15th. The act forbids cutting of trees that provide habitat for certain bird species between those dates.
While the Bypass project is widely known, the scale of destruction it would wreak upon Willits' ecosystems is not yet widely known. For starters, CalTrans' permit to fill in the Little Lake marsh is the largest it has received in California's northern half in more than 50 years.
The last time CalTrans filled in a wetland area as large as this was during the freeway construction craze of the 1950s and 1960s, when such measures as the Eisenhower's administration's federal insterstate highway project — which was motivated to a considerable extent by a desire to make rapid military transport across the country more feasible — rendered the people of the country almost wholly dependent on automobility for transportation and to generate their livelihoods. Among the consequences have been far more rapid climate change and the suburbanization of American life.
Walking and driving through the areas that would be impacted by the Willits Bypass, and thus sensually experiencing the extent of what this project would destroy, I recalled philosopher Louis Mumford's critique of that freeway construction binge of yesteryear, which he recorded in his book The Highway and the City: “In many parts of the country, the building of a highway has about the same result upon vegetation and human structures as the passage of a tornado or the blast of an atom bomb.”
The Willits Bypass would snake through the Little Lake Valley in a broad six-mile band, devouring not only wetlands, but oak forests, meadows, native plants, native bunchgrasses, Ponderosa pines groves, Oregon ash groves, habitat for northern spotted owls, habitat for coho salmon, habitat for steelhead trout, habitat for Tidewater Goby, habitat for Western pond turtles, habitat for Peregrine Falcons, habitat for Yellow Warblers, habitat for Point Arena Mountain Beavers, habitat for Red Tree Voles, habitat for California red-legged frogs, habitat for foothill yellow-legged frogs, habitat for Western snowy plovers, habitat for pale big-eared bats, and prime farmland.
To convert the habitat of the Willits Valley to make it unsuitable for the aforementioned species, but instead suitable for 18-wheelers bouncing and careening through the valley at highway speeds, will require a striking feat of engineering. CalTrans intends to scrape between 1.8 and 2.4 million cubic meters of topsoil off of Oil Well Hill, just north of Willits, along with other hilly areas in the vicinity of the project. CalTrans would orchestrate these excavations to the tune of more than 200 dump truck trips delivering gravel, soil, and asphalt in Willits every day for roughly two years.
The National Climatic Data Center released a report last week announcing that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States by a full degree Celsius. As I write this, Australia is being consumed by wildfire. The country has invented a new color coding system to account for the new regularity of weather in the 122 to 129 degree range.
Yet, as global warming is wreaking havoc across the globe, public agencies like CalTrans remain fixed in business-as-usual mode. Although CalTrans claims the Bypass will prevent carbon dioxide emissions by reducing stop-and-go traffic, the construction process alone would generate 380,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions — about 90 years' worth of what CalTrans claims to be saving. Meanwhile, people in the region will be made further dependent on automobility.
Federal and state regulations require that construction projects ensure “no net loss” of wetlands, a vital part of the ecosystem that filter pollutants and provide habitat for endangered species. Destroy an acre of wetlands one place, and you have to create another acre somewhere else — preferably in the same watershed. Of course, it is impossible to replace wetlands once they are lost, which is why the area encompassed by the modern state of California, which once had five million acres of wetlands, is now down to roughly 370,000.
CalTrans officials have had a bug to build the bypass for decades, with one of their main justifications being that it would eliminate the only stoplights remaining on Highway 101 between San Francisco and Eureka. Among the indications that the agency's speed addiction is unhealthy is that it is clinging to the idea in spite of its obvious insanity that is clear to those who have given it sober observation.
For example, Mark Scaramella raised this practical objection in this publication earlier this year, concerning the plan to build on Willits' northern marshland: “If I’m reading this correctly, Caltrans is proposing to construct an elevated highway several miles long which will be carried above ground level to avoid flooding by being constructed on pilings placed in fine sediment.
“A prediction: When [the construction company contracting with CalTrans] discover how unstable the area is, the project will have to be put on hold while Caltrans tries to decides what to do. Cost and schedule estimates will increase dramatically. There won’t be enough money to finish the project. And Willits will be left out in the cold, having suffered through a big part of the Bypass impact (construction vehicles, increased traffic, dust, noise, etc.) with nothing but a partially built and useless Bypass project that nobody will know how to finish to show for it.”
As I toured the ecological bootprint of the project last month, the group I accompanied drove to a mountain overlook above the Bypass project area. Though we were looking down on an area that once teemed with life — Tule elk, migratory birds, and all the rest — a stillness hung over the valley. The area is platted with a grid of cattle ranches that extend all out to the Little Lake basin area, which made the land seem broodingly empty, if not yet entirely converted into lifelessness.
Many cattle ranchers are upset with the Bypass project, too. The strongly conservative California Farm Bureau sued CalTrans over the loss of farmland the project would impose, particularly as the agency haphazardly seeks to re-create wetlands on erstwhile cattle ranches.
If CalTrans gets the project off the ground (which it will, unless they are stopped by people who care about the fate of the land in the area), the area will bustle with activity. The project would temporarily create 2,900 jobs (at least, according to CalTrans' projections). According to the project's Environmental Impact Review, it will take five years to dewater, fill in, and piledrive the Little Lake marsh area to make it suitable for the 30-foot-high concrete viaduct structure it is constructing above the area.
The dewatering will come courtesy of so-called “wick drains”: 85-foot long metal polls that CalTrans' contractors will drill into the ground at five foot intervals, being that they are specially engineered to suck moisture out of the ground.
After the project is done, the temporary construction workers will move on. The area will be dried up. Plants near the project area — even those that won't be touched by the bulldozers and dump trucks — would no longer be able to reach the water with their roots. Among the plants that would be destroyed is semaphore grass, a native perennial herb that once grew abundantly throughout the state, including here in the North Coast, but which is now on the brink of extinction. One of the last remaining patches of this charismatic plant grows beneath a Valley Oak grove in the Little Lake bog. It is one of the plants that perhaps best symbolizes the conversion of wetlands in California with which it is historically associated.
Any day now, this ecosystem could be suddenly ripped apart by the Willits Bypass. The brooding stillness that attends the scene beyond the marshland would be displaced by bouncing, vibrating trucks and cars roaring across the valley, the stillness of the area joining the absence of so many other things that once lived here.
And all for what, and whose, benefit? The project will not even alleviate any of Willits' supposed traffic congestion problem. Yet, much of what has defined this land since time immemorial, including the last of its original wetlands, will be gone forever.
A series of tours of the ecological footprint, similar to the one I participated in, are taking place this winter, sponsored by the Mendo Free Skool project. Call 216-5549 for more information