CalTrans got the go-ahead on January 15th to begin “vegetation removal” on its Highway 101 Bypass route through Little Lake Valley, courtesy of a California Department of Fish and Game memorandum signed by North Coast District Manager Neil Manji. The letter effectively states that CalTrans crews are free to excavate plants and chainsaw trees as long as they leave the stumps in place, being that the trees' roots help prevent soil from washing off of hillsides into streams.
By January 17th, CalTrans Senior Resident Engineer Geoffrey T. Wright (who recently got a new office in Willits, at 300 East Valley Rd., in anticipation of finally beginning construction of the freeway) was touting in a letter to the California State Water Resources Control Board that he expected “a start date of +/- January 28.” All the agency still required by that point was final written permission from the Army Corp of Engineers to fire up the chainsaws. In the letter to the State Water Board, Wright said he expected to receive that permission within a week.
Part of CalTrans' impetus for fast-tracking destruction of the oak woodlands that span much of the proposed freeway construction area's broad six-mile band through Willits is the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibit removal of trees with documented bird nesting habitat from February 1st through September 30th. This past Wednesday, January 23rd, CalTrans crews were out surveying creek banks in Willits to designate the specific places where their chainsaws would cut and their excavators would scrape within the ensuing week.
CalTrans officials are especially antsy to begin cutting in the prospective superhighway's Southern Interchange Area, which runs along Haehl Creek beginning less than a mile southeast of the Walker Rd. entrance from Highway 101. This area features an extensive area of blue and black oak trees, mixed with ponderosa pines and madrones, many of which reside on a hillside CalTrans plans to excavate to use as fill material to build its 20-foot-high freeway. An immediate priority for the agency is to widen its temporary road there, which it uses to haul construction supplies to various project areas.
There is one notable local bird species, however, that the CalTrans bureaucracy, as well as other members of the transportation-industrial complex who are peddling this project, could not have accounted for.
The Warbler, a charming and hard-working 24-year-old goat and vegetable farmer who lives in the Willits Valley, scaled a large ponderosa pine tree in the Bypass Southern Interchange area in the wee morning hours of January 28th in an effort to block sawing of the trees. She is nesting there, so to speak, in a plywood platform fixed roughly 35 feet above ground on a pair of sturdy branches that extend out evenly from the tree's central trunk. The tree has been dubbed “Liberty Ponderosa” by some of the tree-sit's supporters.
The Warbler has pledged to maintain her tree-sit as long as it remains an effective way of staving off CalTrans' construction plans. Around 60 supporters rallied at the base of tree from approximately 9 a.m. to noon this past Monday. They plan to maintain all-day vigils at the base of tree, and they are using the visibility of the action to mobilize further opposition against the Bypass' imminent construction.
During the rally, Willits resident Rosamand Crowder provided a thorough overview of the Bypass' current status among the various regulatory agencies, which I will reprint at the end of this article.
It is tragically ironic that CalTrans is attempting to cut trees as soon as possible based to some degree on a federal law designed to protect migratory birds. Migratory birds depend on wetlands for habitat during their travels. Little Lake Valley begot its name from the fact that it is naturally an extensive wetland area. That made it historically a significant part of the Southern Flyway bird migration route.
CalTrans’ permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to fill in the marshes of Little Lake, located on the northern end of the valley, is the largest wetlands fill permit the Army Corps has granted the transportation agency for a project in Northern California in more than half a century.
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 20-to-30-foot-high concrete viaduct structure it is constructing above the area. The dewatering will come courtesy of so-called “wick drains”: metal polls up to 85-feet long that are specially engineered to suck moisture out of the ground. CalTrans’ contractors will drill the polls into the ground at five foot intervals, a total of 50,000 of the polls sticking down into the earth in all.
In an online post responding to my first Anderson Valley Advertiser piece about the Bypass two weeks ago, CalTrans Public Information Officer Phil Frisbie, Jr., claimed that “dewatering will not occur using 85′ long pipes drilled into the soil; just the areas excavated to install piers will be dewatered in order to pour concrete.”
However, after being confronted with the fact that the wick drain method is openly discussed in CalTrans' own Environmental Impact Report for the project, Frisbie, Jr. wrote in response, “I just received some details about the wickdrains. They are indeed hollow tubes inserted deep into the soil. However, there is no pumping; they simply allow the weight of the soil to squeeze out excess water which allows the soil to settle faster.”
Remarkably, he then claimed: “This does not change the groundwater level.” He also helpfully provided a link to the wick drain subcontractor's website: http://www.hbwickdrains.com/WhatWeDo/WickDrains/default.aspx
As for The Warbler, her action has already greatly invigorated the effort to oppose the Bypass. Sitting in a cafe in Willits while working on this article, I overheard numerous excited conversations about the tree sit in the course of a few hours. People affiliated with Earth First! are busy tabling throughout the day at Mariposa Market. Visitors come and go from the tree sit area, many of them shouting words of encouragement to The Warbler, or trying to catch a smile or wave from her from her platformed.
The Warbler is handling all of the attention with remarkable grace, which is entirely unsurprising to those who know her. On the night of January 27th, as she gathered her belongings in preparation for living 35 feet up in a pine tree for an indefinite period, she even stopped to express concern about whether she was being a polite host for some of the people who were visiting the farm.
Among the notable items The Warbler brought into the tree are a few dozen bags of Celestial Seasonings herbal tea and about eight books, including several she checked out recently from The Willits Library. One of them is The Legacy of Luna by Julia Butterfly Hill. She plans to use this break from milking goats and tending vegetable gardens to catch up on her reading.
“These might be really overdue,” she said regarding the library books. “I hope the librarians understand.”
One of the major challenges of the tree-sit is the shrill sound of Highway 101 traffic, which courses past at an uneven rhythm both night and day. By mid-afternoon on the first day, The Warbler reported that the swaying of the tree's branched in the wind was causing her to feel sick to her stomach.
One of the Celestial Seasonings teas she brought with her into the tree is Tension Tamer, the box description of which reads: “This comforting blend begins with eleuthero, an Asian herb popular for centuries because of the sense of calm and well being it imparts. We've added cooling peppermint, spicy ginger and tangy lemons to create a remarkably uplifting herbal blend. Bring harmony to your day with a cup of this flavorful and restorative tea.”
As of this writing, The Warbler reports feeling strong and able to sustain herself in the platform for the long-haul. She has been receiving a steady stream of support from friends, loved ones, and admirers in the area. For information on supporting the tree sit, visit www.savelittlelakevalley.org.
Status of the Willits Bypass Pending Lawsuit:
Caltrans and the Army Corps of Engineers are being sued by the Willits Environmental Center (WEC), the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), the Mendocino Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Farm Bureau.
Because they have limited resources the plaintiffs had to choose which court and which agencies to sue based on the strongest case they could make. They chose Federal Court. They chose to sue the ACE on a Clean Water Act (CWA) claim and Caltrans on a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) claim. Other agencies (National Marine Fisheries NMFS, Fish and Wildlife Service FWS) including state agencies (Department of Fish and Game DFG, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Water Board) may not be following the law either but the plaintiffs had to choose.
The CWA suit declares that the Army Corps approved a project that would severely impact wetlands and “other waters” (creeks and streams) when there were practical and reasonable alternatives. These alternatives were in-town solutions and/or a 2-lane expressway that did not go through the wetlands, for instance along the railroad corridor. It also alleges that as voluminous as the mitigation plan is, it still does not achieve “No Net Loss” of wetlands and other violations.
The NEPA suit declares that there were major changes to the project since the 2006 Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR ’06). Most notably the projected increases in traffic are not happening and the bypass is obscenely overbuilt. Other changes include the huge amount of mitigation required for such a destructive project that includes taking land out of agricultural production and other offenses. Caltrans should write a new FEIR.
The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard on June 7, 2013.
The plaintiffs were denied a “Preliminary Injunction” which would have delayed construction until after the suit was heard. At this point the only hold up to beginning construction is that the permits issued on the project were “conditional” and Caltrans has not met all the conditions.
The Permits and Their Status:
• ACE: 404 Permit, required by the CWA. Issued 2/16/12 with conditions. References a Mitigation and Monitoring Plan (MMP) that is separate from the one the Water Board is using. One of the conditions of the permit is that the mitigation plan be funded. They can accept documentation that ensures a “high level of confidence” that the money for mitigation will be allocated. Currently they appear to be questioning Caltrans’s “assurances”. The California Transportation Commission (CTC who funds Caltrans) will be asked to vote to fund the mitigation in May ’13. Another condition is that all the conditions of the 401 Permit are met. Call Dave Wickens (415) 503-6988, and his boss Jane Hicks (415) 503-6771, to provide feedback.
• Water Board: 401 Permit, required by the state and the CWA, issued 8/6/10. Less than a month after it was issued Caltrans violated the permit and again the next spring. The permit references a Mitigation and Monitoring Plan (MMP) that has been substantially revised and is not finalized yet. 90 days before “vegetative removal or ground disturbing activities” Caltrans was to complete conditions 15 & 16 (appoint a land manager and finalize money for mitigation) This has not been done and in December 2012 the Water Board gave Caltrans until April 15, 2013 to comply and approved beginning construction. Call Brendan Thompson 576-2065 and Catherine Kuhlman to provide feedback.
• DFG: 1600, Stream Alteration Agreement and 2081 Incidental Take Permit (ITP). These are state required permits issued in March and June of 2010. These are both conditional permits with numerous deadlines. A number of conditions specify that “no vegetative removal or ground disturbing activities” may take place until the condition has been met. Caltrans did not get the jobs done so they are currently in violation of these permits. Caltrans has applied to amend the permits but that process is not complete. Meanwhile on 1/15/13 DFG issued a letter giving Caltrans permission to start “vegetative removal” anyway. Call: JoAnn Dunn (707) 441-2076 and her boss Neil Manji (530) 225-2300 to provide feedback.