Press "Enter" to skip to content

Willits Bypass Timeline

“Each solitary story belongs to a larger story.” — Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones

In Willits, many people have not taken kindly to the California Department of Transportation's asphalt imperialism, which entails spreading more than 140,000 dump truck loads of fill in Little Lake Valley, building bridges, disturbing creeks, killing fish, covering up wetlands, cutting down riparian forests, removing roughly 2,000 oak trees, taking away farm land. It is likely that even more overall harm will be done by a politically stilted mitigation plan that centers on excavating wetlands soils in the name of creating wetlands.

Opposition continues to the present. Some of the more persistent protectors of Little Lake Valley continue to attempt to downsize the project's northern interchange — arguably its most destructive feature. Now that the US Army Corps of Engineers has lifted its suspension of the project, thanks to pressure from Willits Bypass supporters such as Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson, though, it appears highly unlikely that any aspect of the project's design will be changed.

Many people have criticized Bypass opponents for failing to speak up prior to construction. But the opposition to the Willits Bypass has persisted for more than 20 years. What follows is a timeline that emphasizes opposition to the project prior to January 2013, when direct action against the project kicked off.

The Willits Bypass has not happened in a vacuum. And, like a wetlands ecosystem, history is complex. There are infinite threads tying it together. This timeline offers only some of them.


The Thatcherite government of the United Kingdom authorizes construction of the Newbury Bypass, a 9-mile-long dual carriage roadway that bypasses the town of Newbury in Berkshire, England. The road involves clearing roughly 360 acres of land and felling 1,000 mature trees. Over 800 people are later arrested protesting the roadway as part of what becomes known as “The Third Battle of Newbury.” The campaign fails to stop the Bypass' construction but does play a critical role in pressuring the British government to scrap numerous other road construction proposals planned under a national highway building program.

Caltrans convenes the first of many meetings regarding possible Willits “bypass” designs. These meetings include citizen groups, elected officials and local public agency employees. Participants brainstorm multiple options for constructing a non-freeway bypass around Willits.


Municipalities throughout the US celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing on the Dominican Islands. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Columbus Day is slated to include, among other things, sailing replicas of Columbus' ships under the Golden Gate Bridge and reenacting the “discovery” of America. In response, the Bay Area Indian Alliance's “Resistance 500” task force organizes a blockade, with about 4,000 protesters (including Indigenous Pomo people from Mendocino County) arrayed along the city's waterfront, supported by boats and kayaks that block off entrance to the harbor, preventing the re-enactment of Columbus' landing. Berkeley, CA becomes the first US city to rechristen Columbus Day as Indigenous People's Day.

In spite of the 1988 brainstorm session, CalTrans unilaterally eliminates all non-freeway versions of a Willits Bypass from consideration.


In central Oregon, roughly an hour's drive from Eugene, a blockade of a forest road leading to the Warner Creek timber sale in the Willamette National Forest kicks off. A salvage logging rider signed by President Bill Clinton had just permitted thousands of timber sales on public lands. It becomes the longest forest road blockade in US history, ending after 343 days. Just before the Forest Service moves in to evict the protest, the Clinton administration responds to pressure by "saving" Warner Creek and more than 150 other controversial sales around the West from logging. 

All of the government agencies with a regulatory stake in the Willits Bypass project sign a Memorandum of Understanding with CalTrans regarding the “Purpose and Need” of the Willits Bypass. This agreement entails designing for a “Level of Service C,” which CalTrans defines in a way that can only be accomplished with a four-lane freeway.


The California Fish and Game Commission declares that coho salmon warrant listing as a threatened species from the Oregon border south to Punta Gorda (Humboldt County) and as an endangered species from Punta Gorda south to San Francisco, including the Bay itself. The listing affords coho greater legal protection from harm following more than a century and-a-half of persistent habitat destruction and overharvesting.

CalTrans presents its draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR). CalTrans receives approximately 400 comments from the public, more than half calling for non-freeway alternatives to their version of the Willits Bypass.


A tree sit begins in Berkeley, CA to block cutting of the last remnant of coast live oak woodland ecology in the Berkeley lowlands by the University of California to build a sports complex. The tree-sit and associated protest brigs together environmentalists, Indigenous people, and critics of university privatization.

CalTrans releases its final EIR, with modifications to the route and a promise to mitigate impacts to threatened fish, rare and threatened plants, oak woodlands, riparian habitats, and wetlands. The Willits Environmental Center (WEC) informs CalTrans it intends to sue over National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act violations. The WEC enters negotiations with Caltrans.


Amid protest, the Federal Highways Administration, allied agencies, and corporate contractors complete construction of the Indiana segement of the I-69 superhighway slated to extend from Ontario to Mexico. This massive highway is otherwise known as the NAFTA Superhighway, since its construction is spurred by the North American Free Trade Agreement: a trade pact between the US, Canada, and Mexico heavily criticized for causing millions of Mexican farmers to lose their lands, as well as displacement of jobs into Mexican sweatshops and widespread environmental destruction.

In lieu of a lawsuit, the Willits Environmental Center signs a Settlement Agreement with Caltrans that adds the WEC to the resource agency team helping Caltrans to develop a mitigation plan for the bypass. Later, in a decision partly influenced by the WEC, the California Transportation Commission (CTC) denies funding for the four-lane freeway bypass (the cost of which Caltrans estimates as being $356 million). The CTC later releases a lesser amount and instructs CalTrans to design something smaller. CalTrans retains its ultimate four-lane freeway design, but now talks about “phased” construction. Among the design modifications CalTrans proposes to account for the funding decrease are a roundabout at the northern end of the project, instead of a northern interchange. At this point, CalTrans likes roundabouts.


CalTrans begins formulating a mitigation plan for the expressed purpose of counteracting damage to Little Lake Valley's wetlands, woodlands, and endangered species, as required by federal and state laws. CalTrans' initial assessment of Little Lake Valley determines that not enough areas exist for wetlands creation projects, because so much of the land is already wetlands. Meanwhile, Caltrans begins purchasing land on which to conduct mitigation projects from willing sellers in Little Lake Valley. Eventually, they buy approximately 2,100 acres with the intent of expanding cattle grazing as a form of mitigation. At this point, CalTrans likes cattle.


Following Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in protest of police corruption and ill treatment, protests against totalitarian rule erupt throughout Tunisia in December. A wave of unrest sparked by the Tunisian "Burning Man" strikes Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, and Yemen, resulting in the overthrow of many of these governments. The so-called “Arab Spring” helps spark the “Occupy Movement” protests and encampments in the United States, marking the largest coordinated movement in this country in decades.

March: CalTrans formally requests Clean Water Act 401 and 404 Permits — the two permits required to begin construction. The public comment period on the 401 and 404 Permit requests yields an unusually large number of comments; the vast majority oppose the project.

June: CalTrans hastily rewrites the Habitat Mitigation and Monitoring Plan (HMMP) and puts out a new “final” version (June 2010). The CTC votes to fund the Willits Bypass conditional upon its receipt of permits. In the HMMP, CalTrans proposes doubling the number of cattle currently grazing on the 2,000 acres of mitigation properties it has purchased, from 1,500 to 3,000. The Army Corps of Engineers balks. No detailed Grazing Plan is presented that provides evidence that wetland enhancement would be accomplished through the use of cattle. At this point, CalTrans still loves cattle.

Summer: CalTrans proposes to build the bypass in phases, paving two lanes of the four-lane bypass, while placing the fill for all four lanes. The interchanges on either end are to be built to accommodate four lanes. The Army Corps rejects the four-lane fill concept if only two lanes are constructed. Caltrans agrees to abandon this part of their plan.

The State Water Resources Control Board breaks with other agencies and issues the 401 Permit as a “Conditional” Permit with 63 conditions. The Conditional 401 permit cites the revised habitat mitigation plan that was printed in June 2010 as the document the permit is based on. At the August CTC meeting, Caltrans convinces the CTC that even though the Army Corps has still not signed off on the 404 permit, progress is being made. The CTC grants an extension to CalTrans to retain their priority for any new funds until February 2012.

September: The ACE formally denies CalTrans’ 404 Permit request, citing “outstanding issues that must be resolved,” but commits to continuing to assist CalTrans in writing an acceptable mitigation plan. The ACE agrees to perform a study of the mitigation parcels to help CalTrans understand acceptable forms of wetlands enhancement and creation.


In Bolivia, indigenous people blockade construction of a $415 million superhighway through a 3,860-square-mile reserve in the central part of the country that is collectively owned by the Yuracaré, Moxeño, and Chimáne peoples. President Evo Morales later announces his administration is putting the road on hold, effectively scuttling the project.

February: The ACE study determines that enhancement of the degraded wetlands purchased for mitigation would best be achieved by ending the grazing of cattle on the majority of the mitigation wetland properties, and by allowing “natural succession” of vegetation to occur. CalTans agrees to eliminate grazing to achieve the most enhancement credit from the ACE. CalTrans informs its land manager, rancher-friendly local agency the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District (MCRCD), that there will be no grazing on 80 percent of mitigation properties. MCRCD sends a strongly worded letter threatening to back out of its partnership with CalTrans. At this point, CalTrans is confused in its feelings about cattle.

April: CalTrans issues a mitigation plan for the Army Corps. CalTrans has essentially invented a new kind of wetland creation where they scrape off high areas of the wetlands as if they were uplands. The data included in the plan shows that the soil in these areas is not upland soil, but wetland soil. The WEC and Center For Biological Diversity call for a hearing. The hearing never happens.

September: CalTrans’ contractors begin the process of discovering seven archeological sites that were not mentioned in the 2006 EIR. Under the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Quality Act, these discoveries should have triggered a supplemental Environmental Impact Report. CalTrans fails to prepare such a report.


According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012 had an average temperature of 55.3°F in the US, the warmest year on record by 1°F. The global climate change conference in Doha, Qatar, which brings together delegates from countries throughout the world, fails to result in any new agreements by the biggest carbon dioxide emitting countries — such as the United States and China — to cut their emissions.

February: The Army Corps of Engineers authorizes CalTrans' mitigation plan and grants CalTrans the 404 Permit. CalTrans has cleared its last hurdle with the regulatory agencies to begin construction.

June: The Willits Environmental Center, Center For Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) file suit against the US Army Corps of Engineers in an effort to compel CalTrans, the Federal Highway Administration, and Army Corps “to examine less damaging and costly solutions to regional traffic problems and traffic problems in Willits, and to examine the legitimacy of the mitigation plan.” CalTrans publicly defends its mitigation plan, citing the damage done to Willits' wetlands by cattle. At this point, CalTrans does not like cattle.

November: In one of the first hearings concerning the federal lawsuit, Judge Jeffrey White refuses to grant an injunction to stop the Willits Bypass. CalTrans is free to begin construction.

December: More than a month before The Warbler began a 65-day occupation of a Ponderosa pine in the southern part of the boggy town of Willits, CA, British forest defenders occupy trees to blockade a roughly nine-mile road through Combe Haven Valley, a lush rural wetlands that lies between the south England towns of Bexhill and Hastings. The Bexill-Hastings Link Road is being sold as a means of reviving the British economy by creating jobs, while alleviating traffic congestion through these small towns.

One Comment

  1. chewsome July 25, 2014

    How the West was Lost
    Posted by Jay Famiglietti of University of California, Irvine in Water Currents on July 24, 2014

    The Colorado River Basin is the water lifeline of the western United States. It provides water to roughly 40 million people in 7 states and to Mexico. It supplies water to major metropolitan regions including several of the country’s largest and driest — Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas — and enough water to support irrigation on 4 million acres of farmland. As the water future of the Colorado River Basin goes, so does that of the west.

    In our new study, we used NASA satellites to find that between December 2004 and November 2013, the Colorado River Basin lost a total of 65 cubic kilometers of water, or roughly the equivalent of two full Lake Meads. This was a period of prolonged drought in which the water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell (the United States’ second largest reservoir) had fallen to dangerously low levels, and were being carefully managed to prevent further declines. Surprisingly, we found that 75% of the water lost was from the Basin’s groundwater supplies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *