Consensus backs Last Chance upgrade

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

EUREKA – The Caltrans initiative to shore up the Last Chance Grade complex is drawing momentum from a 20-member “Stakeholder Group” of business, tribal, environmental and county officials.

Led by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-2nd District), the organization agrees that a solution is urgently needed and that existing maintenance and repair measures are by no means a permanent fix.

“It is vital that an optimal solution is agreed upon as early as possible to avoid having to select the solution under the pressure of an emergency or catastrophic event,” the group says in a white paper Huffman circulated after the group’s first five meetings.

Despite that sense of urgency, Caltrans estimates it will likely take eight years to complete the environmental analyses. The agency is required by the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act to study alternatives and determine the potential environmental impacts of each before making a decision on which alternative to choose.

The Stakeholders Group concedes that none of the alternatives can avoid affecting natural and cultural resources and that “tunnels, using established, proven technology, will be considered as part of all options to minimize other important impacts.”

Congressman Huffman agrees with that conclusion; building a route around the slide area will inevitably pass through or near old growth redwoods within Redwood National and State Parks – a fact likely to trigger opposition from environmental advocates, depending on which alternative construction path is chosen.

As for a tunnel, Natalynne DeLapp-Hinton, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center in Arcata, one of the Stakeholders, is dubious. “It is not known whether a tunnel is even feasible,” she says.

Caltrans needs funding for further, in-depth technical studies.

“Caltrans needs to drill down to examine the depth of the slide and the geology of the hillside,” DeLapp-Hinton says. “Plus, the entry and exit points for the tunnel may still be the limiting factors. At this point in time, I am skeptical of the tunnel option, but we do not have enough information to really say one way or another.”

Caltrans concurs with Huffman and the Stakeholders that “the alternative alignments propose a difficult choice between a short bypass, with impacts to old growth redwoods, and a longer bypass with greater cost, larger footprint and its own ecological impacts.”

DeLapp-Hinton elaborated in an email. “The longer routes would likely have more impacts to vital Coho salmon spawning habitat in Mill Creek, due to the larger number of stream and creek crossings. Depending on Caltrans’ engineering designs, impacts could either be mitigated or exacerbated. The shorter routes would have more impact on the older forest.”

As a forest protection organization, EPIC places its highest priority on the preservation of old-growth redwood forests “within the boundaries of Del Norte Coast Redwoods State and National Parks,” DeLapp-Hinton said.  “Old growth redwood trees are irreplaceable and need to be treated with the utmost care and consideration. We do not support any routes that would remove any of the old-growth redwood trees within the park’s boundaries.”

In a subsequent phone interview, she praised Caltrans District One for its openness and inclusiveness in soliciting public input and providing detailed information to all concerned. “It has turned over a new leaf in recent years,” she said.

Formed in March a year ago, the Stakeholder Group includes 20 members. In addition to EPIC, they are Del Norte and Humboldt County officials, the Yurok Tribe, Elk Valley Rancheria, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, Redwood National and State Parks, Caltrans, the Humboldt County Association of Governments, Save the Redwoods League, C. Renner Petroleum, the Green Diamond Resource Company and Rumiano Cheese.

“This project is not just a Caltrans project,” the group’s white paper admonishes. “The entire community needs to be invested in this planning effort to ensure the long-term safety and economy of the region.”

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