By Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters

On Jan. 28, the announced start-up date for Caltrans crews to begin a controversial bypass highway around the town of Willits in Mendocino County, a young woman named Warbler climbed a tree in the path of heavy equipment and has been there ever since.

Protests, public tours of the proposed Highway 101 expansion, and a constant vigil have kept watch over the tree-sitter as she conducts radio interviews from her perch. Tule elk have been sited in the north end of the valley, recent arrivals from the federally protected Laytonville herd. Yellow-breasted warblers, migratory songbirds coming to nest from Central America, have also been spotted in the project area.

Caltrans plans to limb and top the oak trees in the bypass route to keep migratory birds from nesting, prior to the removal of the trees.

The $210 million Willits bypass is planned as a six-mile, four-lane highway in two stages. It includes two enormous interchanges and a mile-long, 30-ft. high viaduct across the Little Lake Valley. The wetlands would be drained by thousands of vertical wick drains sunk deep into the marshy soil to evaporate the underlying water. Long-standing oak woodlands would be cut down and entire hillsides bulldozed to be used as fill for the project.

Northcoast residents and Bay Area environmental groups call it a boondoggle, saying it is wasteful, unnecessary and will cause irreparable harm to the Little Lake Valley. Many see this project as part of a grand plan by Caltrans to essentially turn California’s coastal Highway 101 into another I-5 due to pressure from the trucking industry for greater access for larger trucks to Highway 101.

Caltrans plans to “realign” and widen Highway 101 through the redwoods of Richardson Grove State Park and carry out major work on Highway 199 in the redwood forests of Del Norte County.

Plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed previously against Caltrans, including the Center for Biological Diversity, EPIC (the Environmental Protection Information Center) and the Willits Environmental Center claiming lack of consideration of alternatives will be back in court at the end of February.

The February run of Coho salmon is expected to arrive soon in Outlet and Bechtel creeks, two of the last major runs left in California. Caltrans plans to ‘relocate’ the endangered fish during the multi-year construction period greatly harms chances for salmon recovery.

Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters is located at 2530 San Pablo Ave., Suite 300 North, Berkeley, CA 94702.